Saturday, September 6, 2008

copy-editors redux

A few months ago, I blogged about copy-editors at newspapers, using Lawrence Downes's lament for the declining trade as a prompt for thinking about how mistakes get corrected in print runs--early modern and modern. In that post, I noted that early modern printers made changes during the course of a print run without noting the fact or alerting readers to the fact that the book that they are buying might contain uncorrected errors. There was perhaps something similar, I thought, to the ways in which changes get made to online newspapers without any reflection of that change. A story will be reedited, reposted, and read without any acknowledgement of those changes. Any quirks in the earlier story that are stripped out are then invisible to later readers.

Last week, the Washington Post Ombudsman, Deborah Powell*, wrote her column about the disappearance of copy-editors from newspapers due to budget cutbacks. Her concern, expressed in her voice and in quotes from other newspaper professionals, is that the credibility of newspapers will suffer as a result. But there was something that caught my eye in light of my story about Client 9 in my earlier post: at the end of her column, which I read online, appeared this immediately after her contact information: "A longer version of this column appears on"

Now that's a line that cries out for a copy-editor. Given that I read the column in its online (and apparently longer) incarnation, shouldn't this statement have been changed to reflect its reading audience, providing information we don't have: "A shorter version of this column first appeared in print in the August 31, 2008 edition of the Washington Post"? The way it appears makes me wonder if I am really reading the longer version intended to be online. If they forgot to change that line when making the piece go live electronically, how do I know that they didn't forget to publish the rest of the online-only changes? Ah well.

It turns out that the New York Times has started providing such information to (as least some of) its online material. Today's Op-Ed piece by Charles Blow, "Let's Talk About Sex", is published with the following clarification: "A version of this article appeared in print on September 6, 2008, on page A17 of the New York edition." It doesn't tell me how the two versions differ, but if for some reason I was preparing an exhaustive edition of Blow's columns, or perhaps an exhaustive editions of the media conversation about Bristol Palin, I could follow this note to see what might have been altered.

A final tie-in to early modern printing: Blow's column is accompanied by a chart indicating the various rates of teenage pregnancy, abortion, and sex in different countries. (Blow has been a graphics designer and the graphics director at the New York Times, and was the paper's Design Director of News before leaving for his current position as the Art Director for the National Geographic Magazine.) His chart makes a complicated set of data wonderfully easy to understand through his graphic design choices. (Check out the difference between Denmark and the United States!) It's a topic about which I have so far said nothing. But the way that non-verbal typography expands the ability of print to convey information is something that is as important in early printing history as it is for newspapers today (online or otherwise). I'll aim in future posts to look at some instances of early modern inforation design--the presentation of tables, graphs, diagrams, and other visual tools that not only provided information to users but helped to shape how information could be used.

*Yes, Deborah Powell's official title is indeed "Ombudsman" and not a more feminine or gender-neutral derivation of that Swedish word. The New York Times prefers to title its equivalent person as the "Public Editor", thus avoiding not only gender confusion but using a term that is more readily understood by the actual public for whom he (Clark Hoyt, to be specific) is "the readers' representative."

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