An American Editor

July 30, 2014

Books, Buying, & Editing

The trouble with books is that there are too many of them that interest me. If I see an a book advertised that interests me, I tend to buy it. I don’t wait to see if it will be reviewed in one of my magazines because I know the odds of that happening are very long and even should the book be reviewed, who knows when the review will appear. Even though my to-be-read pile is enormous and I could wait before buying another book, I can’t bring myself to do so.

I mention this because in recent weeks six of the books I have bought have been reviewed in at least one of the magazines I trust for reviews. Had I read the reviews first, I probably would not have bought the books. In the case of a seventh book, I haven’t yet bought it and am debating whether to do so.

In the case of the book I have yet to buy and of one that I did buy, The Economist reviewed the books. The books are “World Without End: The Global Empire of Philip II” by Hugh Thomas (the book I have not yet bought) (The Economist, July 12, 2014, p. 75) and “Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman” by Robert O’Connell (which I had already bought) (The Economist, July 26, 2014, p. 69).

In both cases, The Economist‘s reviewer praised the book then damned it. In the case of “World Without End,” the reviewer wrote:

“World Without End” would have benefited from better editing. Two of the chapters on the Yucatán are reprised from an earlier volume of the trilogy and refer to events that took place well before Philip became king in 1556. Several of the epigraphs that introduce chapters are irrelevant or misplaced. A dizzying cast of minor officials confuses rather than enlightens. (p. 76)

As to “Fierce Patriot,” the reviewer wrote:

The book would also have benefited from better editing. It is oddly organized, with later parts doubling back chronologically on already-trodden ground. (p. 69)

Several of the other books that I bought received negative reviews in the New York Review of Books, but the editing was not specifically noted.

The better editing comments are directed at better developmental editing, not at better copyediting, but if the developmental editing is bad or nonexistent, I wonder about the copyediting.

There is an interesting factoid about these two books: they are both published by the same megapublisher, Penguin Random House, although by different imprints, Allen Lane (“World Without End”) and Random House (“Fierce Patriot”). This worries me.

As an editor, I know that many publishers, especially the megapublishers, have spent years cutting back. If they haven’t eliminated an author service, they have sought to minimize the service’s financial impact by limiting budgets for items that produce “hidden” value, such as editing. It is rare that a review takes a book to task for poor editing, but it is even rarer for reviews doing so to be so close together in time and to be of books from the same publishing house.

That these two books are from the same megapublisher but from different imprints bodes ill for imprint independence. It also makes me wonder what impact, if any, reviews noting the editorial flaws will have on future behavior of the megapublisher. Because the complaints are about developmental editing issues, my suspicion is that there was no developmental editing and poorly paid copyediting. I also suspect that the reviews will dent sales but that the wrong lesson will be taken from the dented sales.

That sales are low or lower than expected will be taken as justification for editorial cost cutting rather than seen as a result of ill-advised cost cutting.

I wondered what university presses were thinking when they set such high pricing for print-on-demand hardcover books (see What Are They Thinking? UPs and the Road to Self-Destruction). Now I wonder what the megapublishers are thinking as they limit editorial budgets. Clearly, the university presses see the audience as being so limited that the audience will either pay the high price or buy the paperback, doing either without complaint. The megapublisher also sees the audience for these books as limited and doubts a negative review will have much of an effect on sales when the review’s negativity is editorial quality not content-quality based.

In the end, blame really rests on the shoulders of the editors. We have not made the case for why our services are valuable and needed. Few readers (and I am beginning to think reviewers) have either the skills or the interest or the knowledge to notice poor editing — whether developmental editing or copyediting — and thus fail to note it as a flaw.

Is it not interesting that The Economist reviewers spoke of “better editing” without distinguishing between developmental editing (which is what they meant) and copyediting? Or does that distinction not matter?

To me it matters greatly. Had the reviewers said that the books were badly copyedited — misspellings, wrong word choices, bad grammar, etc. — there is no doubt that I would not have bought the books and I would have returned those that I had bought (assuming I could do so; if I couldn’t, they would be relegated forever to the very bottom of my TBR pile and read only in desperation); but that is not true of poor developmental editing. Books that are poorly developmental edited are in somewhat of a limbo land with me.

“World Without End” will not be bought (and had I already ordered it, I would have tried to return it). What ails that book, according to the reviewer, is significant enough to prevent me from buying; what is wrong goes to the heart of the book. The problems with “Fierce Patriot” do not seem so terrible in comparison, especially as I already own the book. They will be annoying and will reflect poorly on the publisher and the author, but they are developmental editing problems that I can suffer with; they are not of such caliber that I feel compelled to try to return the book. Had I known of the problems beforehand, I would not have bought the book.

