Our newsrooms aren’t getting any more resources, even while our work grows more demanding. SEO this! Re-edit this for print! Get it online now! Where do we focus our limited time and effort, and is there a research-driven basis for it?
Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society and AME of the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, presented some of her staff’s strategies and the research behind it to the audience of about 50. The research, conducted by Fred Vultee of Arizona State University, is available as a PDF on the ACES Web site.
Is it important to get it right the first time?
There are two competing ideologies today, Schmedding said: do you just get it up as fast as you can and refine it later, or do you focus on getting it right the first time?
According to Schmedding, Vultee’s research suggests that the answer is to get it right. “Dedicated readers have higher standards,” she said. “They’re more concerned about professionalism and grammar than errors of style or structure.”
By that, she said, we should spend more time on getting things right, making sure that stories are suitable for a news site, clean of mistakes, use the correct words, and was easy to understand. “These are the things readers notice.”
She added later, “We’re behind a paywall as of September 7. Readers aren’t willing to pay a premium for for error-filled content.”
What to spend your time on (and what not to)
You’re busy editing and you have a short amount of time to spend with each story. What are the things you should let go?
What should you focus your effort on?
- Grammar: Stories that use the wrong words, aren’t consistent, or have obvious grammatical errors in them.
- Details: Make sure your story is correct, and consistent. Your readers will notice if you give a congressman the wrong district.
- Make sure the story isn’t confusing.
What shouldn’t you spend time on?
- Suspend some style rules: These are the things that are time-consuming — “Only once has a reader complained about ‘less than’ versus ‘fewer’,” Schmedding said with a laugh — but that readers seldom notice, and that don’t impede understanding the story.
- Challenge the old ‘newspaper’ rules: It’s not worth the time to fix widows, or write a second line of caption just because that’s the style, when there are more productive things to do.
- Stop fixing your editor’s pet peeves: “I have a boss who hates the word ‘eatery,’ and we’ll have an editor spending 30 minutes on a 1-column head trying to find a way around ‘restaurant’. I had to go to him and say, in a very polite and deferential way, ‘Is there research to support that… ?’ “
Schmedding added, “If no one notices, then we shouldn’t be doing it. And if people notice, we stop, and we go back to the way it was before.”
“What works for my newspaper may not work for your news organization,” Schmedding said, “so keep your readers in mind.” In the audience, several commented about their specialized media organizations, who might have different needs.
Everything cannot be a priority
Last, Schmedding said, remember that everything cannot be a priority. “Use facts, not passion, to decide,” she admonished the audience.
Her questions to ask:
- What must be done?
- What needs to be done?
- What do you want to get done?
Finally, Schmedding suggests, ask: “How does that impact your readers?”