27 July 2009

Who says online publishing leads to a decline in standards? Fairfax does!

Every day we read (on the internet, of course) of another old and revered print newspaper in a US city being read the last rites. The old business model just doesn't work any more. Advertising has moved to the web, printing costs are exorbitant, etc. etc. Fair enough.

But you don't have to go far to see some of the negative implications of this. A daily glance at headlines, links and copy in the online versions of many newspapers - including the so-called "quality press" - illustrates how publishing processes and priorities have changed.

It seems likely that news organisations are replacing sub-editors - people who knew how to get words to work - with IT types whose skills lie elsewhere and who are tasked with getting the words they are given up on screen as quickly as possible.

Consider the recent reporting of the Tour de France by Fairfax cycling correspondent Rupert Guinness (pictured above). You may have seen Rupert in a succession of gaudy Hawaiian shirts serving as a guest commentator on SBS Television at the end of several stages of the race.

But Rupert's print work, as presented online, often looked as scruffy and unprofessional as his attire. This, from his report after Stage 14 to Besançon on 19 July, is just one of several howlers he produced over the 23 days of le Tour:
However, within minutes of the stage finishing, the sparks began to fly between the Columbia team for which Australian riders Michael Rogers and Mark Renshaw are signed with, and the rival Garmin team who has Australian Matt White as one of their sports directors and had one of their riders in the 12-man breakaway.
What the...?

Firstly, when did so-called journalists cease to be able to write grammatical and readable copy? Producing acceptable clean copy used to be one of the basic rules of journalism - if you were a sports type who couldn't write, then you had a ghost writer or a sub-editor to clean up your copy for publication.

Second, how can a reputable "quality" news organisation allow such amateurish material to be published... and, worse, to sit there, uncorrected, more than a week later (as I write this). Clearly no-one literate at Fairfax has actually read the story.

OK, perhaps Rupe was under some pressure to file quickly. But the Besançon stage was over by 2am Sydney time and the byline on the story says 6:28am - surely plenty of time for a professional like Rupert to file something half-decent and enough to allow a sub-editor to make some sense of his mess (and to call/email him back to say "clean up your act").

Grammar and spelling are critical for ease, clarity and accuracy of communication. They DO matter - online as well as in print.

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