What is your reaction to these reviews?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

December 10, 2012

The Decline and Fall of the American Editor

In past articles, I have bemoaned the decline in language skills that I see in many younger editors and in authors. My bemoaning was revitalized by an article in the December 1, 2012 issue of The Economist (“Higher Education: Not What It Used to Be,” pp. 29-30), which said:

For example, a federal survey showed that the literacy of college-educated citizens declined between 1992 and 2003. Only a quarter were deemed proficient, defined as “using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals and toi develop one’s knowledge and potential.” Almost a third of students these days do not take any courses that involve more than 40 pages of reading over an entire term. Moreover, students are spending measurably less time studying and more on recreation. “Workload management,” however, is studied with enthusiasm–students share online tips about “blow off” classes (those which can be avoided with no damage to grades) and which teachers are easiest going.

(Emphasis supplied.) Only 25% of college-educated U.S. citizens are literate! How depressing is that? The article went on to note that “[a] remarkable 43% of all grades at four-year universities are As, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960,” which means that students are being rewarded for being illiterate. Makes me wonder if their professors are literate.

Unfortunately, a confluence of many factors is resulting in the dumbing down of the editorial and authorial classes in America. The decline in newspaper readership is but one symptom of this decline. It is not enough to say that readers are getting the same information from sources other than newspapers, unless you can also say that the information that is contained in a multipage newspaper article is equally comprehensively conveyed by a 140-character twit.

Discussions that I used to have about current events with neighbors have hit a dividing line. Those of my generation still engage in detailed discussions regarding topics of local interest and are informed about those topics; those of the younger generation can only discuss, at most, the headline.

eBooks are both a blessing and a curse as regards promotion of literacy. That anyone who has access to a keyboard can suddenly become an author is a curse; that readers pick up and read a lot of the produced drivel is a curse; that these same readers and authors do not recognize the difference between, for example, your and you’re is a curse; that readers are more interested in being distracted from reading than from actually reading is a curse.

On the other hand, ebooks make material to read more accessible to more people at a lower cost, definitely a blessing. In addition, because ereaders offer such things as instant dictionary access and online access to websites like Wikipedia where more information is available about a topic, ebooks can be viewed as spreaders of knowledge, which is also a blessing.

Alas, for the blessings to truly be blessings, the reader has to be open to taking advantage of them. With the trend of using nondedicated ereaders to read ebooks, however, combined with the trend to read only a very few ebooks during the course of a year, it is difficult to get the blessings to outweigh the curses.

The more insidious trend that ebooks promote is the acceptance of incorrect language use. The more often a child sees “while your driving the car,” the more ingrained it will become that your is correct. The fewer authors who hire qualified professional editors to fix grammar errors, the more standard becomes the misuse of language and the more such misuse is learned and accepted.

Compounding the problem is the discouragement qualified professional editors receive from authors and publishers. There is no reward, only punishment, for being a qualified professional editor in today’s market. The punishment is on several levels. On the most basic level, it is the downbeating of pricing. Authors and publishers rarely accept the pricing that a professional editor would charge were the editor’s services valued. Rather, the mantra is lower pricing. And to force the market to lower pricing, authors and publishers too often search the Internet for best pricing, rather than best editing.

The consequence of this downbeating of pricing is that those of the younger generations with the requisite language skills to provide topnotch editorial services do not enter the profession, or do so in a very limited way. That means that the ranks of editors are being filled by those who lack proficiency in the very skills they seek to provide. When an author whose ebooks is riddled with homophonic errors tells me that the ebook has very few such errors because they paid to have the book edited, it tells me that both the author and the editor lack necessary and fundamental language skills and that neither can recognize that lack, so both accept substandard work as standard. If you are a young learner and are subject to reading hundreds of such substandard books, you soon begin to believe that they are correct and replicate the errors in your own writing.

If you do not think repeat exposure to erroneous language use will lead to that erroneous use becoming accepted as correct, look no further than the argument regarding the age of Earth (6,000 years of age vs. millions of years of age). Or consider how advertising works (repeat exposure to a message is designed to get a viewer to believe the message’s verity; this is most clear when looking at political advertising).

The illiteracy noted by The Economist above bodes ill for American editors becoming or remaining a valued profession. It is difficult to uphold high values when you cannot recognize high values. When America’s most educated class — its university graduates — are reading challenged and language challenged/deficient, how much expectation can there be for the proficiency of those not in that “educated” class? (And think about those of the “educated” class who become the teachers of our children. Considering where most teachers are in class standing at university, how likely is it that your child’s teacher will be one of the literate 25%?) Considering that professional editors today generally come from the university-educated class of workers, how likely is it that the literacy level demanded of the printed word a few decades ago will survive to future decades? When the income levels of qualified professional editors are in a state of perpetual decline and when authors increasingly avoid using qualified professional editors, preferring to self-edit or to have “beta” readers provide the editorial review, how likely is it that the high editorial standards of past decades will carry forward to future decades?

Will we soon be reading The Decline and Fall of the American Editor in twittese? What do you think? Are you concerned?

