Some Ideas on Gerald Grow
Magazines, Journalism and Research
Florida A&M University
are ideas I do not plan to develop. I offer them here for anyone who
wants to take them, develop them, use them, disprove them -- in the
interest of continuing the conversation on journalism education.
The Role of the Online Editor in the Age of ClicksI think there is a good idea for a panel discussion somewhere in the following essay.
Magazines traditionally offered this bargain to advertisers:
with us and, through our high standards and editorial integrity, we
will provide you with a guaranteed number of highly qualified,
demographically selected, high-quality, loyal
readers who have a vital interest in the subject of this magazine. If
you target ads to the kind of topic and demographic we attract, your
ads will receive a responsive reading."
In this approach, ads made a
supportive marriage with the editorial content of magazines --
typically helping readers find the products needed to carry out the
activities featured in the magazine's content. For example, think of a
computer magazine: Articles describe how to do things, ads tell where
you can find what you need to do it.
Under the contemporary paradigm,
however, online advertising systems say to online magazines:
"Just bring us
visitors who will click on the page. We will match ads to the profile
of each visitor and hope the visitors click on the ads. The
demographics of the clicks are irrelevant to what we do. Your content
is irrelevant to what we do. Your editorial integrity is irrelevant to
what we do. Reader loyalty is irrelevant to what we do. We do not want
quality readers, we want clicks." (Perhaps I exaggerate. Slightly.)
I wonder if this doesn't change the traditional function of editors --
which was to survey a broad range of trustworthy information and select
items they believe their readers need to know about.
do in an age when content is influenced (or determined) by how many
people think they want it, and where that information itself is being
influenced by what Web publishers think readers want and rumors about
what bloggers think other bloggers think readers want? The current
scene seems at times to be going down a whirlpool that is in danger of
mostly buzz with little content -- all in the name of sucking in more
clicks. Journalists used to have a name for this pursuit of readership
without attention to quality -- tabloid journalism -- and they
condemned it. Now,
it's the new big thing.
Major publications now comment
willingly that they hire people to get their articles mentioned on
Digg, Twitter and elsewhere, to drive more clicks to the site. At AEJMC
2008, an online editor from a major newspaper told how they use Google
Analytics to identify the hottest search terms of the moment
(literally), which they use to reposition stories on their Web page and
to rewrite headlines to include more of the hottest terms.
is thinking about the implications of this quest for clicks? If
advertising systems need only clicks, and not demographically selected,
highly qualified readers, why do advertisers need magazines at all?
What can magazines do for advertisers in the age of click advertising?
And, in the age of analytics-driven click-statistics, who needs editors
to think about readers' needs, create content, and plan issues?
me register the old-fashioned response, which is surely one part of a
conversation we need to have. I left one session at AEJMC 2008 feeling
more than ever before, we need editors who are able to take on the role
of selecting high quality material that is relevant to the lives of
their readers, rather than editors who gather the swirls of transitory
curiosity and promote it as the news. The training of high-quality
editors must surely include a wide and deep liberal arts background, a
profound curiosity about how the world works and what makes people
human, and a solid grounding in journalistic standards.
Can Google Analytics do that kind of editing?
Chicago Waterfront during AEJMC Convention, 2008
Is Inconsistency as Bad as Copy Editors Think It Is?As
one of its fundamental assumptions, copy editing asserts that
consistency is essential. If you abbreviate a term, you must abbreviate
it the same way everywhere. If you use the serial comma, you must use
it always. The argument claims that a publication loses credibility
with readers if it is not consistent.
