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

Instant nostalgia: D.C. Snowpocalypse

There’s a temptation to make this storm, the storm of the young century, into an allegory for something grand.

It’s easy to say, hey, this is the hope Obama is talking about, or this is people coming together and helping out, or something along the lines of overcoming. (Of course, the Haitians, among others, may have a counterargument)

For the sake of optimism, let’s remember the good things that came out of the paralysis of a region. There were governments, businesses and people preparing for the storm (albeit with some food-related crises); strong communication across all platforms for transportation, emergency services and other important items such as sled-building and snowball fights. There were those hardy businesses and restaurants (mostly non-franchised) staying open; and there were the thousands who made the most of this rare opportunity of vehicle-free winter wonderland enjoyment.
But let’s not go overboard. It was merely a crazy storm — albeit historic, in many places — that people and institutions muddled through with surprising efficiency, grace, and a little humor and fun. We can be thankful that there have been no apparent deaths, that the emergency response has risen above the usual pathetic panic that grips such areas unfamiliar with real winters, and that most people realized the folly of driving about town.
What we can’t say, unfortunately, is that we could have predicted this response or this weekend’s fun, or that it’ll happen again the next time a big storm arrives — say, in two days.

All in all, there were some positive trade-offs for all the money, time, and effort this storm has cost us and will continue to bleed from us. Taking the good with the bad — that’s what a community that really knows about winter is able to do.
Congratulations, Washington, D.C.: If only fleetingly, you’ve earned your winter stripes.

Things I liked in the ’00s: Loose ends

Things I didn’t remember to include either here or here. I know, I’m like Bill Simmons in my inability to edit myself. Except my job is to edit. Anyways…

  • Writings after September 11, 2001: I did write about my pre-9/11 concerns and post-9/11 propheteering, in two of my trilogy of off-the-cuff, unedited thinking-out-loud essays on our post-9/11 world. I just forgot I wrote about a billion words about it. Yet I remembered every bit of the article on that guy who peed his way out of an avalanche. Funny thing, memory.
  • Everything The Onion did. If I had to pick one, though, it’s “McDonald’s Drops ‘Hammurderer’ Character From Advertising.” Not just for the story, but for the horrific-but-genius closer: “The Hammurderer is quickly becoming regarded as the worst-received advertising mascot since Kool-Aid’s 1989 discontinuation of “The Grapist,” a huge purple monster who sodomizes thirsty children.”
  • The band Thrice. I don’t pretend to be a music critic, but to me, this seems like a band that has continuously grown in its musical and songwriting acumen. Few of the other thrashy emo bands have even bothered to try. Check them out: there’s something for most people, I think.
  • Terror-fighting dolphins. The best real story ever about dolphins, and almost as good as The Onion’s “Dolphins evolve opposable thumbs; ‘Oh shit, says humanity'”.
  • Favorite TV episodes: Looking in the archives, I discovered an unpublished post where I tried to narrow down my top 10 episodes of all time. The following were from the ’00s:
    • Arrested Development — “Pier Pressure”
    • Arrested Development — “Afternoon Delight”
    • The Office — “Casino Night”
    • Scrubs — “My Screwup”
      For a 2000s list, I’d add (among dozens of worthy contenders):
    • Arrested Development — “Mr. F”
    • Modern Family — “Fitzbo”
    • Better Off Ted — “Racial Sensitivity”
    • Chuck — “Chuck Versus the DeLorean” (with a nod to the “Mr. Roboto” cover in the Season 2 finale)
    • The West Wing — “Noel”
    • How I Met Your Mother — “Slap Bet”

      Well, if I left anything out, it’s too late. The ’00s are just about gone.

Things I liked in the ’00s: Sports

I cut back my sports interest throughout the ’00s. I also stopped writing my Yankees blog, because I couldn’t keep up — working nights was a major issue in this.
Now, I don’t work nights, but I also can’t get the YES Network. Besides, I don’t know if I can add unique perspectives. In person, over a beer? Sure. In an analytical or poetic form online? Nah.
But that’s OK. I still follow baseball closely, and I follow the NFL fairly well, especially once baseball’s over. Everything else is hit or miss, though — with the exception of live hockey. That’s fantastic.
Why is this? I think a lot of it has to do with my running college cross country. I enjoyed it, and remember it fondly, but I was ready for a break when it ended. Plus, my own competition and that of my teammates seemed a lot more important than that of millionaire strangers
Everything else just reverted to being a game.

But there was still a lot for me to like. The following is but a glimpse.