October 29, 2012

Fact or Fiction? School Textbooks

Filed under: Breaking News,Miscellaneous Opinion,Politics — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , ,

In past articles, I have worried about the future of the editing profession. I have looked at the state of American education and worried that future editors will be unable to distinguish a noun from a verb. I have looked at the tests submitted by editorial job applicants and worried about what they think is quality editing. I have conversed with younger colleagues about various aspects of the business of editing and worried about their knowledge of and approach to that business. I have reviewed fee expectations of job applicants and worried if I share the same universe.

Then along comes an article in The Economist and I am confronted with what I never quite thought about in regards to education: separating fact from fiction in school textbooks. Usually I would just post a short Article Worth Reading note about this particular article, but I think The Economist article, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, is must-reading for everyone.

I am aware of the textbook controversies here in the United States. Texas fundamentalists want Darwin and Jefferson purged; bigots want the Civil Rights movement’s history turned into a footnote; and the list goes on, including book banning and hiding one’s head in the sand when it comes to sex education. (I am fascinated by America’s puritanical streak when it comes to sex but not to violence. Having a nude scene in a movie — or even an allusion to sex — warrants a R rating, whereas graphically displayed mass murder gets a PG-13 rating. Blood and gore is OK, killing is OK, but not nudity or sex.) And because I am aware of the controversies in America, I just assumed that the same happens around the globe. A bad assumption as it turns out.

America has its faults, but growing up I was exposed to a multiplicity of ideas. Sometimes the exposure was in school, but more often it was a result of my weekly trips to the public library and my reading of newspapers and magazines, each coming from a different perspective. I wasn’t exposed to just one idea on a subject but to many ideas. In the Internet Age, I assumed such exposure was even greater for the young of today, but that clearly is not true.

The Economist article notes, for example, that in Egypt, 80% of the population read or have read only the Koran and school textbooks — not any other book (or so few other books in their lifetimes that it is tantamount to none). What that means is that unless school textbooks give a balanced and factual view of the world and history, students will be unable to separate fact from fiction. Belief in a bible is just that — belief. Bibles are neither fact nor fiction, as their role is (or should be) moral guidance. Yet many countries and many population subsets around the globe want to turn bibles into fact. How much more narrow and limited a perspective of the world and universe can one get than the biblical perspective? The importance of well-written, factually accurate school textbooks increases manyfold when most of a population is not exposed to other thought influencers.

Think about who writes and who edits school textbooks in Egypt. What is their background? How can they question whether something is fact or fiction when their own educational background was limited? What effect does this educational limitation have on university education in Egypt? And how do/can/will Egyptian students compete in what is increasingly a worldwide marketplace for jobs?

The article further discusses the role governments play in the creation of textbooks and how some governments view the role of education as a way of shoring up the present political system, not as a way of expanding knowledge. Whether something is fact or fiction matters not as long as it shores up the current political system.

With that perspective and with the influence that textbooks have on the education of a county’s populace, it becomes worrisome what the future will hold for authors and editors. Will, for example, holocaust denial become fact and the holocaust fiction? Will Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot suddenly become Nobel Peace Prize winners? Will authors write revisionist histories and will editors not know whether statements of “fact” are really queriable statements of “fiction”? Will “the world is flat” become “fact”?

Editors should be the barricade that prevents authorial flights of fiction being imposed on readers as fact. Editors are supposed to be educated well enough to question authorial “facts” that are contrary to the commonly held understanding of what is a fact. But if editors are taught that the world is flat and never exposed to the idea that the world is “round” and that the round view is the dominant view, how will the editor know to question the author? How will a reader know that the author’s statement of flatness is contrary to accepted knowledge? Isn’t this the underlying debate in the United States as regards the replacing of evolution with antievolution theories in school textbooks?

Imagine a world built solely on the bible as its history, a world created in six 24-hour days and that is only 8,000 years old. How would that world differ from the world we live in? Would our ability to separate fact from fiction be so impaired that our lifestyle would be more similar to that of ancient Rome than of modern New York? What types of books would we be reading, or able to read? Or would there even be books as opposed to just bibles?

It has been said that the key to economic and social growth is quality education. What is not discussed is what constitutes “quality education.” It is clear that some people believe that the education of 3,000 years ago is sufficient, whereas others believe that as broad a knowledge experience as possible is what education should be.

After reading “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” I worry that in our current world of outsourcing and offshoring, future generations will suffer a loss of knowledge because those hired to be the barricade between the author and the reader, to query fact and fiction, will be unable to fulfill that function as a result of narrowed education and limited access to those things that broaden knowledge. When someone tells me that “all I need to know is in the bible,” I shudder. Such a view, when translated to the school-education children receive, threatens world progress because it means that children will not have a sufficiently broad knowledge base to question whether something is fact or fiction.

The time has come to discuss just what the role of textbooks in education should be, as well as what constitutes quality education. Our future depends on it.

[The following was added on November 2, 2012.]

