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The big lie in the Worldwide War on Editing

Testy Business Copy Editor Phillip BlanchardIs Amazon’s newest tablet nigh?  That’s the buzz following a cryptic press conference invite sent out Thursday for an event to be held on Sept. 6 in Santa Monica, Calif. (Wall Street Journal)

The big lie in the Worldwide War on Editing is that it’s all about allocation of resources.  In these challenging economic times (when are “times” not challenging?), the story goes, it’s important to devote scarce resources to reporting at the expense of superfluous production chores.

Rumors headlinesHow do the newly freed armies of reporters spend their time? How about Microsoft’s new logo? “We’re excited about the new logo, but more importantly about this new era in which we’re reimagining how our products can help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential,” this deeply reported story quotes the company’s “general manager of brand strategy” as having written in a blog post. The story presumes that someone cares about the logo, which is a major stretch, and also that the quotation – which, upon close reading, reveals itself as entirely devoid of meaning – helps us understand why it’s important, which it’s not. Who knows what a reallocation of the reporter’s time might have yielded if it weren’t devoted to this?

The reporting corps also has more time to spend reporting on rumors – not confirming or debunking, but merely letting us know that they exist.

Microsoft logo headlineApple has been capitalizing on this weakness for many years.  Lately, we’re seeing speculation that the company will soon announce a new iPhone. We bet it will.  Amazon.com has adopted Apple’s strategy of winning free publicity by saying nothing by inviting reporters to a press conference without saying what it’s about. (There isn’t anything “cryptic” about the “invite,”  which apparently means  “invitation.”  It’s better described as straightforward if not forthcoming.) This gave the Journal the opportunity to slap an incomprehensible headline on the story – “Amazon’s Sept. 6 Press Invite Fans Kindle Fire Rumors” – that no doubt would have been lost had a live editor had a hand in writing it.

There is some fine economic reporting out there, even if it’s not getting top play in most media. The problem seems to be that the business press, far from being savvy and sensitive to the interests and needs of its readers, is clinging to a core mission as a publicity conduit. We know deep down that a new Kindle Fire is on the way.  What too many readers don’t know is that what’s happening in China is likely to cause them real problems next year.

These shortcomings cannot be fixed by hiring more editors, unless those editors think like editors.  That’s become unfashionable, so the outlook is bleak.

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Who’s ignoring my recent post prohibiting use of the term “fiscal cliff”?  Just about everybody, of course.  Here we have an off-lead headline in the Washington Post.  At least the New York Times kept it out of the headline and didn’t mention it until the fourth paragraph.

About the Author

Phillip Blanchard was in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, most recently as a financial copy editor at the Washington Post. Previously he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times and newspapers in upstate New York. He founded Testy Copy Editors, the online forum, in 1992. Follow him on Twitter: @testycopyeditor. Or email Phillip at blanp@testycopyeditors.org.

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