Judgment calls and editing

[T]he news judgment skills of editors should be more valuable now than they’ve ever been before to newspapers and other news organizations. That’s because, in a world in which the walls around journalistic walled gardens are being (slowly) torn down, editors can play a vital new role in deciding how to choose content from all over the Web and package it for their readers’ edification.  ~ Mark Potts, RecoveringJournalist.com

Life in the 21st-century has become inexorably about data, research and quantifying things that never were thought quantifiable.
This is a good thing. In areas such as psychology, traffic, human behaviors and baseball, we can more and more confirm or repudiate things we took for granted or assumed based on our keen but imperfect senses and memories.

But what do decisions still come down to, as they always have? Judgment calls.
With much more accurate, refined and targeted data, conclusions and decisions — actions — must be made. The data can often point the way, but it can rarely make the decision, or time it, for you.

What’s this have to do with editing? Well, the judgment calls I’m referring to are most often made to affect others. A company decides to launch a product, or move its headquarters, or give raises or not; it’s a move affecting the employers, employees, stockholders, communities, consumers and competitors, to varying degrees. A school system decides to introduce a new curriculum or evaluation system, affecting students, teachers, staff and, possibly, tax rates. The government decides to do … you get the idea. All have voluminous data to guide them, but humans ultimately make the choices.

What newspapers and other media organizations have going for them is access, dedicated staffers and the ability to discern. Sure, much of that discernment is done by reporters in the field. But they are guided, and backed up, by editors.

What Scripps is doing, in moving California- and Washington-based copy editing to Texas, is getting rid of discernment. It’s also reasonable to say it is abolishing significant fact-checking and giving up the pretense that it has respect for the communities it purports to cover or can get any details correct. But the ability to make judgments for the audience is also being lost. Copy editors, and editors in general, enable reporters to throw themselves fully into their work, to focus narrowly. Some hinder reporters or introduce errors, sure, but most help (sometimes by masking basic inabilities to write). The job for those editors continues to be to back up those reporters by thinking broadly, by thinking analytically, as well as catching typos.

Let me emphasize that this is not a defense of gatekeeping or a criticism of blogging. Standalone bloggers do phenomenal work that is often deeply focused on particular topics for a particular audience. That cuts to the core of discernment and somewhat mitigates the need for an editor’s judging eye (plus, there are usually commenters/competing blogs to chime in after the fact). But we know that blogs, individual or group, that routinely butcher items and get facts wrong — and pretend otherwise — are bound to suffer in credibility and page views. Does quality and credibility translate into money? Not automatically. But that’s a discussion for another time.

What newspapers must do at this point is detail local news as accurately and deeply as possible. Print or Web doesn’t matter here. If these institutions cannot retain local audiences, convince them that they are authoritative and knowledgeable, if not the only game in town, they will fail. Strong reporting is a start. Strong editing — in text and in curation — will bolster that authority, attract and aid smart audiences, save reporters (and audiences) from unwise excesses and blunders, and free those reporters to spend their energies chasing and filing news, alone and with the help of their audience.

Scripps doesn’t appear to agree. Neither does the Minneapolis Star Tribune. But readers notice, will continue to do so, and will continue to turn to imperfect but smarter, more energetic sources. 
And editors must realize the new world and assert themselves. It’s a judgment call — we don’t know how it’s going to work out. But here’s what we do know: No one else is going to look out for us, and we’ve always been paid to be a lot smarter and craftier than many people think. It’s time to show that. 

Photo credit: Enimal