After ACES

The 12th annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society is over. Eyewitness accounts such as these from Jim Thomsen of The Kitsap Sun testify to the success of this year’s gathering. Here’s my “takeaway” and a look ahead:

THE HIGHS

  • Seeing old friends and making new ones, including readers of this blog. (Hi, Eileen!)
  • Bridging the gap with page designers by talking honestly about how we work together. (Thanks, Josh!)
  • Discussing the identity of the organization and considering widening the scope of “copy editor” beyond the newspaper tradition of ACES.
  • Checking out Red Rocks with a friend who’s a copy editor turned lawyer turning librarian.
  • Drinking beer. It’s better in Colorado.

THE LOWS

  • Lower attendance.
  • Declining membership.
  • Malaise about the business side of journalism — countered by our dedication to what we do. It’s frustrating to see good journalists laid off and left out in the cold by hiring freezes.

WHAT’S AHEAD

The next conference is set for April 2009 in Minneapolis. As reflected by the state of the profession overall, ACES is in transition and has a lot of work to do. There’s no time for fiddling. Luckily, the leadership and membership understand the challenges ahead and are committed to taking them on.

On the lighter side, there’s also talk of an “editing smackdown” between Bill Walsh of The Washington Post and Merrill Perlman of The New York Times. This would be a marquee event, a clash of editing titans. I’m suggesting that my colleague Bill Cloud serve as referee.

Read more memories of the 2008 conference and check out the collection of handouts and exercises.

7 thoughts on “After ACES

  1. About the declining business (or, as I call it, death spiral) check this out, I think it explains a lot:

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/03/31/080331fa_fact_alterman/

    I think a big force behind the reason that journalism as currently practiced is not meeting the needs of the public is the notion that
    journalism is a “profession”. A lot of journalists seem to be more impressed by credentials than by the quality of the work that is produced. Journalism was a monopoly for a long time. The barriers to entry were high, and so people with credentials could control the conversation. This resulted in sort of a self-amplifying circle, where people with “credentials” repeated each other, building a self-reinforcing storyline. Now, everything has changed. Anybody can publish. Anybody can say anything they want and make it accessible to anyone in the world. What is difficult is getting people to want to read what you write. For that, you need to meet the needs of the public. You need to make your work worthwhile in the eyes of the public, rather than in the eyes of journalists holding the (now more and more valueless) journalist “credential.”

    One serious problem that I think has led to the continuing and accelerating decline of your industry is how you react to criticism of your work and that of other journalists. The most cherished belief among “credentialed” journalists is that any criticism of journalists comes from people who are simply upset because journalists aren’t reflecting the agenda the critics want reflected. Thus, in one of your posts, you address the criticism of Solomon for his various hit pieces as coming from his “critics on the left” without looking at whether the criticism is justified or not. You discount the criticism because Solomon, even if he’s lying, has the “credential” and his critics don’t. It’s more important to you to defend someone with credentials against uncredentialed critics than to examine whether a member of your “profession” is lying to the public.

    This is not the sort of attitude that is going to drag your industry out of its death spiral.

    What about developing a real code of ethics? For example, how about this rule regarding confidentiality:

    Never grant confidentiality to a source who is motivated primarily by the fact that the story would be less likely to be believed if the identity of the source were known.

    As opposed to the way confidentiality is handled now, where it is basically a payment for a story.

  2. 1. I didn’t attack or defend John Solomon. I reported that he has critics. I understand that you prefer that I criticize him, but that wasn’t the focus of that post. It was about the style changes at The Washington Times. Of course, you are welcome to start your own blog and criticize Solomon, Kristol, etc.

    2. Most journalists I know are open to thoughtful criticism. Unfortunately, some take a defensive stance. In my newsroom days, I always responded to calls and e-mails from readers, regardless of their “credentials” — just as I respond to comments here. Our newsroom met with community groups concerned about coverage. Some of their criticism (but not all) was useful in helping us do our jobs better.

    3. I agree with you about anonymous sources.

    Thanks for the comments.

  3. The “credential” has been declining for some time, as newspapers failed to adhere to any sort of standard when hiring. They ended up with writers who cannot write, editors who either cannot or won’t edit, etc.

    Another part of the problem comes when newspapers turn to “something shiny” in the vain hope it will attract readers. They think readers are dumb, and that an “eye-catching page” will lure them by the hundreds of thousands. Of course, this approach has been a colossal failure, as evidenced by the facts and the numbers.

    Newspapers, though, continue to deny the existence of these numbers (some call them “proof”) and keep claiming that this approach does, in fact, work. (Some call this “lying.”)

