In The Death of the Newspaper at Teal Sunglasses, Chuq Von Rospach takes on some recent commentary about the online publishing, editors, and professionalism, responding to my post over the weekend prompted by C.W. Nevius’s Chronicle column (whew! tracking these threads is hard work!).
But that argument is like arguing that because McDonalds has automated fry cooking, we don’t need pastry chefs any more. The word “editor” spans as many sub-specialties as “writer” or “chef” does. The argument that because they (and most writers, myself included) are better after having had our work massaged by editors, and therefore news.google.com isn’t a threat to editors is a bad one — because fry cooks and pastry chefs aren’t interchangeable.
Chuq notes that copyeditors are not the same as the kind of editor who decides what article goes on the front page:
Google News [is] not replacing the copy editors who massage and clean up our priceless prose — it’s automating the process of deciding what goes into the paper (the copy desk) and how it’s portrayed in the paper (the layout guys). Those, too, are editors — but their function is a lot different…. Google proves they are [replaceable]! … but … only to a degree, because Google is lying. The content WAS generated with the help of human hands, and human editors. It’s the layout of the page that was done automatically, and in all honesty, that’s really the easy part. Before Google could figure out what to put on that page, writers had to write it, editors had to edit it, copy desk guys had to decide it was worth publishing, and layout guys placed it on web sites around the world.
He finishes up by tackling the recent Shirky article on mass amateurization:
[W]hat you’re really doing is not putting editors out of business, but breaking down the hegemony of the copy desk — right now, decisions on what you see and hear are in the hands of rather few people, and by using the consensus voice, returns it to democracy (instead you get the hegemony of who can generate word of mouth, and the power of viral marketing).
And he thinks that Shirky is overstating the impact of amateur publishing on the writers at the top of the heap:
[The fact] that anyone can play journalist and columnist doesn’t mean that there won’t still be professional journalists or columnists. …What this really does is start to break down the barriers that prevent that valuable material from being found. It re-enables, in a big way, word of mouth. It democratizes the way quality is discovered, taking it out of the hands of the few in power and brings that process back towards the people.
Chuq detects defensiveness on the part of those currently in control of the bottlenecks:
[T]his change scares the hell out of those who currently hold a choke hold on the neck of these processes — because what is really changing here is that the role of the person that makes that decision. Right now, they have an effective veto power. … If they don’t [make good decisions], these new technologies allow their audience to go around them, render them irrelevant.