Posted tagged ‘Washington Post’

Should blog posts be edited?

February 19, 2013

The Washingtonian, like any good magazine, has a robust protocol for fact-checking and copyediting everything from full-length features to headlines and captions. (You wouldn’t believe how often captions have errors.) When its writers started doing blog entries for the growing website, those followed the same protocol.

One writer in particular objected. As an investigative reporter, he had scoops that weren’t meant to age even a few minutes, he said—they had to go up ASAP to beat the competition. The editors got that, and it’s true that the writer’s work was leading the magazine into digital ascendancy. But it’s also true that haste makes waste, loose lips sink ships, and so on. “You have the best dirt, Harry,” I told him, “but even you have been known to make mistakes.”

“Moi? When have I ever made a mistake?”

“Yesterday, when Lynne caught what you wrote about X. And before that, I saved your butt with Y. And then there was Z ….”

“Yeah, okay. But this is solid, and there’s no time for anyone to check it.”

This went on for months. Most of the time everything checked out, though I sometimes fixed grammatical bugaboos, from misspellings to left-out words. Occasionally I caught a major screwup. That, I told him, is why we check. Still, he chafed, and eventually word came down: No more checking. Just post it.

The 24-hour news cycle has won pretty much everywhere, and to paraphrase another quotation, they who hesitate are lost. But I wish everyone would agree to hesitate—just long enough for both a fact check and a copyedit.

There have been plenty of embarrassing factual errors both online and in broadcasting because of the rush to be first, the initial misreporting of the Obamacare verdict being just one. That’s the subject of another post. But a good copyedit can be done in minutes, and clean copy isn’t just an aesthetic nicety. “There are few bigger turn-offs for readers than grammar and punctuation flaws in a piece of writing,” wrote Charlotte Beckham, a British editor/proofreader/blogger. “Such mistakes indicate to the reader that the article has been written in haste, lacks attention to detail, and/or has been completed with little effort.”

In short, it speaks to credibility. Even dating sites now inform profile writers that other users think less of those who can’t spell or don’t bother with punctuation. What do you think more “professional” readers think of blogs and other social media that aren’t up to the standards of the printed publication? Should standards come down at the same rate as the use and readership of paper?

Authors of books have griped for years about the dearth and death of editing. Errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, use of words, and more on the Washington Post website are downright embarrassing, and readers of the dead-tree version regularly write in to complain about the lack of copyediting. And according to former ReadWriteWeb senior writer Marshall Kirkpatrick, a survey on the crowdsourced copyediting service GooseGrade led to this conclusion: “Spelling and grammatical errors harmed [readers’] opinion of a blog, their willingness to spend time on the site and to share its content nearly as much as perceived factual errors did.”

“Grammatical Gaffes Annoy Readers and Erode Our Credibility” is the title of an op-ed by the appropriately named Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star, who wrote, “Numerous newspaper credibility studies have concluded [that] readers don’t care whether reporters are rushed, staff count is down, or editors are too busy posting content online to catch grammatical gaffes.” Quoting former ombudsman Don Sellar, she added that editing errors “erode public confidence in a paper’s ability to get anything right.”

If professional bloggers—and those who aspire to such status—don’t have a copyeditor to back them up, they do at least have advice from Charlotte Beckham on doing it themselves:

1. Read your writing as though you did not write it yourself.

2. Consider whether your writing makes too many presumptions as to the reader’s understanding of the subject.

3. Consider the presentation.

4. Send the post to a friend or colleague for feedback—if time permits.

She elaborated on each of these points, and you can see the details here. (She also, sorry to say, made two small grammatical errors, which I corrected when quoting. I couldn’t very well not correct them, right? Occupational hazard and all that ….)

The post has many complimentary comments, including these: “Proofreading is important; it makes a piece of text more effective” and “It may seem time-consuming, but it is worth the time as it will help make you and your site look more professional.” Charlotte, Marshall, Kathy, and Don would surely join me in agreeing.

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

The postscript to Petraeus’s biography

November 11, 2012

When the news broke Friday that General David Petraeus has suddenly resigned as head of the CIA because of an extramarital affair, I immediately pasted the Washington Post head and deck into an email to my Army brother with this subject line: “Oh no!”

It wasn’t yet public who his partner had been in this affair – or that some of his closest aides in the Middle East had noticed the general’s growing intimacy with the woman and had had the same thought.

Already we’ve seen, and will more in the coming days, several lessons from this mess. 1. As my brother hinted in his response (or maybe I’m just reading into it), men – will they ever learn? Nope. (Or in a variation learned from my college roommate, the smartest people can be really, really stupid.) 2. You can never know another person’s marriage. Maybe you can never fully know your own, either. 3. In this technological age, it’s harder and harder to keep a secret. 4. True, but as usual, this one was blown open by human frailty (chutzpah, hubris, jealousy, etc.) before the machines got involved. 5. Deployments threaten families and marriages – one of the issues Holly Petraeus had long worked on as an advocate for military families. 6. Geez Louise, what can possibly be worth the risk of your job, your marriage, your personal and professional reputation, and the pleasure of having your private life not splashed across every front page and news broadcast in America?