  • “Chokers” winning. Peyton Manning couldn’t win the big one. Until he did. Phil Mickelson was the perpetual runner-up — until he won three majors. The Red Sox and White Sox were cursed — then they weren’t. Kobe couldn’t without Shaq…oh. Alex Rodriguez — you know the drill. This was the decade of redemption, even as “true champions” such as Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, Tim Duncan and Derek Jeter also won championship after championship.
    Keep in mind, I say this as someone who was sure Peyton was legitimately a choker. And I’m obviously not a Red Sox fan. But redemption is not only good for the soul, it eliminates the whines of the victorious fanbases. 
    • Sergio Garcia still choking. He says he’s just cursed. Whatever. Maybe the ’10s will be your time. Sure.
  • Great Super Bowls. For much of its history, the Super Bowl has been a rather shitty affair. Let’s just be honest (and crude). Unless the Steelers and Cowboys, or the 49ers and Bengals, squared off, it was a likely blowout. All that changed when the Tennessee Titans fell a yard short of overtime against the St. Louis Rams on Jan. 30, 2000. It may be the best Super Bowl ever. It’s certainly memorable.
    Not every game has gone well. Ravens-Giants and Bucs-Raiders were over pretty quickly, and Steelers-Seahawks is not one I’ll regret not being able to watch. But surrounding those were the nailbiters of three Patriots wins, David Tyree’s ridiculous catch, and this year’s Pittsburgh-Arizona matchup, in which a sloppy game was redeemed by an astonishing fourth quarter.
    The biggest spectacle in TV actually tried to live up its billing in the ’00s. How about that?
  • Baseball’s decade of scandal. Or rather, a decade of scandal like every other. The 2000s, if nothing else, at least revealed how full of it most of us were during the 1990s and a good deal of the 1980s. Why did I like it? Well, there was some great ball being played, and steroids — among many other issues — needed to be addressed eventually. That’s the silver lining.
    Going forward, we’ll need to resolve the uncertainties this decade left us — namely, how much do we really hate substance use, or at least that which improves performance? And that answer may help tell us this: What is Albert Pujols? He’s not clean or dirty. He’s an unknown.
    Other baseball likes:
    • The return of balance to the game by 2009: Nobody’s complaining that good hitting has gone away. But in the last few years of the decade, there were phenomenal pitching performances, and not just from individuals. Playoff baseball became the place for sluggers to (mostly) fail, and defense and baserunning propelled losers to brief glory (the Rays) and dashed the hopes of teams too arrogant to care (the clumsy Twins and Angels of 2009 and Tigers of 2006, the lazy A’s and Mets of 2000, every Yankees team from 2004-08). 
    • Real parity. For all the cry of parity in the NFL, 14 of 30 teams comprised the 20 spots in the World Series during the ’00s, while 23 of 30 made the playoffs and 21 won a series. The seven organizations that made no showing– the Royals, Pirates, Expos/Nationals, Reds, Blue Jays, Orioles and Rangers — are occasionally unlucky, but mostly inept. That’s how it should be.
    • Pitching is not just for the young, even as Tim Lincecum is the latest young mound-taking phenom. Jamie Moyer has pitched into his late 40s, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman will be/are closing during their 40s, while the over-35 pitcher in general was no longer such a bad thing. But it’s not like hitting went away. Ichiro slapped singles at a rate unheard of, Albert Pujols was his own fantasy team, Ryan Howard, Alex Rodriguez and others lifted towering shots at fantastic rates.
    • 300 wins being (briefly) commonplace: In a century where no one was ever to win 300 games except maybe Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux, we also saw Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson do it.
    • Mariano Rivera. One of the only athletes with whom it’s OK to gush, because he’s a true American hero — he wins, and wins often, but has lost just enough to endear himself to us. Beyond that, he’s so damn genuinely humble that it’s left to us to brag about him. The greatest of his kind. Remember that when he hangs ’em up.
    • This exchange between Al Leiter and Michael Kay during a Yankees TV broadcast, circa August 2007: Michael: Correct me if I’m wrong. Al: Oh, I will.
  • The endings for Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. Both men left the game, relatively on their own terms, without a real hint of scandal and were recognized in their time for their legendary abilities.
    With Ripken, it was changing the position, allowing big shortstops to play, even though he and Derek Jeter are the only two big shortstops to be durable and (probably) steroid-free. And of course, it was superhuman grit, toughness and determination while not being a complete jerk off the field.
    Gwynn, of course, is the most skilled pure hitter since Ted Williams — hitting .368/.412/.508 from ages 33 to 37. He stole bases and almost never struck out. Plus, he’s a hell of a lot nicer than Williams was.
  • LeBron James. Most of the time, it’s debatable if he’s even the true best player in the league. But he’s the most important. He does magical things on the court, and he gets people talking. People like me, who hadn’t had a non-Michael Jordan-related NBA conversation since the mid-1990s before LeBron came along. And since nobody thinks he’s the perfect human being, hopefully he can survive his Tiger Woods moment, if and when it comes.
    • Kobe Bryant, sort of: I mean, the guy is a rapist cheating creep, at least. But he turned into a hell of a complete player, perfecting an array of jumpers in the past few years. He truly is closer to Jordan than we ever could have expected — and maybe, in some ways, off the court, too.
      • Tiger Woods name-checking Kobe, as in “I have to run to Zales to get a ‘Kobe Special.'” It’s uncertain if he really said that. I hope to God he did.
  • Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The only tennis that matters, really, and the two tournaments that deliver excitement, thrills and top-ranked players year after damn year. In the 2000s, probably the worst decade for tennis in the American eye, we had Sampras. We had Agassi. We had Federer and Nadal, Roddick, Andy Murray, Hewitt and Safin. Even Goran Invanisevic won Wimbledon in 2000, somehow becoming a fan favorite that year. On the women’s side, it was the Williams sisters, with most men hoping Sharapova would make it to the finals, Henin and a few others. The men’s matchups were generally better because the 5-set affair is inherently more exciting, and they were not just good for their time, but for all time. Tennis was a watercooler subject when these tourneys came around. In this century, that’s the best news the sport has.
    • Martina Hingis, coke user. It was just so weird, it made me chuckle. That’s all I’ve got on that.
  • Multiple OT in playoff hockey. The announcers love it, the players appear to like it, and you can’t turn away for an instant, lest you miss the decider. Pro football is a tedious, unfair sport in overtime, while basketball doesn’t have urgency and baseball often feels long enough already. Hockey’s greatest drama, at least to non-serious fans like myself, comes when regulation is past.

