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:

Picture 16

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.

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  • Actually, Jeff, it would appear it was the EDITED story that was correct, not Chan’s blog, which has since been corrected to say that only one person died–and that the earlier report of two dead was in error.

    I agree with your basic thesis about too many layers of editing, but that doesn’t appear to have been the problem in this case–just shoot-from-the-hip reporting on a fast-developing story.

  • In the last few years, a tremendous amount of effort has gone into trying to understand “Citizen Journalism” and how we’ll construct a rewarding environment for a more distributed, paper-free, form of professional journalism. But, most of the attention has been on the “journalist”/writer and very little effort seems to have been put into understanding the role of support functions like editing, fact-checking, etc. Perhaps it is time that we started expanding the scope of this discussion.

    In traditional news organizations, the editor is an imposed authority who has a number of roles including: Assignment, gatekeeping (deciding what prints), and co-writer (i.e. mucking with the text.) Many advocates of the “new journalism” see efforts to eliminate the editor as a good thing. Frankly, I think we in the process of “throwing the baby out with the bath water…” In the future, I think we’ll see a growing demand for editors less as authorities and more as “coaches” and “teachers” whose skills are distinct from those of journalists. Today, you get assigned to an editor when you join a particular news organization. In the future, I suspect that writers will actively seek out good editors and compete for their assistance.

    But, before editing becomes a competitive business, rather than the appointment business it is today, we’ll have to develop a stronger sense of what it means for an editor to be a partner to the writer rather than a boss, gatekeeper or censor. Should be fun…!

    bob wyman

  • tdc


    what’s “carbon paper”???

  • tdc:

    “Carbon paper” is why your e-mail has a line that says cc:

  • Tim

    Technology is great and I truly appreciate its positive disruptive effect on the news business.


    when a breaking story is happening before our eyes, in the Internet age, every half-truth and rumor makes it to the surface. This has happened in print, on TV, on web sites, you name it. When 9/11 happened, the amount of pure crap that found its way into print was appalling. (E.g. a story, from AP, that the flight cabin from one of the planes was found, with a flight attendant’s body bound and gagged.) Or how Fox News once reported that a team of terrorists were heading to the southern American border with a nuclear device.

    It’s not enough for there to be “social editing”. This is BS. The need for editorial standards is all the more necessary today than before.

    That said, journalists need to stop being afraid of tech and start using the tools available to do a better job of reporting. And yes, fewer layers and fewer hidebound editorial procedures would be good too.

    In fact, less FEAR in the newsroom should be a goal too.

  • SD

    Social editing as a concept makes a lot of sense….its the value of platforms like Digg and newsvine, or quite frankly blogs in general, which allow users to essentially rate the credibility of the journalists. no one is going to be first and right 100% of the time.

    But good “brands” – either those of individuals like you, Jeff, or of institutions like the NYT, are built on being right most of the time, and when they are wrong, they correct themselves publicly.

    Cred is a currency, as people and co’s that tend to be right more often than not, will attract more users….and will generate loyalty within its community.

  • tdc

    this goes to my two friends above: i guess there were no “professinal” editors on duty when the entire night of the sago mine disaster EVERY one of networks were saying all survived.

    and the public correction? i never heard one.

  • Safran

    I think we have to agree there’s a point here that the “speedier” and “less edited” information was incorrect. It could have easily been the other way around, as often happens on TV. Information changes throughout the course of a breaking story, so this isn’t so much a “See, the blogger was wrong!” as it is an argument for having a consistent story on the site rather than contradictory information.

    As people in TV well know, “ground facts” change quickly during live coverage. This is something the newspapers are now understanding. I wouldn’t consider this a slam against newspapers at all. In fact, I think the NYT is among the most progressive at its online efforts. They’ll make mistakes. We encourage that.

  • any piece can always be better, and collaboration improves things — that’s a no-brainer. maybe it’s not always necessary, but for monster pieces, man. just hard to do alone. the question might be: what types of pieces is editing appropriate for?

    i think the problem on the times’s site is that they’re having trouble distinguishing what appear in print from what is an “online only” feature (yeesh, hate that designation — so glad they don’t use it). it’s definitely not an easy one. i’m not surprised they haven’t figured it out.

  • SD

    respnding to TDC’s point – yes, no correction was issued, but that undermines their credibility, and therefore the brand. And inaccuracy is much more transparent now….so while most people can forgive the tradeoffs in speed/accuracy, they are MUCH less tolerant when a blogger or news institution is not out front saying they got it wrong.

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  • Morris45


    [“… 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).”]

    …yes, it’s an obvious issue of efficiency — how many cooks does it take to make a satisfactory pot of stew (??)

    If cook #1 cannot make the stew on his own…. he needs more training or replacement — not 5 more supervisory cooks to sample & repair his stew.

    Likewise, the skill-set of competent journalists and “journalist-editors” are the same — only one competent person is needed to write/produce a satisfactory piece of journalism.

    It is a management problem. Layers of ‘editors’ demonstrate mismanagement of resources and poor leadership.

    Of course, the other factor in play is the well established tendency for large hierarchical organizations (..like newspapers, news magazines & networks) to bureaucratically expand personnel and office functions far beyond actual mission needs.

    Self-serving creation of more supervisory ‘editor’ jobs means more pay, perks, prestige — and less work than being a common journalist. The scam works in good economic times when there’s little business competition — but big news organizations can no longer afford such featherbedding.

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  • When you’re under attack, one strategy is to double down on what you’re good at. Old media journalism sits in the speed v. accuracy market right here:

    Bloggers – hi speed, hi access, low accuracy
    Citizen Journalists – hi speed, low access, low accuracy
    Old Media Journalists – low speed, high access, high accuracy

    Where ‘speed’ is defined by miliseconds, not a 24-hr news cycle.

    The only place OMJs can differentiate and dominate is the accuracy bucket. But when 12 editors must touch a story that’s unfolding every minute, OMJs should step back, avoid publishing any numbers at all.

    The Times failure wasn’t inaccuracy, it was trying to put a stake in the ground by reporting ONE death in the middle of a developing story. Better to sit that fact on the side and hold it for the print edition. Let the ‘hi-speed’ channels fight those facts out for the digital editions instead.

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  • As a copy editor I must point out that the Times’ edited story says “at least one dead” not “one dead” as you say in your post. So, technically, it wouldn’t be wrong even if there had been 50 dead.

    Otherwise, OK.

  • I don’t really see the problem here. Perhaps the NYT could do a better job distinguishing the blog from the edited report, but aside from that I think having both types of reporting available is a good thing. People can understand the different models behind blogs and edited stories and interpret them accordingly. There’s no need for one or the other to go away.

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