But the “who” is what I found intriguing here. The pretty, much younger woman involved is the lead author of Petraeus’s bestselling biography. They had quite a lot in common, which is surely what led to the strength of their acquaintance. Of course you want chemistry – at least a strong working relationship – with your biographer, but that may not be the best reason to choose a particular person.

From the Post’s article about her: “The woman, Paula Broadwell, then 37, had never written a book and had almost no journalistic experience. … [Petraeus] had until then been extraordinarily careful in managing his public image, allowing limited access to a handful of journalists, former aides say. … Peter Mansoor, a former executive officer on Petraeus’s staff, said he thought the general’s uncharacteristic confidence in an untested writer was ‘strange.’ ‘My gosh, if you are going to have someone interview everyone who has ever touched you in your life, choose someone who has written a biography or at least a history book,’ he said in an interview Saturday.”

(Not to mention that she regularly wore “unusually tight” clothing in an Islamic war zone and spilled “sensitive operational details” in Facebook posts from the same war zone. But see Lessons 1 and 1a above.)

Yes, the second coauthor is Vernon Loeb, a Post and Philly Inquirer editor who has overseen DoD coverage. Still, celebrities and their publishers aren’t focused on the second coauthor. If you are arguably the preeminent general of a generation, so concerned with your image for posterity, do you follow your ego (or worse) and choose a newbie with whom you have a lot in common and a ton of chemistry? Or do you pick an experienced biographer or reporter, someone who may not be as flattering, as deferential? It’s a serious question, what kind of biography you want for the ages. And what does each member of the team realistically contribute to that end?

You could say the proof is in the pudding; the book garnered strong but mixed reviews and became a bestseller. Or you could look at the fact that this untested writer used seriously questionable judgment on several occasions – including in sending threatening emails to a perceived rival, which is what got the FBI on her trail and led to a scandal that made headlines around the world.

It’s easy to come up with another lesson: Choose a biographer with a track record, one at least with a background as a reporter/writer/editor etc. Would that have avoided trouble, though? Has a professional biographer never, ever begun an affair with the subject? Has a professional, experienced writer never been known to go off the deep end and do something really dumb, even borderline criminal?

I’m going to have to fall back on Lesson 2 here: I can’t see inside either one’s marriage, and unless they spill to the press (this is contrary to my professional interest, but honestly, more people would be smart to keep their mouths shut!), we’re not going to know much. I would, however, like to know what Vernon Loeb thinks. He might write a column for the Post; I’ll keep an eye out for that. His view of this mess would be both unique and enlightening.

Addendum, Monday night. There it is! “Petraeus ghostwriter ‘clueless’ to affair.” By Vernon Loeb. First sentence: “My wife says I’m the most clueless person in America.” Heh. In the photo, he looks like an older version of Sean Penn in Milk. Turns out he and Broadwell were paired up by their mutual agent – he to be the ghostwriter at home in Maryland, she to be the researcher with unfettered access in the field. “An incredible opportunity,” he thought. When people raised eyebrows about the researcher and the general, he says, he always gave her the benefit of the doubt.

As for the biography and its authors, “the editors at Penguin Press were quite clear about what they wanted: a book on the rigors of command told from an inside point of view,” he says. “I had no say over the book’s ultimate take on Petraeus, which some have found excessively laudatory. Broadwell was free to make whatever revision or modifications she desired to the text, and did so liberally.”

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

A new stage in journalism

December 2, 2011

Tomorrow my new story was published in the Washington Post. No, wait – on Saturday, my Wednesday story will debut in the Washington Post. No, wait – on Wednesday, Saturday’s story ran in (on) the Washington Post.

This multiplatform journalism is so confusing.

Put it this way: Wednesday, the real-estate editor sent me a link to my first story for her, which had just been posted online. The story, about staging one’s home for better sale, is scheduled to appear in tomorrow’s print edition. (Why the Post keeps undercutting its own material, from features to op-eds to Toles cartoons, by running it online days ahead of time is a mystery. Won’t people continue to drop their subscriptions when their weekend papers are filled with material they’ve already seen online?)

This story is my first direct experience with what I described in the Express article about the NPR producer who puts together slideshows, video interviews, interactive maps, and so on. The editor wanted not only a reported article but a gallery of before-and-after photos and a video of one of my stagers discussing what she does and then doing it over a period of hours (speeded up, with a crew involved – pretty cool effect). I collected the photos from all over, many more than were actually used; discussed options for houses we might use for the video; and arranged for the chosen stager and the Post people to converge to make it all happen.

With this article, I’ve now appeared in at least six sections of the Post: Style, Travel, Food, Sunday Source, the Magazine, and now Real Estate. (Weekend, too, though not sure that counts because Escapes is there only after migrating from its former home in the Style section. And five years of my column in Express, of course.)

Copyright 2011 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.