My husband scanned the business section of The New York Times the other day and gave me a pop quiz: Guess what jobs The Times is cutting.
“Editors,” I said, without hesitation.
Been there, lived through that. I get it. When a business needs to spend less, it takes the knife to its biggest expense: People. And when the business is about news, you’re at greatest risk of getting cut if you don’t create content.
Thus it’s no surprise that The Times, as described in a story about impending changes at the company, will soon have fewer editors.
No surprise, but not good news.
Editors are the last line of defense before a story goes public. They are the unsung heroes of every newsroom.
There are basically two levels of editing, and in the “old days,” even a community daily as small as The
Saratogian had two pairs of eyes edit a story before it was deemed fit for print. Bigger papers had three. They edited for basic grammar and punctuation. They also edited the content for accuracy, clarity, context, and completeness.
Sure, some editors obsessed over “that” versus “which” while typos, factual errors, and assorted gobbledygook still got through. But – then and now — good editors improve the stories of both promising and experienced reporters.
That’s good for reporters, for sources, for the credibility of the news organization and the news industry — and for the public.
Forty years ago, when I was getting my master’s in journalism, one of my best teachers gave students a big fat zero for any story containing a factual error, including a misspelled name, no matter how well reported and written the piece may have been. If we can’t get a name right, why should readers believe we got anything else right?
That burden still falls on reporters, even though they are expected to be multi-media story-tellers, providing words, photos, video and data. Some reporters are stronger diggers than spellers, better news gatherers than grammarians, and the most diligent make mistakes. Yet sometimes their work, at news organizations of every size, is made public with barely a glance from that last line of defense, an editor.
As a regular reader of The Times, both online and in print, I’ve resisted being the crazy lady calling once-rare typos to the editors’ attention. The decline of editing (of any presentation of news — words, images, and graphics) may seem like the least of the media’s problems. But relatively small bits of sloppy copy contribute to the bigger issue of overall reliability. What else are they getting wrong?
The Time magazine reporter who didn’t see the Martin Luther King Jr. bust in the White House on Friday hastily and erroneously tweeted that it had been removed. He quickly apologized and deleted the post.
But the damage was done: The White House, after accepting the apology, loudly pointed to this as an example of a biased, dishonest media. Arghhh!
The most honest mistake leaves the media open to being unfairly labeled dishonest. Well-intentioned humans – including reporters and editors — make mistakes. Any mistake, no matter how promptly and earnestly acknowledged, adds to the media’s vulnerability.
Journalists – and journalism — are nothing without credibility. I tell that to my journalism students at University at Albany every semester; I told it to my staff the years I ran The Saratogian newsroom.
The primary onus for accuracy is on news gatherers. But the work of reporters, no matter how scrupulous, needs to be questioned by rigorous, even fussy, editors who focus not just on readability but accuracy and context for every form of reporting. Editors protect the trustworthiness of the public’s watchdog; diminishing their ranks further endangers the media’s already fragile status.