Has there been any
research to demonstrate that this is true? I have not seen any
mentioned in books on copy editing. So, I'd like to suggest that
someone research the question.
encourages users to jump around from site to site, and different sites
use different conventions of spelling, punctuation, capitalization,
citation, and other usage. Online readers, I suggest, have become
habituated to making quick changes among different grammatical
conventions. Instead of noticing inconsistency and being disturbed by
it, they simply read for meaning and skip past the changes.
this hypothesis is correct, online readers may have recalibrated their
cognitive processes so that they no longer expect every change in
format to indicate a change in meaning. This assumption seems to be the
intellectual underpinning beneath the argument for consistency: When
readers see a change in form, they expect it to signal a change in
meaning. It is a reasonable assumption, and it appears to have been
true for the normal run of well-edited print publications.
has the Internet changed that expectation? Do readers still expect a
change in form to signal a change in meaning? If they encounter
inconsistent use of conventions of grammar, usage or spelling in the
same passage, does this cause them to find the material less credible?
(Is this sentence less credible because it omitted the serial comma,
whereas an earlier sentence used it?)
That sounds like something you could test for. Here's a place to start thinking about how:
a well-edited article of, say, 750 words that contains the kind of
conventions in grammar, usage, and spelling that copy editors normally
address themselves to. Create a second version of the article that uses
grammatical conventions inconsistently. I am not talking about
introducing grammatical errors, but about using grammatical conventions differently within the same article.
example, the changed article might abbreviate the street name in one
complete address, but, later in the article, spell it out. It might
capitalize a person's title in one place, not in another. It might use
commas inconsistently. And so on. In each case, the local usage would
be "correct" according to some standard (though not by the AP
Stylebook), but inconsistent with the same usage in another part of the
Do readers find the inconsistent
article less credible? Do they notice the differences? Which ones
bother them, if any? And which readers respond in which way? Do younger
and older readers respond alike? Is there a generational difference? Do
readers' evaluation of the article's credibility correlate to any
demographics? How many inconsistencies does it take before readers find
the article less credible?
You might well come up with some better questions to ask and better ways to test for them, but here's the idea if you want it.
The Invasion of the Term "Narrative"Over
the past few years, I have been hearing the word "narrative" more and
more on TV interviews and reading it in feature articles.
and read about things that I might label explanation, theory, account,
idea, recollection, version, argument, ideology, report, article,
performance, plot line, poem, painting, etc. But often it all gets
reduced to the label "narrative," and this happens so casually, so
easily, so naturally, that I am really perplexed.
How can so
many different and valuable things in the human world get reduced,
without calling attention to it, to being labeled "narrative"? How can
writers and commentators just pop out the word "narrative" to account
for so many diverse human activities?
To see if I was right, I
looked up "narrative" on the NY Times and CNN sites, and, sure enough,
there are many uses of the word that have little to do with narrative
as I understand it.
I want to raise the question of what the
world thinks "narrative" means, what educated media commentators and
writers mean by it, and what relationship does the widespread use of
"narrative" have to do with the use of the term in narrative journalism?
Here are a few examples of "narrative" from NYT and CNN, with my remarks:
a music review] Finally, here was the narrative tension the set seemed
to promise from the beginning. It's generally unwise to play a set made
entirely of ballads, but it would be fascinating to see this trio try.
[The sequence of songs on a set is a narrative?]
kill Muslims it's not a story, because there are a billion Hindus and
they aren't part of the Muslim narrative. [The quote goes on to be
about Israel: The relationship between Muslims and Israel is a
narrative? Islam is a narrative? The political nexus of the Middle East
is a narrative?]
"I would say from my examination of the wounds
on the victim and also the narrative that I got about how the attack
happened that this almost certainly was a great white shark," said
Richard Rosenblatt, professor emeritus of marine biology at the Scripps
Institute of Oceanography. [OK, maybe a reconstructed sequence of
events is a narrative. But it might also be a list on a page, or a
folder containing several interviews, or a box of video tapes. Where,
exactly, does the "narrative" come into being here?]
narrative about our presidential candidates being just regular folks is
a tired myth that gets repeated each and every day. [A myth is a
narrative? The spin on a political candidate is a narrative? Is the
campaign a narrative? Are fund-raising dinners part of a narrative?]
