Friday, December 04, 2009

The Write-Right Rite

This week I banged out a story late in the day, tired and rubbing against deadline, and it came back from the copy editor without a scratch. "Perfect," she said. I realized then that I had become one of the geezer reporters of yore.

I'm talking about the days in which newsroom afternoons meant work in a deafening din of manual typewriter keys hitting on the platen behind the paper, mixed in with the "ding!" of carriages returning. When I started working, such places existed.

Every newsroom had some legendary grizzled man who arrived five minutes before deadline with a cigar in his mouth and the smell of gin on his breath, sat at his desk and banged out his requisite 700 to 1,500 words without ever having to x-out anything. His story was ready to print with a minute to spare.

Of course, the rest of us -- in particular, me -- had to compose ploddingly, cross out words, replace entire pages, curse and turn out something that would go through several eyes and red pencils before it was printed.

All that is gone. The Washington Post's closing of news bureaus in several cities and The Washington Times' abandonment of paid subscriptions augur the demise of newspapers in the nation's capital, where I live.

Yet the truly ominous writing on the wall is for standards of writing and, more broadly, language. In sum, the editorial process.

Of course, fact-checking arguably went out the window not long after Watergate in the major press.

Remember the lawsuit over entirely made up quotes in no less than The New Yorker? Iran-Contra, uncovered by small and independent publications, happened because no one in the major media was actually reporting news. The self-important news peacocks in the White House and State Department briefing rooms were all transcribing press releases.

Now the guardians of language are being tossed out. To cut costs, the Post and many other papers have eliminated copy editors, the people who fussed at punctuation, style and more grammatical rules than you ever knew existed.

These people turned every wannabe-novelist's inchoate thoughts into clear and precise statements that anyone with a modicum of education -- papers used to aim for 10th grade -- could understand. Now writing by people who can't tell the difference between "affect" and "effect" sees the light of day every day.

The news business has devolved to bad blogging that comes a day late on dead trees. No wonder it's sinking.
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