The following movie trailer for a documentary, The Revisionaries, about textbooks in America illustrates the problem discussed in the above article:

This video is a more in-depth view about the leader of the Texas movement to the back. Unfortunately, I could not find a version that didn’t have the video uploader’s sarcastic comments included. I suggest ignoring the editorial commentary and just watching the news:

October 12, 2012

Articles Worth Reading: The Economist on the 2012 Election

Filed under: Articles Worth Reading,Politics — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: ,

I am a long-time subscriber to The Economist. I consider it by far the best news magazine available to American readers. It provides a wholly different perspective and tends to be more balanced in its views. The Economist is usually conservative on fiscal matters but more centrist leaning left on social matters, but it strives very hard to make those leanings only appear in its editorial, as opposed to its news, pages.

Consequently, the October 4, 2012 issue was quite interesting as regards its perspective of the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. I think the articles gave a balanced view of each candidate’s positions, both the positive and the negative. Consequently, I recommend to all American voters The Economist‘s analysis, which can be found under the head “US Election” on the table of contents page linked below. It is a series of 13 articles, which is why I am not providing links to each of the articles. You can read those that are of interest to you.

Here is the link to the issues’ table of contents:

The Economist‘s View of the U.S. Presidential Election

January 19, 2011

What If: Where Does Your State Stand in the World Economy?

Filed under: Worth Noting — americaneditor @ 8:06 am
Tags: ,

As I’ve noted in prior articles, I am a long time subscriber to The Economist; in fact, my current subscription runs for another 6 years. Although I always find reading The Economist enjoyable and informative, every so often it publishes something that has little real value but is, nonetheless, fascinating.

This week’s edition published a map of the United States in which it equates each state’s GDP with that of a country. For example, California, were it a country, would rank 8th in the world, with a GDP equivalent to Italy’s. New York’s GDP is equivalent to that of Australia, and Mississippi’s is that of Bangladesh.

Find out where your state ranks by visiting The Economist‘s map. The interactive version lets you run your cursor over a state and get information from a popup display.

May 12, 2010

Judging Quality in the Internet Age

As a reader of An American Editor, you know that one of my concerns is what will happen if no one is willing to pay for news (see Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall). Compounding my anxiety over this issue is a recent The Economist article, The Rise of Content Farms: Emperors and Beggars, which notes that “[n]ewspaper articles are expensive to produce but usually cost nothing to read online and do not command high advertising rates, since there is almost unlimited inventory.” The article goes on to discuss content farms like Demand Media and Associated Content, which use software to figure out what Internet users are interested in and how much advertising revenue a particular topic can support.

These content providers then send the results to freelance writers who are paid as little as $5 to write an article, which then is published on various websites, including that of USA Today. As The Economist notes, “[t]he problem with content farms is that they swamp the Internet with mediocre material. To earn a decent living, freelancers have to work at a breakneck pace, which has an obvious impact on quality.” One supporter of content farming is Ben Elowitz, CEO of Wetpaint.

In his article at paidContent.org, “Traditional Ways Of Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content Are Now Useless”, Elowitz identifies 4 criteria of “old media” quality — credential (i.e., reputation of the media), correctness (i.e., fact verification), objectivity (i.e., not pushing a particular agenda), and craftsmanship (i.e., in-depth reporting) — and then relates how they are irrelevant in the Internet Age because:

The audience doesn’t care where the content comes from as long as it meets their needs. Decisions of what content is trustworthy are made by referral endorsements from our friends and colleagues on the social networks, and by the algorithms of search that help weigh authority vs. relevance. In the abundant world of content, consumers know to apply their own sniff tests — and with myriad sources, they develop their own loyalties and reputations. The brand’s stamp isn’t the point anymore — the consumer’s nose is.

He has it right that the audience doesn’t care about the source of the content so long as the content meets the audience’s need, but that is nothing to boast about. That the audience determines whether something is trustworthy is not something to praise but something to worry about, and to worry about greatly.

Essentially, content farmers and supporters leave the question of truth/fact to each reader — either the reader believes or the reader doesn’t. If a favored website repeatedly writes that the Earth is flat and 10 million people visit that website and agree, then, according to Elowitz’s standard, it must be true or that website wouldn’t have 10 million visitors. The reasoning isn’t sound — either the Earth is flat or it is round, regardless of what 10 million persons believe. Fact by definition is not belief, it is actual being or what we used to call truth.

There is a lot of distance between ease of access, which the Internet provides, and truth/fact, which neither the Internet nor mass belief can provide. This is and has been my problem with the current view of some in the Internet Age that news sources that want to go behind paywalls can be ignored because information is so readily available free. There is rarely a discussion of the credibility of the free information or how high factual standards will be maintained in the age of free.

