This is only a test.
I presented two sessions this week at the ACP/CMA 2017 Fall National Media Convention as a representative of the American Copy Editors Society. So, of course, the two sessions were on editing — Editing Your Own Work and Don’t Get Fooled: Spotting Red Flags and Bad Information.
It’s good to spread the word about the value of editing — even if I don’t think it’s a great idea for you to be the only editor of your own work. What is true is that we should all be our own first editor.
And we also should all be skeptical editors, which is what Don’t Get Fooled is about. It especially focuses on fact checking social media and user-generated information.
Here are links to PDFs of the slides for each presentation.
When the ACES: The Society for Editing recently revamped its website (I’m the current website editor), we jettisoned a couple of platforms that we hadn’t been using in a while.
One was a separate site where board members used to blog about topics of interest to the editing community. (We basically folded everything together and then cleared out deadwood.)
The action of doing that forced me to read some things I’d written for ACES several years ago. I was reminded of one of those posts, from 2009, on Friday when I was reading a Poynter story about New York Times copy editing cuts (New York Times editing cuts mean doing more with less. Will credibility suffer?).
It seems a lot of us in the editing business have been making the quality point for a number of years. Anecdotally, I notice more errors on many news websites, and it does make me doubt that organizatio’s commitment some. Of course, since I’m in the business, you’d expect me to say that. But research shows regular readers care, too.
The cost of cutting the copy desk
For several years now, I’ve been hearing the warnings that one reason copy editing positions at news publications will be (and now are) taking a big hit is that the profession can’t quantify itself.
Or, to put it in today’s business parlance, we can’t monetize copy editing.
My argument has always been that copy editing is the quality control of the news business. A furniture maker won’t continue to sell chairs if no one is making sure the glue really sticks and the screws are tight. Same with newspapers — will people continue buying them if the names aren’t spelled correctly, the facts are wrong or the story on page 1A doesn’t really jump to 6A?
Unfortunately, that argument is lost on many in the Internet age, where speed trumps quality. Recently, however, I’ve read some articles that put some weight behind the quality-control argument.<!–more–>
The first was a July 5 column by Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander that got a lot of notice in journalism blogs and on Twitter. The title: “Fewer Copy Editors, More Errors.”
The short version: Growing numbers of readers are contacting the Washington Post ombudsman to complain about typos and errors, which Alexander wrote “seem to have increased in recent months.”
Alexander defends the Post’s copy editors as among the best in the business, but notes “they’ve been badly depleted by staff cuts as the money-losing paper struggles to control costs.”
Among the most important messages I took from the column is that, yes, readers do notice the work of copy editors, even if they don’t know that’s what they are noticing.
It’s the quality control argument again. You risk losing readers when you cut quality control.
Add to that article this bit of research on newsroom cuts in general from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri: “Newsroom cuts are the most costly on revenues.”
The RJI article, “What Happens When Newspapers Cut Back on Marketing Investments? An Empirical Analysis,” notes that their research shows a 1 percent cut in newsroom expenditures led to a bigger drop in revenue and profits than an equal cut in sales force or distribution expenditures.
“When cutting costs, newsroom cuts are by far the most damaging to revenues – and the longer the reductions occur, the greater the acceleration of damage,” the authors wrote.
That seems to make sense, when news is the product. If fewer people pick up the paper because there is less news (fewer reporters) and what’s left isn’t as high in quality or is error-filled (fewer copy editors), won’t loss of ads follow?
It’s just one thing for managers to think about as they look out at their much smaller newsrooms and wonder why circulation is dropping. The answer isn’t just about the free news on the Internet.
I ran across a headline today on a newspaper’s website that gave me pause — not because of what it said, but because of what it didn’t say.
It happened to be on the Des Moines Register’s website, but I don’t want to specifically diss them. I see this on lots of websites, particularly when I’m using my laptop and I’m reading a website that doesn’t use responsive design.
This was a the top of the Register’s desktop website today. If you know even a little bit about how websites work, you can tell that there’s more to the headline of the first story on the list. But the content management system apparently limits the characters displayed in this home page position, so the entire headline doesn’t appear.
Of course, as a reader, it made me wonder. What is it that I can sell that’s now official?
One way to look at this is that perhaps the missing word will make people curious and they’ll click. But I think it’s equally likely that someone who would have read the story based on the “what” is just going to pass it by because they’re missing that keyword.
Being aware of this issue, and how to fix it, is part of the copy editor’s job of being an advocate for the reader.
I admit I clicked on the story, but only because I saw it and thought, “great fodder for my editing class.”
(You can see the same issue on the VIDEO story.)
The screenshot below is from the Register’s mobile site. It fills in the missing words.
