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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

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.

                                   
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  • http://www.news-record.com/blog/jrblog John Robinson

    Somewhat off point: I’ve given dozens of interviews and have been called by fact-checkers twice. Once was Nieman Reports and it was a good thing they did because they put words of another speaker in my mouth. (I should I said they got it right because the quote was much smarter and more insightful than what I had said.)

    Rather than think less of the pub because it got the quote wrong initially — I know how easily that can happen — I was impressed at the care the editors gave the piece. My trust in them soared.

  • Sylvia

    I can’t get over those Associated Content stats: 2,000 “stories” a day, 15 editors, writers paid $5 to $30 per story. You state, “We’ve clearly lost something too, as finding (and paying for) an intelligent second set of eyes has become a luxury.” We’re clearly losing a lot more. Not that making a living as a writer was ever easy, but at $5 (or, wow, $30) per story, I’m pretty sure the intelligent minds have gone elsewhere. Readers will get what they pay for: “newsy” garbage.

  • http://www.mikepope.com/blog/ mike

    Got here via Regret The Error, so I have probably already missed this discussion. Still: how does what you say here — especially the idea of credibility via brand, effectively — square with the (perhaps now infamous) “Old ways of judging writing quality are useless” (http://paidcontent.org/article/419-traditional-ways-of-judging-quality-in-published-content-are-now-useles/)?

    Thx.

  • Paul Keers

    One of the great ironies is that contract publishing in the UK (or custom media in the US), having been disparaged by mainstream journalism for many years, now has greater fact-checking and sub-editing than many paid-for publications. That is because the clients, large corporations who sponsor the publications, are far more concerned about publishing an error.

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  • http://www.babelediting.com Babel Editing

    A voice from the depths of time whispers to me: once one applies market-valuation principles to the production of knowledge, all is lost. To say that one can’t put a price on knowledge is not to say that it is more valuable than anything else; but that the proper criteria for assessment aren’t price-based. So I fear your rearguard action of defending copyediting through newsonomics, tho’ praiseworthy, is doomed.

    Various quasireligious figures, who have had their fortunes made by the copyeditor who transformed crazed manuscripts into iconic New Age texts, may disagree with me.

  • http://victoriamixon.com Victoria Mixon

    It’s not just in journalism. Don’t we all assume the books we seen on the bookstore shelves have been properly edited? Didn’t most of us grow up in an era of books we could count on being reasonably readable or, at least, reasonably error-free?

    Not anymore. The recession has triggered a wave of layoffs in publishing in the last few years, targeting such “luxuries” as in-house editors, even while digital and marketing positions continue to grow. Those editors are now entering the literary agency and independent editing industries—which is just as well, since the lack of editing at publishing houses means it now falls on the author’s shoulders to get their work edited before they submit.

    It’s a huge shift in the paradigm. And you’re right: reader savvy hasn’t caught up. We do still assume everything we read in professional publications has been properly vetted.

    Surprise!

    A. Victoria Mixon, Editor

  • Sara

    This is so disheartening. You seem to have omitted a word from your final sentence.

    John and Victoria must’ve forgotten to check their comments before posting, as well. If we’re going to be policing ourselves from now on…

    N.B. I am currently unemployed, despite being the most crackerjack copy editor you could ever hope to treat like an automaton. An impenetrable fact-checking fortress! (It’s the errors that won’t penetrate the fortr—I make no claims about my metaphor-constructing skills.)

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  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    Good ironic find, Sara: The word was “where,” and I’ve added it back to the last sentence.

    Sincerely,

    The One Set of Eyeballs

  • Ken Doctor

    Mike: Sorry for the tardy reply. I square Ben Elowitz’s comments this way. His part one (old media) and part two (new media) aren’t as separate worlds as the two “parts” and the oppositional sense of his take make it seem. Some of his part one rules — credential, correctness, fairness (rather than objectivity; he’s behind the curve here) and craftsmanship — clearly still have major relevance, just different relevance in the new world. He’s right on on part 2. It’s the blend here we’ve got to get right. Ken

  • http://www.wordhelper.com Wordhelper

    Great article, Ken, but it looks like you could have used a copyeditor for the first sentence of your third paragraph. You wrote, “In the past week, I’ve got three calls from ‘fact-checkers,’ whom I’d thought were an endangered species.” Notice that the word “got” should have been “gotten.” Just sayin’.

  • Nancy Knight

    The sorry fact is that our society no longer cares about correctness; proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, and the artistry of wording have all gone the way of texting and e-mailing, and now the publishing industry has succumbed to the lower standards imposed by the commercial public. Who will be left to maintain the grace and ethics of literature?

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