How many Photoshopped images have you seen; if a photograph is so easily faked, why should we assume that a news story isn’t also faked? How many times have you read a press release from a repressive government that complaints of police brutality are untrue, that no one is starving in Darfur, that the Iranian elections weren’t rigged, that North Korea is paradise on Earth? And have we so quickly forgotten the few instances when “old media” found reporters faking news and the outrage it caused because of the “old media’s” credibility? Have we forgotten how quickly sound bites that were factually false (e.g., “death panels”) became believed by millions because of the viral reporting of the “new media”?

Elowitz goes on to say:

Without a staff of old-school journalists, Gawker has managed to rack up over 10 million visitors a month who come because the rumors and snark meet their definition of quality — without any of the institutional qualities of old media.

The flaw is the equating of numbers of readers with quality. The rumor that Ben Elowitz is a robot may make interesting reading but doesn’t equate with quality (or necessarily reality), and because a million people read that rumor doesn’t make the source trustworthy, the rumor true, or do away with the need for “old media” quality.

Somewhere, somehow, we all need a fact baseline against which to judge the quality of website — and government — pronouncements. In past generations, that fact baseline was provided by “old media”; in the Internet Age, if the content farmers are correct, there is no provider of that baseline — there are simply websites that agree with me and websites that disagree with me, no matter how far-fetched or absurd my beliefs are.

Elowitz and the content farmers tackle the problem from the economic perspective — “old media” qualities are bad because they are unprofitable, and therefore irrelevant, in the Internet Age. But that skirts the fundamental question of whether the only thing that matters in any decision-making process is profitability. It also ignores how businesses that are profitable make their daily business decisions; don’t they rely on truths rather than mass opinion? Additionally, if it is OK for the masses to be self-delusional, can we expect anything different from those who govern us?

We went to war in Iraq because “old media” qualities were ignored and the “new media” relevancy prevailed (remember the rumors of weapons of mass destruction?). Instead of applying the “old media” qualities of objectivity and correctness and being sure that the source of the rumor met “old media” credential standards, the “new media” qualities were used. How many more Iraqs must we suffer before we recognize that “old media” standards should be applied to the “new media” as well?

“Old media” standards aren’t irrelevant in the “new media”; rather, they are expensive and difficult to implement and thus the “new media” prefers to take the easy way out. The “new media” also tends to be more concerned with dollars than with accuracy or truth, and happily sacrifices accuracy and truth on the altar of greed — not caring about the subsequent consequences.

The danger of content farmers and of their supporters, like Elowitz, is that they believe there is wisdom in sheer numbers and that everything boils down to a popularity contest. Such thinking and believing doesn’t bode well for the future of civilization. With such reasoning, it won’t be long before we truly do revert back to the standards of the Dark Ages. In this regard, Rupert Murdoch is right and the Elowitzes of the world are wrong.

March 26, 2010

On Words: Panjandrum

I hadn’t read anything that used the word panjandrum in decades. Truth be told, I’d forgotten what it means, even that it exists, until a couple of weeks ago when I read the following in The Economist in an article about President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel:

Mr Emanuel is famous for being the president’s pugnacious panjandrum.…

One thing I can say about The Economist, it doesn’t mince language. By reputation, not by pronouncement, it is the newspaper/magazine, and it tends to choose words to describe events that one rarely encounters in daily American English. Panjandrum is just the most recent example.

Probably the best place to start is with its meaning. I confess that upon reading panjandrum I immediately reached for my dictionary. According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate 11e, panjandrum means “a powerful personage or pretentious official.” Well, there’s no doubt about Rahm Emanuel’s power or pretentiousness.

The word comes from Grand Panjandrum, an invented phrase in a nonsense passage written in 1755 by Samuel Foote, an English actor and dramatist, to test the vaunted memory of the actor Charles Macklin, who claimed he could repeat anything after hearing it once. The memory-testing passage was:

So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming down the street, pops its head into the shop. What! No soap? So he died, and she very imprudently married the Barber: and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the great Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top; and they all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can, till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

I don’t know if Macklin lived up to his boast, but this is surely a passage to test one’s short-term memory!

Nat Hentoff used the word to describe “a panjandrum of the publishing business.” Salman Rushdie used the term in his novel, The Satanic Verses: “Look: there she is, down there, sitting back like the Grand Panjandrum.” George E. Farrow, in his Dick, Marjorie and Fidge: A Search for the Wonderful Dodo, wrote, for example,: “Panjandrum is a very severe one” and “I am the Ambassador Extraordinary of his Magnificence the little Panjandrum, and you tell me that you have seen the Dodo; that is enough.” E. Cobham Brewer wrote, in his Character Sketches of Romance, Fiction and the Drama (1892), “The squire of a village is the Grand Panjandrum, and the small gentry the Picninnies, Joblillies, and Garyulies.” And Jessie Hubbell Bancroft, in her Games for the Playground, Home, School and Gymnasium (1922), listed one of the instructions as: “One player is chosen to be the Panjandrum, an important personage requiring a body guard.”

In the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898), also by E. Cobham Brewer, panjandrum was defined as “The Grand Panjandrum. A village boss, who imagines himself the ‘Magnus Apollo’ of his neighbours.”