Potter creator J.K. Rowling and other authors of children's books have
signed an open letter calling for more support for the children
affected by the bloodshed. "It is time to change the narrative," the
letter reads. "It is time to tell a different story. This April many
children in Darfur will be reaching their fifth birthdays without ever
having known peace." [The suffering of children in Darfur is a
narrative, and one that can be rewritten?]
It turned out that
maybe the New York Marathon time wasn't completely legit, either; a
freelance photographer came forward with the revelation that she had
definitely been with Ruiz on the subway during the race. Soon, a
narrative formed: it seemed that Ruiz had cheated in the New York
Marathon, and cheated so well she'd posted an outstanding
sub-three-hour time and qualified for Boston, a major achievement for
any marathon runner. Her boss was so excited about this triumph that he
offered to pay her expenses to run Boston. [Do narratives "form" as
stated here? Or is this kind of narrative a theoretical explanation a
writer or storyteller or policeman made from a collection of
information from a variety of sources and advocates as the truth?]
The Obama campaign needed to turn things around fast. Yes, the polls
still show a tight race with maybe a slight edge. But a narrative was
starting to emerge, of McCain as the comeback kid and Obama as the man
who couldn't live up to his own hype. And those narratives can be
deadly. [Narratives "emerge?" Nobody makes them up? How did the visual
metaphor of political "image making" get replaced by the verbal
metaphor of political "narratives"?]
From a Scientific American
article: Stages [of development] are stories that may be true for the
storyteller, but that does not make them valid for the narrative known
as science. [How can you call the Schroedinger equation a "narrative?"
Many stories have been invented and metaphors devised to communicate
quantum theory, but is the multidimensional, mathematically expressed
theory itself a narrative? Notice, too, how this quote
(unintentionally?) reduces the whole scientific enterprise to the
metaphor of competing storytellers. Weird!]
From a Newsweek
article: When Mohler and I spoke in the days after he wrote this, he had grown even gloomier. "Clearly, there is a new narrative, a post-Christian narrative, that is animating large portions of this society," he said from his office on campus in Louisville, Ky. [If fewer people are identifying themselves as Christians, does that necessarily mean they are actively motivated by some competing worldview, let alone a competing, ahem, "narrative"? Again, the thought suggests that people are motivated by stories, and that these stories are somehow less in dignity and value than what people used to call "ideas" or "visions" or "worldviews" or "philosophies." Is Christianity a "narrative"? As one who finds the heart of Christianity in music and art, I hardly think so. And, hey, don't start telling me that music and painting are "narratives." If so, you may as well call them all "things" and be done with distinctions!]
am puzzled by what looks like a tendency to reduce events in the world
that can mean life or death (e.g., men with guns, big storm, food
shortage, job lost, clash of cultures, core beliefs) to the terms of literary
criticism (narrative, story, margin). In many cases, I would expect some term
like theory, explanation, understanding, picture, biography, motive,
version, alibi, etc.
is going on? What does it mean to
conflate so many useful and content-filled distinctions into the vague
theoretical term "narrative"? Calling so many types of discourse
"narratives" is rather like referring to both wood pulp and voters as
"biomass." Where did this reductionistic use of the
term "narrative" come from? Who is promoting it? Who benefits from it?
Why do so many articulate, educated people so easily slip into using it
when they are trying explain something? To question this devil in its own terminology: What is lost when the term "narrative" colonizes public discourse?
Grammar: Correctness vs. ConventionA major difficulty in teaching language skills to journalism students is that there are at least two distinct things to learn:
things in grammar are (at least in this time and place) right or wrong.
There is no question that, in the standard English of public discourse,
subjects and verbs normally agree only in certain ways, sentences
require certain parts, words have specific public meanings and cannot
be used to mean other things without endangering comprehension, and so
- What is grammatically correct
- What is a convention used in AP style but used differently by other stylebooks.
