Sunday, March 14, 2010

The World Needs a Good Editor

By Susan Older

One of the things that irritates me most about the layoffs and firings at newspapers, magazines and major websites these days is the fact that the people in charge have chosen replacements who don’t seem to care about the quality of the product. 

Either that or they are uneducated. I don’t know which is worse. However, it doesn’t really matter; management hires (and fires) people and is responsible, ultimately, for quality control. 

I’ve spent much of my career as a news manager, but at heart I’m a word editor. So when I read this sentence online today, it made me sad and angry:

“Smartphones and e-readers are not like laptops, where each computer lets you interact the same Web.” 

How does one interact the Web? I wonder if the writer intended to say access the same Web or perhaps interact with the Web in the same manner.

In the next sentence, the story reads: “For example, Apple iPad won't support Flash software, which supports most online videos.” 

Wouldn’t you write “Apple’s iPad”? I would.

In the very next paragraph, the story reads: “If the last 10 years were a heyday for open content on the Web, the next ten years could be the age of platforms.” Now I don’t care which stylebook you follow, but for heaven’s sake, pick one and stick to it. Is it 10 or ten?

These errors would grate on me regardless of where they appeared. But some publications have the money to invest in great editors. They should hold themselves to higher standards, because they have more resources, they have great reputations to protect and plenty of readers that they are trying desperately to keep.

The sentences I’ve quoted above did not appear on someone’s blog or on an obscure Web site that might not have the resources to hire qualified editors.

These sentences appeared on the site of the once-revered publication, The Atlantic. I know it was revered because it was always present in the homes and offices of people I respected and I used to subscribe to it on paper.

Now that I’m reading a piece in The Atlantic online, should my expectations be different? Really, should they?

The Fall of the Internet and the Rise of the ‘Splinternet’” is the article in which these errors appear. Go read it. It’s a great piece. The writer makes excellent points that interest me enormously.

But I ask you: How can we trust a source when the editors are sloppy about spelling and grammar? It’s reasonable to assume that they might be just as sloppy about the facts.

I’m not writing this because The Atlantic stands alone here. I’m writing this because I’m tired of finding an error of some kind in nearly every story I read these days. I just happened to be reading this particular story when I came upon one too many errors. I read most things online, but I’m talking about big names, such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, you name it. I repeatedly find errors in stories on every one of their sites.

I certainly don’t mean to embarrass the writer. It’s not his fault that these errors slipped through. I’m irritated at the editors. Not one editor, but multiple editors, because no story should be published unless it has been read by more than one editor.

In the early days at USA Today, errors were few and far between. About 15 editors, up the line to Bob Dubill, John Quinn and Al Neuharth, read every word in the paper. Yes, a few things were slipped in at the last minute and, as a result, there were mistakes. But quality was everything to us. Gannett hired the best editors and paid them well in order to guard against errors of grammar, spelling or facts.

Is it possible that there was no editor reading the story in question? Is it possible that the writer hit “send” and it was published without a single read-through?

I know from experience that it’s possible, but only when management doesn’t care. When I took the job of editor-in-chief at United Press International in 1997, I went out to talk to the people in the Los Angeles bureau. They were completely frustrated. Apparently, each of them had to write, edit and publish (directly to the wire) every single story they wrote. Their stories did not go through a central copy desk, and they were so overworked that they didn’t even have time to read copy for one another.

These journalists honestly cared about errors, but they worked for management that might as well have been selling tires as protecting the brand of a nearly century-old, once-revered news wire. Management simply didn’t give a damn. And when you don’t care about quality, you don’t fund quality. I think we’ve seen evidence of that in the automotive industry lately. Just look at what Toyota is going through. 

Of course, we fixed the problem at UPI as well as possible, considering available funding, and everything went through a copy desk in Washington after that, but my point is that I know what can happen when people at the top don’t value quality. You get what you pay for when you hire anybody, editors included.

Quality wasn’t always the most important thing in publishing, even when many of us tried to make it so, but it has taken far too big a hit in the past decade. 

And don’t blame the Internet. That’s insane. A story is a story is a story. When it’s published, even if it’s on the palm of Sarah Palin’s hand, it should be perfect.

You know, I used to think my father was nuts when he looked at things that had changed in his lifetime and proclaimed, “The world’s going to hell.”

Well, now I see what he was talking about. The world may not have gone to hell, but the publishing business is certainly on its way.