I don’t know what the Register’s CMS is like. But I know many allow for different mobile and desktop headlines. And even if they don’t, if you take “It’s official” off that headline, the word “fireworks” will fit on desktop and the headline still tells readers what they need (and what) to know.
I tell editing students to check the website after they post, to check what the reader’s experience is going to be. There are equal issues with a wide two-line headline on a desktop site that collapses down to a 6-line headline on a responsive mobile site. The information might be there, but the aesthetics aren’t pleasing, and that also might keep people from reading.
Good headline writing is still an art that has structure. Just because online you don’t have to worry about what will fit in a 1 column, 3 deck, 60 point headline doesn’t mean you should abandon good form.
This year the staff at the University Daily Kansan/Kansan.com stepped up efforts on SnapChat as a way to present news where the audience is.
Of course, that meant some of the expected SnapChat things, like Snaps from Allen Fieldhouse during the games. But the social media staff also used SnapChat a lot to tell stories.
Of course, being ephemeral, there’s not much proof of what they did. So, through the magic of Quicktime, here’s some examples. Social did a weekly “News Check” story this spring.
The Arts and Culture staff often supplemented print and digital stories with Snap stories — like the one below that went with this story on a KU artist.
They also did “student on the street” reporting and what to do this weekend stories on Thursday afternoon.
We’re always open to new ways to use the apps that our audience is using. So if you have any ideas for news on SnapChat and other apps, let me know.
I just got back from the ACES: The Society for Editing conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. Hanging out with a large group (more than 590) of smart, funny editors is almost the perfect vacation.
I say almost perfect because — in my capacity as one of the ACES board members and the website editor — I was super busy. That meant getting up before 7 a.m. and most of those editor friends could tell you I like to stay up until after 2 a.m.
There wasn’t much in the way of sleep during the week.
What made the experience even better is that the conference was in sunny Florida. I’m sitting here writing this in somewhat gloomy Kansas (it is still March) and so I miss the short-sleeve weather.
I presented a session on fact checking to what seemed like a full room. I can’t get you numbers I trust on actual attendance, and part of my spiel is that numbers are among the things editors should be most skeptical about.
I’ll boil my presentation down to a couple of sentences. Sources tell writers things. Sometimes the sources say those things off the top of their heads. Sometimes the sources just don’t have good memories or good sources. Sometimes the sources know things they’re saying aren’t exactly right. And finally, sometimes writers get mixed up or go to bad sources.
It’s our job as an editor to check those thing out and to put them in the correct context so that the reader understands the information clearly.
If you want to know more, click on the cover of my presentation and you can check out the PDF. (And here’s a story one of our ACES volunteers wrote about the session.)
But I will share a couple of skeptical editor training tips here:
- Always ask questions;
- Look for qualifying statements;
- Practice critical thinking (one way is to take notes of things you question while you are editing);
- Read a lot, from a lot of sources (to broadens your knowledge base);
- Look at things in a different way (say on a print out or in a bigger font) to note things in a story you don’t see on the first or second read.
I went to a lot of good sessions at the conference, on topics such as bias in language, style guidelines, the misinformation ecosystem, engagement tactics. But the session that was the most fun, by far, was done by my KU colleague Lisa McLendon and was on diagramming sentences. I remember diagramming sentences as a kid, and I’m not sure I thought it was a fun endeavor. But Lisa and about 120 enthusiastic word nerds made this session a blast.
More power to the idea of making a line equation out of a sentence.
Finally, I became well read last week. And I mean that in the opposite way I would normally use the term. I actually read no books over the course of the conference, but a lot of people read something I wrote.
I got the opportunity on Tuesday to interview AP Stylebook editor Paula Froke and Colleen Newvine of the AP Stylebook team in advance of the AP’s annual style update announcement at the ACES conference.
The AP Stylebook’s most talked-about change was allowing, for the first time, use of “they” as a singular pronoun. They recommend writing around its use if possible but they stress clarity first and acknowledge that the singular they can be used.
Many publications had already made such a ruling in their house style and both the AP and Chicago Manual of Style are addressing the singular they in their stylebooks this year.
The story I wrote was well read. From 3 p.m. Friday when it was posted to 3 p.m. Monday, it already had more than 36,000 page views on the ACES website (www.copydesk.org), making it the most-read ACES story since we started tracking web traffic.
If you find any typos in it, let me know. As an editor, I hate to make mistakes as a writer, but I also know it happens.
Credibility and accuracy. They should be two of the big things that distinguish stories produced by the news media from all the other words on the internet.
I say “should be” because accuracy often takes a back seat to speed these days.
Journalists have always needed to be skeptical, but it’s especially important in an environment where information spreads quickly and widely and where more and more people are trafficking in fake news.
Since 2000, the number of fact-check stories done by the U.S. news media has increased. (Research from the American Press Institute’s Fact-Checking Project says the increase was 300 percent from 2008 to 2012, and anecdotal evidence suggests there will be even more fact-checking stories done in 2016.)
