Friday, March 14, 2008

A Baker's Dozen

Far be it from me to tell The Washington Post how to run its desks or know what works best in its newsroom.

And certainly, if this Slate article is correct, the Post is right to take some actions here.

The Slate article focuses on a Washington Post memo that describes a plan to alter how it gets stories from reporters to web and print and beyond.

Here, in part, is what Jack Shafer reports:

The plan also mandates "fewer touches" on some stories by editors, which will elicit cheers from many Post reporters. They've long complained about "drive-by editing" in which editors up and down the chain of command drop into their stories and fiddle with them to the point of destruction. According to the memo, a half-dozen editors routinely make changes on A-section stories, and an internal audit discovered one inside story that 12 different editors changed.

Twelve editors touch a story? Are they kidding? I'm all for flattening out that process, definitely.

"The more people who touch a story, the less authority and responsibility each take," (managing editor Phil) Bennett says.


The reason many newspapers rely so heavily on editors—a reason rarely spoken—is that some reporters can't write. Their copy isn't edited as much as it's rewritten. Bennett has a message for them: "Reporters who can't write are a dying breed."

Well, where to begin? On taking responsibility: The copy editors I know who often awake in the middle of the night trying to remember if they took care of something certainly feel a personal responsibility for what they've done or not done to a story. Yes, if you allow a baker's dozen of editors to mess with a story, that's going to dilute a sense of responsibility, I suppose. And I absolutely agree that if you've got copy flowing in horizontal directions, then a vertical copy flow no longer works.

And on writing: It's a lot more than writing at stake. Under increasing pressure to file multiple times a day, to produce, to do video standups, to show up on the company TV or radio program, they also make mistakes. Of course, reporters--and editors-- have always made mistakes. But as staffs shrink and demand for their production grows, what is the logical consequence? They get the date of Nixon's resignation wrong; they report accusations without rebuttal; they omit locations or backgrounds that provide context; they leave out first references; they misstate or misreport what the White House said when or how.

I thought Mark Cuban's comments this week about newspapers needing to differentiate their blogs from others by suggesting, for example, that The New York Times write "The NY Times does not have blogs, we have Real Time Reports from the most qualified reporters in the world," was pretty smart, though maybe too late.

Our brand, our accuracy matters until we've completely given it away. I know some people see this as an old argument and for some, it is simply a rote response to anything new. That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying we have to stop giving away the franchise, cheapening our reporting and report itself, cutting staff under the guise of New Thinking, and remember why people read us. And why we have the protection of the First Amendment, because what we do matters. That should apply to everything we do, from blogs to rapid online rewrites to print and beyond, to whatever comes next. We are not Yahoo, we are not Gawker snark, we are not, heaven help us, Glenn Beck, spewing instead of reporting, editing and informing.

I happen to like blogs, a lot, and read some really terrific breaking-news blogs by newspaper reporters. Some of the stuff produced in the Eliot Spitzer mess this week was truly outstanding (See Dan Janison and John Riley at Newsday, for example. Sorry, I was mostly too busy with this story this week to spend much time reading others.)

And other bloggers, including Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, Glenn Greenwald at Salon and Duncan Black, the economist at Eschaton, are doing original reporting and research that is worth reading every day, not just opining like so many silly TV people. Part of the success of bloggers with little or no journalism experience has to do with the failure of newspapers to report thoroughly, aggressively and accurately. So how does getting down into the mud of unedited or poorly written and reported stories to produce less accurate, less comprehensive stuff a smart idea?

This wanders a bit far from what the Post is saying it intends, I realize. And as I said, much of what the Post editors plan to do to flatten the process makes sense. And, to write tritely, they are not alone. But I cringe when people blame the process instead of the content, especially when what drives some of these changes is staff reduction.

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