    Things I liked in the ’00s: Non-sports

    At the dawn of the century, I was in high school. By the end of its first decade, I was on my second full-time job and, in a fashion, on a second career. So, it was a significant 10 years for me.
    Obviously, mine were the most important events of the “Decade Without A Name.”

    First off, I wish I had been a columnist making heady predictions with little evidence, sometimes no more than my impulsive brain. I could have noted that I’d read about the possibility of planes-as-terror-weapons for years (and moreover, that a large-scale attack was inevitable), or that I had a conversation on 9/13/01 about the upcoming war with Iraq (if not elsewhere, too), and the predictable political and free-speech results that would play out there. Also, I wish I had bookmarked the stories I read, off and on, for years about the absurdity of America using homes as credit cards, and the disaster that was waiting there.
    Granted, I didn’t have any answers. But at least I was aware. I know, I hear the world’s smallest violin, too.

    And sadly, I wish I had been wrong at least once — after the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, I said to a fellow dorm resident, “I think Rivera is going to blow this.”

    But ultimately, as it did for most people, the 2000s have centered on the Internet. It’s become the place for everything, and all that’s different is the scale. Human foibles, tendencies and foolhardiness are just given a wider audience and a faster turnover, but without much moderation in tone or bombast. And while privacy has been declared dead, all these revelations seem to indicate we’ve still got plenty we’d like to hide.
    Anyways, here’s some of what I enjoyed (limiting my word count is clearly not a like):

    • Prescient viewpoints in writing, especially those from people who may not have had such an audience in earlier centuries. Notably: The bloggers are coming; the tech-obsessed, expectant young generation (in 2001) of David Brooks’ “The Organization Kid” minus 2008’s blip of political participation; the close-to-my-heart “leave journalism” meme; the “Twitter is journalists’ obsession” right before it happened; the indignant (though not necessarily wrong) “Pay me, Internet bastards“) phenomenon; and many others in the journalistic vein.
      Oddly enough, for a crazy shell of a man, Hunter S. Thompson was on in 2001 with at least two ESPN Page 2 columns (back in the good ol’ days): The growing (recurring?) tide of “Violence as Entertainment” in sports, and possibly his last nonbizarre ramblings, in reaction to 9/11. Here’s the key sentence:

      “It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy.”

      Of course, I also liked him being an addled gun-toting lunatic on Conan O’Brien’s show.