But the verification work of journalists has to happen on an everyday level, beyond the political fact-check story. For media to maintain credibility and trust, reporters and editors must make sure the sources they’re using in all types of stories are presenting accurate information.
Yet, whether it’s verifying a social media post before sharing it or drilling down to see where a website got its numbers, fact-checking often isn’t happening on the everyday level in newsrooms.
What’s stopping it?
Verifying information takes time, and time isn’t always part of the digital media equation. There’s a lot of pressure to get information posted first. Often that means posting without verifying or retweeting without verifying. And this is happening at a time when journalists in all departments are being asked to do more — to double or triple down on both their old platform and new digital platforms while being asked to achieve a certain level of clicks.
I’ve heard people say “post it and fix it later,” but this ignores a couple of facts about the audience and the internet. First, many readers won’t come back to see the fix. Second, someone has copied or cached the early, incorrect version and they’re likely sharing it without a caveat.
The methods for sharing information are constantly changing. Reporters and editors don’t necessarily keep up with those changes. Meanwhile, training budgets have been cut at many media outlets, meaning if journalists don’t take the time to research new platforms on their own, they won’t learn about how to verify what they see on those platforms.
Many current journalists came out of school at a time when digital verification methods — things like how to judge the trust-level of a tweet or whether a photo has been faked or altered — weren’t taught because they weren’t a thing. And even if today’s journalism students are drilled on digital verification, the landscape is constantly changing. So they’ll need refresher training.
Too many journalists think they can’t be fooled or that, in their hometowns, they’ll never deal with people who try to fool the media. They think they’ll always notice the inconsistencies. But no one is perfect. And hubris combined with cuts to the journalist’s safety net — the copy desk — is a dangerous combination. Those journalists may have a feeling for when a politician is lying to them, but they take the information in a study or from a website at face value — without assessing who did the study, who wrote the website copy and if the authors had a bias that skews the information.
How can we help combat this?
Only news media management can solve the time problem. But journalism schools and organizations can take a bite out of the training and hubris spokes of the wheel.
For instance, the API’s Fact-Checking Project, which is aimed at expanding accountability journalism, has been preaching the political fact-checking message to news organizations and journalism groups of all sizes.
Through my work as a Knight visiting news editor at the Missouri School of Journalism and my role as an Executive Committee member of the American Copy Editors Society, I’ve spent two years doing verification and fact-checking research and training.
At the 2015 American Copy Editors Society national conference, I planned a full day of fact-checking sessions that included training from API on political fact-checking, from the Poynter Institute on digital verification, my own presentation on skeptical editing and a session by an IRE representative on checking numbers.
During my term as a Knight visiting professional at MU, I presented sessions on fact-checking social media and alternative sources at the Midwest Journalism Conference, two ACES conferences, the Missouri Press Association Convention and to other media groups; developed a Poynter/NewsU webinar on verification through Poynter’s partnership with ACES; and added digital verification to the news editing class curriculum at Missouri.
I’ve learned several lessons about verification training through these experiences.
- Journalists are hungry for training in this area:
My conference sessions were usually presented to a full house, and afterward, working journalists, many from mid- to small-size publication, would approach me to ask for more resources. The most frequent comment was that they don’t have time to learn new verification methods on their own and were glad someone put together a short course with links for them.
- Training does not have to involve extensive courses:
The key is to provide working journalists who are presented with new platforms and alternative information sources tips on using the existing tools for verification. This can usually be done in a 60- to 90-minute training session. Once journalists know where to start, they can expand their training on their own time. And verification is a great topic for online webinars and courses that journalists can do on their own schedule.
- Training modules have to be constantly updated because the tools and platforms are constantly changing.
It’s great to post tip sheets and slideshows online, but they will become outdated quickly. In one year, two of the resources I offered in my original fact-checking presentation had disappeared. And methods of verifying user-generated photos are constantly improving. So training programs need to keep pace, and that will require some effort by journalism schools and organizations.
- Keeping fact-checking and verification training at the forefront — both in journalism schools and with journalism organizations — is the best way to combat hubris.
I might sound a bit like your mom, but you have to be reminded sometimes to clean up your room. And that doesn’t necessary mean you’re a bad journalist (or housekeeper). It’s just that when there are about a million things on your daily agenda, it’s easy to ignore the ones that aren’t on the urgent list. So like grammar refreshers, skeptical editing and verification training should be a constant.
- A continued focus on fact-checking training can improve accuracy, and that can only be good for an industry that trades both in news and in trust.
It’s difficult enough to battle inaccurate information in the social media echo chamber and in an age when “truth” isn’t a fixed point. It’s up to news organizations to replace “truthiness” with fact.