The Columbia Journalism Review this week released a study that editor Victor Navasky says left him “dismayed, and in some cases depressed.” Surveying 665 magazine editors and managers from weeklies, biweeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies of circulations from under 100,000 to over 2,000,000, the report came up with findings that describe the online terrain as a virtual “wild west.” “What the survey shows,” said Navasky, “is that there are no agreed-upon ethical or professional standards and practices and that everybody is making it up as they go along.” Unsettling!
Here are the main bullet points that Navasky called “sobering” and “depressing,” from the CJR press release:
• 59 percent of those surveyed said that either there was no copy editing whatsoever online (11 percent), or that copy editing is less rigorous than in the print edition.
• 40 percent said that when web editors, as opposed to print editors, are in charge of content decisions, fact checking is less rigorous (17 percent said there was no fact checking online when web editors made the content decisions).
• 54 percent said that when errors were eventually pointed out, on sites where the web editor made content decisions the errors were corrected, but without any indication to the reader that there had been an error in the first place.
• “In the online world, speed is the name of the game,” Navasky and co-author Evan Lerner wrote.” Websites are interested in maximizing traffic on the theory that that’s the way to attract advertisers, and the quantity often trumps quality.”
It’s true that speed is important online — just as it is in print (the only difference there is that the news cycle is much, much faster online). But there are a couple of fundamental flaws in the doom-filled conclusions Navasky reaches, and with the survey in general. Firstly, there isn’t really any such thing as a “magazine website.” The main thing the sites surveyed by CJR have in common is that they have a print forebear. Otherwise, there are multiple approaches taken by magazine websites, from the almost totally blog-driven approach of the Atlantic to the slideshow-heavy Style.com.
Secondly, the standards of a magazine aren’t necessarily the most relevant to a magazine website. (Given the accelerated publishing schedule of most editorial websites, magazine or otherwise, newspapers might be more appropriate — they don’t fact check, either.) There has been a robust debate about standards of editing and correction online for many years now, from the early days of Slate and Salon through to the blog era. The key difference is that while print copy cannot be changed once it hits the presses, online copy can be corrected almost instantly. Copy editing and fact checking are important — and we do both here at nymag.com — but a print publication needs to invest more resources in those areas because it only has one chance to get it right. Does it really serve readers to acknowledge mundane spelling errors online when you can just fix them?
Editors are trying to figure out how to best, most efficiently, and most inexpensively service readers online. It’s only natural that they’re “making it up as they go along.” How else are print organizations to adapt and survive? Yes, this is a “confused transition,” as the CJR puts it. But that’s because magazines are institutions with hundreds of years of history, and the web is still in its infancy. It’s naïve for a media watchdog like the Columbia Journalism Review to assume that after, say, fifteen years there would be one specific way to make a magazine website. To tut-tut about the search for a successful formula is at best old-fashioned, and at worst counterproductive.