    • The not-so-prescient writings. There should be an honorable mention for all the Y2K panic. I was never sadder than when the entire U.S. electrical grid wasn’t brought down by the clock changing to 2000. And, while he’s bashed too much for being relatively harmless, it’s a good thing Jay Leno doesn’t appear to be the future of TV.
      Other than that, there was: Don’t go crazy about them blogs, by the well-meaning and usually better Jack Shafer; the inevitable “Is the iPod overrated?” in April 2005!; the idea that small lenders — the George Baileys — caused the housing mess (as if community banks were the ones who bundled and short-sold); panic that children can’t handle red-ink corrections (actually, who uses any pencil anymore); and the various “$4 gas? That’ll be thought of as cheap!” short-term guarantees, though the sub-$2 days do appear over.
    • Science telling us the obvious. I know, I’m telling a joke from every observational comedy standup’s routine. Still, it was slightly helpful to confirm that “the runner’s high” is not just people hallucinating, handwashing is good, and that animals and sick people are a good match. And, well, this headline speaks for itself: “Slow balls take the swing out of young ball players.” As if to pile on, notice that the writer/editor split “ballplayers” into two words.
      The most important research of the decade is a tie between the schizophrenic astronomy debate over Pluto as a planet (in, out, maybe back in), and the dedicated amateur scientists who demonstrated the capabilities of Peeps.
    • The last U.S. World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, getting his due. Wikipedia should be just a starting point.
    • People saying crazy shit that people are afraid to say they agree or sympathize with. Of course, much of the time, it’s tragic: racist, genocidal, etc. Sometimes, though, while unpleasant, it’s so tone-deaf as to be amusing. Enter the professor who thinks hot co-eds are a perk of the job.
    • The best decade in television history. I know, reality TV is ridiculous. But we’ve all watched some of it, so don’t complain too much. But look at the positive in Joel McHale’s 90/10 theory of crap/unprecedented brilliance.
       This is the decade that brought up most of “The West Wing” and all of “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” “24,” “Lost,” “Deadwood,” “Arrested Development,” “The Office (U.K. and U.S.)” “30 Rock,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and many others. Even the “CSI” franchise, for all its stodgy formula, raised the production bar. Plus, the idea that cable TV could offer programming of its own and that it could surpass network TV — FX and USA, most notably, have posted original, provoking and watchable, if not always outstanding, shows for close to a decade.
      When you’re watching TV in the 21st century, you’re often watching film production quality, better entertainment and smarter writing and acting, and you don’t have to leave your house. Those flat screens don’t seem much smaller than the big screen, either.
    • The age of free music: I’m not really talking about illegally downloading stuff, though that enters every conversation. I’m talking about the lifetimes’ worth of free music made available on artists’ websites, through iTunes and MySpace, concerts at NPR and many other sites, and endless promotions everywhere. A few years back, Apple and Facebook gave away 25 songs a week for 10 or so weeks — I’m still finding new and interesting stuff through the artists included and those I’ve encountered through their music.
      • iTunes: If, like me, you already had tons of music through CDs, file-swapping, etc., you need a place to organize it. iTunes does that. Need a place to buy music? iTunes does it. Need a place to connect your portable player? Burn a CD? Watch TV? Get and listen to podcasts — including single podcasts with hundreds of songs from numerous genres? Connect wirelessly with a nearby friend’s music collection? iTunes does it.
        All those things sound obvious now, but they weren’t so simple just a few years ago.
        As great as the computers and the iPhone and iPod families are, this is the most effective product Apple’s ever come up with.
      • Hulu: Another sea change. I feel like I’m wasting my cable subscription. The downside? The network that shares the most (NBC) is falling apart. The major network shunning online video (CBS) isn’t.
      • Jay-Z spending 10 years rapping about how great he is and nobody seeming to mind.
      • The over-the-top rock opera that is Muse.
    • Daniel Craig as James Bond, particularly in “Casino Royale.” It’s not the most “Bond” movie, as far as gadgets and girls, but it’s the best display of filmmaking the series has had since Connery, if not the best. Even The New Yorker took it seriously.
      • “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Astoundingly smart and funny movie. Disagree? Watch “I Love You, Man.” It’s a throwback movie in that it doesn’t forget to tell a story or give you something to care about and root for in each of the characters. Best of all, it doesn’t have a sequel.
      • “Lost in Translation.” People are split — either a grand movie or the most boring thing ever. And it likely has caused Scarlett Johansson to be grossly overrated. But it’s the key film in Bill Murray’s second career as the man battered to the edge of despair by life itself. The film itself may lack in weight and depth; his performance does not.
    • “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.” You’ll get no argument from me about the greatness of “The Daily Show.” But it’s a half-hour, four days a week. Conan did more than twice as much show each week within a more traditional confine. Beyond that, for all the staples (the talking lips, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog), every year you’d find new bits, characters and subtle changes in the show, keeping it as fresh as late night can be. It’s just too bad he got caught in the sinkhole that is NBC’s thought process.
    • The four-year college system. There are arguments against the current American college system, many with some merit, as well as some dreams of its abolition. For me, though, I saw a four-year time where I could get away from home, reach my athletic potential, learn — and learn to learn — and pretend to forget that life is increasingly and inevitably an ordered path. The bonus? My time at college gave me the key push toward the career paths I have set upon.