Editing’s a drag

I’m not saying editing is bad. But as news becomes a process rather than a product, editing can affect that process. Note the lead story from the NY Times home page right now:

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The edited, packaged story says that one person died in yet another crane collapse in New York today. But right below that, the lightning fast Sewell Chan has later, more up-to-date and correct information in his blog — two have died — which the Times wisely feeds directly onto the home page, contradicting their own edited story. In a breaking story, a blog in the hands of a good reporter beats a long line of editors.

This is one reason why Rupert Murdoch is complaining about 8.3 editors touching the average story in the Wall Street Journal. When I taped a segment for CBS News once, I counted 12 people who touched it before it was even edited for air. At Time Inc., the were famous for editing and re-editing every story until it was churned into butter. At The Times, there are three editors for every reporter. But when I consulted at About.com, it had about eight writers for every editor (that ratio has since changed). About.com, like blogs, is a publish-first, edit-later operation. On this blog, you could say that I have no editors — or you could say that I have 100,000 of you.

Clay Shirky in his wonderful book Here Comes Everybody calls this new process “publish first, filter later.”

The media landscape is transformed, because personal communication and publishing, previously separate functions, now shade into one another. One result is to break the older pattern of professional filtering of the good from the mediocre before publication; now such filtering is increasingly social, and happens after the fact.

So does editing.

Albert Wenger, the VC, takes that new biorhythm and applies it to not just journalism but financial information (talking about the company we both invested in, Covestor). This will be the nature of many business processes, including design and messaging. Process and structure change.

Editing of everything before publication has been seen as a necessity in journalism, but I think it will increasingly be seen as a luxury (and sometimes, ibid. Murdoch, a drag, an inefficiency). When I say this, traditional journalists are horrified. But that’s often because of their tradition and the necessities of production (e.g., fitting into a scarce space) — not to mention their jobs.

When I worked at the Chicago Tribune way back in the dawn of my career (pre-computers, children), we had to hammer on our (manual, kids) typewriters so the last of more than 10 carbons could be read. Why so many? That’s just what a new managing editor of the paper asked as he decreed that the 10-carbon books should be destroyed, replaced by five-carbon books. The office manager protested that it would be a waste. No, said the editor, I don’t want back sliding. Destroy them. So we typed on five-carbon books — for about two weeks. Then we backslid. We were told to put two five-carbon books together so everybody could get their copies again and so they could all weigh in on every story. This was editing as status.

Rather than assuming that everything must be edited, we will need to ask why something should be edited, what’s the goal and what’s the cost (to the product and its urgency and to the budget). As newspapers continue to cut back, what do they need more: reporting or editing? I say reporting. Editors will not and should not die, but they will become a scarcer species.