In the 1922 Roget’s International Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, the word was placed amidst more sinister words: “…TYRANT, disciplinarian, precisian, martinet, stickler, bashaw, despot, the Grand Panjandrum himself, hard master, Draco, oppressor, inquisitor, extortioner…”

Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886), a great 19th century children’s book illustrator and author and for whom the Caldecott Prize is named, illustrated a book titled The Great Panjandrum Himself (Samuel Foote was the named author although Foote had died in 1777) and authored and illustrated The Panjandrum Picture Book.

Panjandrum was also a Broadway musical by Woolson Morse and J. Cheever Goodwin. It had a short run by today’s standards, opening May 1, 1893 and closing in the following September.

But panjandrum never dies. In World War II, panjandrum was a massive, rocket-propelled, explosive-laden cart designed by the British military. It was one of a number of highly experimental projects developed by the British Admiralty’s Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development in the final years of the war. The cart never was used in the war. Tom Wolfe mentioned this project in his 1979 book The Right Stuff. On June 5, 2009, the Daily Mail ran an article about the panjandrum experiment and the online version includes a video of the Great Panjandrum (reconstructed) in action.

Great Panjandrum also appears in Jasper Fforde’s 2003 novel The Well of Lost Plots, featuring literary detective Thursday Next. The Great Panjandrum is the leader of BookWorld, where the action takes place.

So even though I haven’t seen the word used in years, it obviously has been, albeit sporadically. Now that I have reencountered it, I think I will try to incorporate it into my vocabulary, especially when discussing politics. After all, a nonsensical word seems a most appropriate appellation to use when discussing politicians. And I will watch for its next appearance in my readings.

March 15, 2010

Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall

There have been lots of articles and comments regarding Rupert Murdoch’s views on making online news pay. Many commentators have suggested that putting the news behind a pay wall is bound to fail. I’m not so sure that Rupert is wrong. If we want original news reporting (i.e., news origination) and in-depth reporting rather than just the 10-second blurb TV gives us, we need to pay for it. Newsgathering is not free and costs need to be covered.

I subscribe to the New York Times. Daily delivery runs me about $50 per month. I am willing to pay for the subscription because I want to first know what is actually happening in my world before I start listening to the pundits tell me what those facts mean. I can’t imagine relying on Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Stephen Colbert, Ariana Huffington, or Al Franken for the facts of what is happening in my world.

I rely on the New York Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and similar papers because of the reputation for original reporting that they have built over the decades. Because I cannot do the original investigation myself, I do not know with absolute certainty that what they report as fact is truly fact — no more so than I can know any fact that I have learned from any source outside my own original investigation; instead, I rely on the reputations they have built as fact-gatherers. Similarly, I rely on the opinion shapers — the Becks, Limbaughs, Wills, Pitts’, Harrops, and other op-ed folk — to add interpretation from a philosophical or biased perspective to those facts the NYT, WSJ, and The Economist and the like have reported.

Sources like the Drudge Report are aggregators not originators; that is, they take from already published sources their “news.” Consequently, relying on an aggregator for one’s news does not address the problem of paying the originator of the news. News aggregators don’t have paid investigative, professional reporters in Des Moines, Iowa, let alone in Tajikistan — they are not news originators.

How can we rely on the veracity of the reported “facts” if the news originators are forced to give their content away free online? Ultimately, something has to give in a free economy; in the case of news, it is credibility and accuracy that ultimately gives. We are beginning to see the effect that free has on veracity and accuracy of reported “facts” online if a recent study of online magazines is to be believed.

The Columbia Journalism Review, as reported by the New York Times, recently surveyed the editing and fact-checking practices of magazine websites. Of the 665 magazines surveyed, 59% copyedit less rigorously or not at all the online content and 43% do less rigorous to no fact checking of the online content. The likelihood of these numbers decreasing with free content probably is nil; it is more likely that the numbers will increase.

Yet our discussions about our surrounding world have to start from some base. Granted they can start from one’s imagination in which we simply declare certain things as truth, but that seems to me to be a poor base from which to decide anything. News aggregators won’t have anything to aggregate and political and social commentators anything to comment on in the absence of news originators.

Not all newspapers either can be or should be behind paywalls. For example, my hometown newspaper is generally bereft of any real news origination and at best is worth $10 a year (although it costs closer to $200 a year by subscription), but that is because it lacks any real credibility and because most of its efforts are as a news aggregator, not originator. But there are certain newspapers, those that are true news originators, whose efforts should be behind a paywall. Their credibility, earned over decades of origination efforts, not only deserves financial support but warrants such financial support.

