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May 13, 2010, 10 a.m.

The Newsonomics of copyediting value

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

What’s copyediting worth these days?

Of course, it used to be something we took for granted — like writing and design — just part of the journalistic process. You know, a second set of eyes, at least, on any story that would be published.

There’s been a fair amount of craft skirmishing about copyediting, its role and its decline, over the last decade. I’ve been confronted this week by several recent “editing” experiences and data points, which have renewed my own thinking about editing, its value and how news people can harvest that value.

In the past week, I’ve got three calls from “fact-checkers,” whom I’d thought were an endangered species. Two of the calls came from magazines, checking the basics of my name, affiliations, and quotes, for stories on which I’d been interviewed. The third came from a university journal, for which I’ve written a piece; for that one, the fact-checking was exactly that, asking a half-dozen questions about the sources of my factual assertions.

That was the old-world experience, preserved in at least parts of the magazine and academic worlds.

Then, there was my conversation with Associated Content CEO Patrick Keane, about his five-year-old content engine site. While Demand Media‘s gotten more media attention, Associated’s kept pumping along. In its content database: 2.1 million stories, written by more than 375,000 individual writers who get paid $5 to $30 per piece for their work. More astounding, the site is adding 2000 stories a day, says Keane.

To be sure, what Associated Content does isn’t news, but it’s newsy. Keane believes that newsy, but more evergreen content on everything from going green to health to potty training to TV buying is building a great annuity for the company, its long tail monetizable for a long time. News people would broadly recognize it as features content.

I asked Keane how many editors Associated employs to manage the copy flow. The answer: 15. Now that’s 15 FTE, so they’d be spread over the course of a week. Do the arithmetic, though, and you get close to 15,000 stories a week, edited by 15 people. Or a thousand stories per editor each week, or 25 an hour. That’s a number of magnitudes more than we’re used to seeing in the traditional world of journalism.

Keane heard the amazement in my voice, and hastened to add that Associated’s editors’ work is focused on “making sure the title is correct, the story’s not gibberish and not created by a bot in the Philippines,” says Keane.

Copyediting meets Captcha, that lovely human verification system that forces us to enter a couple of words here and there in our web transactions to prove our very humanity. Of course, what Associated is doing isn’t copyediting as we’ve known it, as Keane would be the first to acknowledge. It’s bot patrol, something I’m betting they still don’t teach much about at the journalism schools of Columbia, Northwestern, Arizona State, or the University of Oregon, my grad school alma mater.

This wide disparity in editing editorial content isn’t wildly surprising; the disparity has grown markedly over the last decade, and certainly the blogosphere making each one of us our own editors has taught us new uneasy conventions. We’ve gained a lot in the free and easy flow on web-enabled writing and publishing. We’ve clearly lost something too, as finding (and paying for) an intelligent second set of eyes has become a luxury.

That’s left me wondering exactly what value is in good editing. Are there any Newsonomics of editing, value to be gained and harvested?

Readers implicitly believe some media to be more credible than others. In various polling we’ve seen lately, such national brands as CNN, Fox News, AP and a few others rank the highest in trustworthiness. Readers may have some sense that there’s some judgment being applied to the words written or spoken, some vetting, some editing. I think so, but I don’t know of any data we have to support that. Are bigger, usually better-edited news brands rewarded with more traffic?

There’s something I think well-edited brands, big and small, new and old, can do to improve the chances they’ll be rewarded — that the investment in editing time is rewarded with advertising revenue and maybe, as models work, reader revenue.

That something is to claim their professionalism publicly, prominently and persistently, yet discreetly.

True news media from the Times and Post to the MinnPosts and Texas Tribunes can place a statement (or least a prominent link to it) of their news principles in a similar place on their sites. It could be anywhere from a manifesto to a disclosure, worded by each online publication as it sees fit. If, though, we can get some agreement on similar placement, then readers can learn over time — and schools can teach — how readers can begin to critically evaluate digital information sources.

In such a statement, it would be great to include who pays for the content produced, what kinds of fairness and conflict-of-interest principles to which the site adheres (or doesn’t) and important practices — like editing.

Sure, some sites offer such statements here and there, but there’s no consistency of placement among those that do. Good luck finding — and comparing — them. “About us” links, now a standard, can offer such a business explainer, but usually don’t.

Will news-principle boxes capture some of that value of editing, and care, and staffing? It’s hard to know, and hard to measure — but without the effort, it’s my sense that we’re headed quickly into a world where [see comments —ed.] only one set of eyeballs determines publication.

POSTED     May 13, 2010, 10 a.m.
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