"Yesterday I lay down for a nap" is correct. "Yesterday I laid
down for a nap" is incorrect. A sentence makes "sense" not "since."
"It's" always means "it is" and is never a possessive pronoun like his
or hers. Even if you don't hear it, there is a "d" in "I used to read
On the other hand, AP style requires a large
number of conventions -- things that a different stylebook might handle
neither right or wrong. They represent an agreement that we will all do
certain things in a certain way -- for example, using the spelling
"adviser" instead of "advisor," which dictionaries list as another
In teaching language skills to
journalism students, teachers must, of course, teach both correct
grammar and the conventions of AP style. Both are important, and both
matter. But they matter at different levels of reality.
cheerfully admit that "correct" grammar itself might be considered a
convention. Anyone who has read Shakespeare knows that the conventions
for using effective English do change over time. But still, at this
time, early in the 21st century, there are grammatical rules that
virtually every stylebook agrees upon, and there are other conventions
that many stylebooks handle differently.
It could be
valuable to separate those two strands of a language skills course, in
order to teach certain things as "correct and transferrable"
grammatical knowledge and other things as "AP style specific."
start, won't someone please make a list of the important grammatical
rules that are universally agreed upon (or close to that) in Standard Written English? A language
skills course could (should) place most of its emphasis here first.
These are the foundations of English usage. Public discourse depends upon
Then, it would be helpful to have a second list of the
conventions of AP style that every journalism student needs to learn
with the full knowledge that "this is how AP style does it." In English
class or psychology, students may meet a different set of stylebook
Is my assumption correct? Is there a core of
correct usage shared by all stylebooks? Can this core be isolated,
identified, and taught separately from AP style?
more subversive question: Which errors in grammar lead to errors in
understanding? And if an error in grammar does not lead to an error in
understanding, might that be considered a less important error than an
error that does lead to a misunderstanding? How many instances might we
collect where the misuse of grammar leads to problems for readers --
and not just problems for copy editors?
How Many Grammatical Terms Do Students Need to Know?Anyone
teaching a language skills course for journalism students faces this
question: How many grammatical terms do students need to know in order
to use grammar correctly?
students do not need the full complement of terms taught in a textbook
of advanced grammar. Most copy editors have happily applied their
skills without this terminology, and they have clearly explained to
others why they change certain sentences.
It might be interesting to conduct a couple of surveys to ask
- Which grammatical terms teachers insist on in their language skills courses.
- Which grammatical terms copy editors find essential to their tasks.
Naturally, you would be curious how answers from these two groups compare.
might also be interesting to ask teachers (and editors) to identify the
minimum number of grammatical terms someone needs to know to write and
edit well. Perhaps you could get at this by having respondants rank a
list of such terms in order of importance. Again, it could be
interesting to compare responses from the two groups.
anyone else whose opinion matters? It just might be worthwhile to see
if you could get a few highly successful reporters to respond, to be
able to compare their answers. This would help in thinking about
whether all students need to know the same things about grammar in
order to be successful.
The Fate of Branding in a Contracting Economy
The current economic situation (2009) might provide an opportunity to
study to what extent the concept of "branding" in magazines was
effective, and to what extent it was an overly optimistic byproduct of
an overheated economy.
As you know, in the past 20 years or so, magazines have widely
talked about "extending their brands" by creating ancillary
publications, products and services that carried the magazine's name.
"Branding" became one of the buzzwords of this period, represented by
such "brand extensions" as Teen Vogue, Maxim cologne, Popular Mechanics
tools, and Martha Stewart house paint.
How are brand extensions holding up in comparison to the magazine
that created the brand? In a time of economic contraction, will
consumers remain loyal to such brands? Or will a shift toward thrift
demonstrate that support for such brands was illusory?
This will be an interesting development to observe, and it might
make a worthwhile study for someone in search of a research project on
Photos (except the Popular Mechanics cover) by Gerald Grow
Last revised 4/12/2009
Gerald Grow's Home Page