It has been reported that Internet and TV news (local and national/cable) are the leading sources for news today. Newspapers run distantly behind. On the surface, this indicates that paywall support is undeserved by newspapers. But the reality is different. TV news operations are scaling back on reporting; ABC News, for example, recently announced it was cutting its news gathering staff by one-third. Many of the covered stories originate in newspaper exposés, not in original TV reporting, and there is a significant difference in the depth of analysis provided in a 10-second TV blurb compared with a multipage newspaper article. Besides, TV news is behind a paywall; just an indirect one. Most of us get our TV via cable/satellite for which we pay a monthly fee. The cable/satellite operators pay the TV channels a per subscriber fee. And we also pay those same cable/satellite providers for Internet access. So why not also pay news originators for their work? Why should it be free just because it is on the Internet?

Many Internet news sites are nothing more than aggregators, not original news reporters. Without the originators, there would be no aggregation possible. More important, perhaps, are the findings of the Columbia Journalism Review. Its survey (see the New York Times article linked earlier) found that 16% of the respondents didn’t fact check online-only content at all and that of those that did fact check online content, 27% used a less-stringent process than they used for their print offering. How reliable can those sources be? Would you want your lawmakers or your doctors to make decisions based on unverified information?

Consequently, I’m inclined to think that Rupert is right. I’m not sure that the New York Post is worthy of being behind a paywall, but I have no doubt about the worthiness of, for example, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Economist, and the New York Times — that is newspapers with high credibility and well-deserved reputations as news originators. Keeping news originators alive and healthy is important to keeping alive and healthy democratic institutions.

Perhaps Rupert is right this time.

February 25, 2010

Magazines in the Age of eBooks

I’m a big magazine reader. In addition to the many books I buy each year (I have more books in my to-read pile than I can read within the next few years), I subscribe to a lot of magazines. My subscriptions include Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The Week, The Economist, American Heritage, New York Review of Books, Business Week, PC World, U.S. News & World Report, The Scientist, Discover, and several more. I begin my day, every day, with a pot of tea and the day’s New York Times and my local newspaper. Between the books I buy and the magazines and newspapers to which I subscribe, I spend a lot of time reading!

I admit to being curious. I like to keep up with what is happening around me and I really dislike the 10-second news blurbs that TV and radio offer (although National Public Radio deserves kudos for All Things Considered). I think being broadly read helps me as an editor.

But times are changing. Magazines and newspapers are struggling. Several that I had subscribed to have folded print editions and are now available online only, such as PC Magazine and a book collecting magazine to which I once subscribed; once they became online-only magazines, I stopped reading them. Unlike the magazines that have made the transition to online-only status, I haven’t followed — I really hate sitting at my computer to read an online magazine: Isn’t spending my work life on my computer sufficient? Do I have to be chained to a computer — be it laptop or desktop — for my pleasures as well as my work? This feeling of being chained to work is one reason why multifunction devices don’t appeal to me for pleasure pursuits.

As illogical as it seems, I actually distinguish between reading on my computer and reading on my Sony Reader, a dedicated reading device. I enjoy reading on my Sony Reader, equally as much as I enjoy holding a print copy of a book. I had thought that I would switch my New York Times subscription from paper to electronic when the Times became available through the Sony store; this was to be the start of my evolution from print to electronic for my magazines and newspapers. But I was cautious and downloaded a single day’s issue to try.

The experience was okay, but not great. Setting aside the slight inconvenience of having to load the Times onto my Sony Reader (my PRS 505 model doesn’t have wireless), the screen size (6 inches) simply wasn’t conducive to enjoyable reading of something as “big” as the Times. Plus there is a tactile experience that accompanies and enhances the reading experience when holding the Times in your hands. Yet, I am determined to make the switch from print to electronic; the questions are when and on what device (and how cooperative the magazine publishers will be).

I’ve been contemplating “upgrading” to the Sony 900, which has wireless and a 7.1-inch screen. I had really thought about the iRex DR 800SG, particularly because of its 8-inch display, but there are just too many things I don’t like about the device, not least of which is that its touchscreen requires the use of a stylus and I think that will be much too easy to lose (and if my cat decides it’s a toy to play with,…). So I’m sitting on the fence and waiting.

I know the Apple tablet isn’t the answer for me for a lot of reasons, but the tablet idea intrigues me. PlasticLogic’s Que also intrigues me but the price seems exorbitant (if not extortionate) for my purposes — I am looking for a device for reading books, newspapers, and magazines, not for checking e-mail, visiting websites, watching videos, and all those other things that multifunction devices permit. I’m a dedicated-device type of person.

I’ve drifted a bit from where I had intended to go with this article, so let me shift my course. Who are the subscribers to newspapers and magazines? I ask because I know my demographics (and, yes, they are still desirable to advertisers even if I am gray-haired) and that surveys show that people in my demographic group tend to be the biggest spenders on and readers of books, newspapers, and magazines. Because those outside my demographic are significantly less focused on these ways of obtaining information, I wonder what the future holds for magazines and newspapers as information sources. What is the likelihood of print versions surviving many more years? And when they disappear, what will the electronic versions be like? Will they be as shallow as much of the TV/radio news reporting and “analysis” is these days? Will we lose access to in-depth reporting and analysis because all that will interest subscribers will be 10-word “wordbites” of the latest celebrity faux pas?

