Friday, April 20, 2007

Managing the language and managing change

I spent the afternoon at two varied sessions, both of which should be important to copy editors — Bill Walsh’s “Rules That Aren’t” and “Strategies for Changing Times,” a management track session led by the panel of Kenn Altine, Leslie Guevarra, Jennifer McNally and David Sullivan.
First, in an industry that is heavily focused on the changing nature and economy of newspapers, it’s gratifying to see you can still fill a room with nearly 100 people interested in grammar and style rules.
No one smashes the myths of English usage like Bill Walsh. In addition to his advice not to get too caught up in the split infinitive and active voice and using words like host as verbs in headlines, I thought the most interesting thing he said is this: Copy editors often see their role as stopping the evolution of the language, but that shouldn’t be their job. We should be applying the rules that exist in the most understandable fashion for our readers.
Another interesting point Walsh made relates to his observation about the Internet’s influence on the language. He said that possibly because people see so much unedited copy these days, it’s easier for us to let errors we formerly would have stopped prosper in print.
So while we should not stand in the way of the natural evolution of language, we also need to make sure the language doesn’t deteriorate from sloppiness.
After thinking about language, I moved on to a discussion of how managers quantify their workflows and live through issues like staff reductions and the added duties online editions are putting on the copy desk.
If you are asked by your management to quantify the copy desk workload, you might want to get in touch with David Sullivan at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who recently learned more about the value of his ongoing spreadsheet concerning copy desk work. There are a lot of ways you can track things, like by columns filled, errors by the copy desk per shift, deadlines busted, etc. One theme, though, is that most desks don’t know right now how to quantify the online workload.
Kenn Altine of Hearst Newspapers made the good point that we need to learn how to live with the changes, not rail against them, because the reality of life is change is here. We need to find ways to sell copy editors on the professional value of adding online editing skills.
I think, in the long run, it will be much easier to jump onboard now then to try and hold back the train. So all aboard.

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