    So, Andy, how did the powwow with the fiddlers go? Are you guys ready to run forward and change the world? I see there’s even a call to point out that editing is REALLY important. I can imagine how you guys would write that:

    “We’re important. PLEASE don’t cut us! We’ll let you restructure our jobs any way you like, even to the point where we do NO editing! I mean, editing is important, but we’ll do ANYTHING and call it editing! Please don’t cut us!”

  4. Rknil,

    The powwow was both inspirational and sobering, as indicated in my post. Fiddling was kept to a minimum, but some of that is inevitable. The outlook for jobs and the economy overall is certainly cause for a concern.

    Everyone recognized that journalism is changing and that editing has to change with it. For example, what sort of editing should be done online and in reporters’ blogs? A lot, some or none?

    As an organization, ACES also has to decide what it wants to be. Many of us are interested in reaching out to editors in magazines, newsletters, corporations and non-profit groups. Editing is growing in those areas, especially in the latter two I listed. Others want ACES to remain a news-only organization.

    For more, check out this post from Doug Fisher at Common Sense Journalism:

    http://commonsensej.blogspot.com/2008/04/aces-at-crossroads.html

  5. Well, that reference led to a good exchange of insults and vitriol.

    But it didn’t shed much light on how the ACES fiddlers are going to convey (after at least eight years of inaction) that editing is REALLY important. Or at least what’s defined as editing, which these days includes just about anything, including design, which has little to nothing to do with editing.

    Maybe the fiddlers just need another eight years or so to figure out what they want to do.

  6. rknil, I don’t think editing is trivial, and I don’t think any triviality of editing or wordcraft is what has led to the death spiral of Andy’s industry. I think that the problem stems from the cultivation of an idea of professionalism in what isn’t really a profession and doesn’t have the real ethical rules that characterize a profession, together with the residue of years of monopoly control.

    The idea of “professionalism” gave journalists an inflated self-importance, and monopoly control of information meant that they did a lot of listening to each other. What that led to is a sort of lofty superciliousness, where they don’t care, or pretend not to care, what really happens, and they look down on people who do care. There’s a lot they could learn from those people, but in too many cases, they don’t. It’s just amazing, for example, that it was Talking Points Memo that broke the US Attorney story, and the reason that the story was broken by a blog, rather than by a big media outlet, is because journalists looked down on the people who were pushing the story because those people cared about what was going on, and because the information conflicted with what the journalists were feeding to one another.

    Andy probably would have been industrious and honest if he had followed a different career. As it is, however, he has an overriding need to portray fellow journalists as “above the fray,” and this need led him to dishonestly characterize the criticism that John Solomon has received. He reported that Solomon had been criticized by some right-wing “watchdog” for changing various word usages in the Moonie Times (Andy called it the Washington Times, helping to preserve the illusion that it’s a real newspaper). He felt compelled to “balance” that with the irrelevant information that Solomon had previously been “vilified by the left”, not mentioning (although it was in the link) that the reason Solomon had been “vilified” was for dishonesty. Andy’s deeply ingrained viewpoint caused him to see and to portray the criticism in terms of the journalist’s most cherished illusion, namely, that “if both sides criticize us, we must be doing OK”. Preserving that illusion was more important to him than honest reporting.

    He could have left out the irrelevant information that Solomon had been “vilified by the left”, or he could have pointed out that the criticisms of Solomon were not equivalent. He did neither, and when I pointed out his failure, he saw fit to mischaracterize what I wanted. I didn’t care whether he criticized Solomon or not, I just wanted an honest evaluation.

    He’s certainly not the most egregious offender by any means, but his industry is in a death spiral because it’s not meeting the readers, and I think an important reason is that people who don’t have a monopoly anymore are acting like they do have a monopoly.

  7. George: I agree with what you’re saying about newspapers being in an ivory tower and not establishing their own code of ethics. Every 18 months or so, we get the equivalent of the Duke boys yelling “SHIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELD LAW!” because the media feel the need to circle the wagons rather than focusing on their own ethics.

    Where I disagree, though, is with the right vs. left part. I think the “MSM,” as some call them, encourage people to view this as the problem because it lets the media feel smart while ignoring the real problems. They can throw out platitudes like: “If we’re stirring up both sides, then we’re doing something right! (extreme arrogance)” They refuse to acknowledge they’re also doing a lot wrong.

    Also, Andy, I saw one of the handouts from your fiddling seminar, and I have to say it was a waste of time and paper. These little powwows about “uniting under the presentation banner” or whatever you fiddlers call it are amusingly trivial. At least you didn’t pull a Steve Kozarovich and say all reporters should turn in an info box with an article, no matter what. But then, a good junior high journalism class could outthink Stevie K.

    Keep on fiddlin’, Andy.

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