And what will readers like me do? Will The Economist still be The Economist in something more than name, or will it be more like People Magazine? Will Business Week become just a steady stream of feeds and wordbites? Does anyone but me care?

What brings my concerns to the fore have been my attempts over the past 2 years to extend my subscription to the New York Review of Books. My current subscription expires in 2012 (some of my magazine subscriptions run until the 2020s). Several times I tried to extend my subscription by 3 years, and each time NYRB has declined, saying it doesn’t know what will be so far in the future. I recognize that NYRB isn’t a magazine for everyone (although I think every book lover should be a subscriber; its reviews are significantly better than anything found elsewhere including online, in the New York Times Book Review, and in the London Review of Books), but I would think that it has a loyal base of subscribers and so it wouldn’t be so worried about its future. Like The Economist, the NYRB is not an inexpensive subscription so it attracts the serious and probably faithful subscriber. (Interestingly, The Economist, unlike most magazines, continues to show subscriber growth and without “special subscription deals.” So there must be a desire for this type of coverage.)

Clearly, I am wrong, and if the NYRB is worried about its future, perhaps I need to worry about the future of my subscriptions — and about the quality of reporting that one should expect to see — in the Age of eBooks. What will survive and in what form is worthy of consideration in this transitional period, before it is too late.

January 22, 2010

From the Frying Pan to the Fire: Amazon to Apple

Let me begin by saying this: I just don’t get it. What hallucinogen are publishers imbibing? The music industry would love to trump Apple and the publishing industry would love to trump Amazon; but only the movie industry is thinking the matter through.

There are lots of problems with publishing’s looking to Apple for salvation; here are a few: First, if there is a bigger control freak in the media industry than Jeff Bezos, it is Steve Jobs. Have publishers forgotten that the music industry was unhappy with iTunes pricing but couldn’t budge Jobs? Publishers can’t budge Amazon’s $9.99 pricing, what are they going to do when Jobs demands $6.99 pricing?

Second, if rumors are right and that what Apple is bringing to the table is a tablet and not a dedicated reading device, what makes publishers think tablet buyers will suddenly become book buyers? Why do publishers think the tablet will be the Damocletian sword over Amazon’s head? Or do publishers plan to simply cut out Amazon altogether even though it commands 20% or more of the book-buying market?

And what about the expected premium price for the Apple tablet? If book buyers are complaining now about what a Sony Reader or Amazon Kindle costs, what makes publishers think they’ll jump at Apple’s pricing?

In addition, studies show that when a multimedia device, which the tablet will be, is used, the user’s time is spent listening to or watching audio and video media or playing games, not reading books. All a publisher needs to do is read the most recent Kaiser Family Foundation study of children and teens ages 8 to 18 years and how they use their multimedia devices for the publishers to know they are barking up the wrong tree.

Third, are publishers so lacking in imagination that they have to give up control of their industry to not one player but two? What are they going to do when Google starts throwing its weight around? Close their doors?

Yes, there has been drooling by some ebookers for the Apple tablet, with pundits assuming its arrival will cure whatever ails all media businesses. But what ails publishers is not curable by any device. It’s like having a fever and assuming that a thermometer will cure it — it isn’t going to happen. If anything, publishers are setting themselves up to fail and fail mightily, especially if there is an initial but unsustained burst in book sales concurrent with Apple tablet sales.

Let’s assume that publishers get very favorable terms from Apple. How long do publishers think that honeymoon will last? My guess: until Jobs decides that people really do read books and realizes that he needs to do to publishers what he did to the music companies. This may be a win for consumers, but not for publishers.

As each day goes by, I worry more about the world of publishing. Publishers have been important to the spread of quality literature and of knowledge, but they are rapidly marching to their funeral pyres. Publishers need to recognize that their salvation lies in their own hands, not in the hands of the Bezos’ and Jobs’ of the world.

If publishers need a role model to emulate, look to the video industry. The Economist reported that 5 of the 6 big studios (Disney is working on a similar solution by itself) want to join, along with some other firms and retailers — but not Apple — to create a single download video format and a single firm to track purchases. They are looking to create what I called a repository in an earlier Modest Proposal. The consumer will buy the video online at a partnering retailer who will then link the buyer to the repository. According to The Economist, “Consumers will be able to buy a film once and then play it on different gadgets….[The] initiative aims to stop a company doing to film what Apple has done to music and Amazon threatens to do to electronic books.” At least the movie industry is thinking with its brains and not sitting on them. Shouldn’t publishers be doing this?

Publishers need to grapple with their problems themselves and not look to external fixes by companies and persons that they ultimately can neither influence nor control. Trying to use Apple to thwart Amazon is jumping from the frying pan of to the fire — it is the tolling of the death bells for the big publishers.

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,231 other followers

%d bloggers like this: