For years, copy editors have been preaching that editing matters in stories posted on websites as much as it does in those published in print. But the rush to be first online has often meant that stories get posted without going through the copy desk.
Questions about how readers view the quality of articles were answered Thursday when Fred Vultee of Wayne State University presented the results of a research project at the American Copy Editors Society’s 15th national conference in Phoenix. ACES approached him about conducting such research several months ago and collaborated with him throughout the course of the project. Here’s a look at his research:
- Readers, especially those who follow the news closely, prefer professionally edited articles.
- Readers who read more news tend to be more critical than people who read less.
- Readers who spend more than an hour a day on news are more likely to think an article is badly organized than readers who spend less than one hour.
- Dedicated readers expect a higher level of quality than casual readers, particularly in terms of grammar and professionalism.
- Readers notice grammar errors and find them troubling and distracting.
- Readers see errors of consistency — a name spelled two different ways or p.m. versus pm, for example.
- Most readers are less concerned about errors of style and story structure than they are about professionalism and grammar. “They really don’t care if you abbreviate ‘road,’ Vultee said. “They don’t care if you start a paragraph with a number.”
- Readers notice writing that is garbled and confusing, and when words are misspelled or misused.
- Readers can tell edited from unedited stories in significant ways.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STUDY
The study is important because it uses reader perceptions of quality to measure the effects of editing on real articles produced for a Web-first environment. Readers care about what copy editors do, and copy editors can tell managers that their jobs are therefore critical to their organizations.
THE STUDY’S METHOD
From January until mid-March, Vultee conducted research using 66 readers.
The pool was 58 percent women and 42 percent men. It had an average age of 22.77 and was 47 percent white, 24 percent black, 12 percent south Asian and 8 percent Latino.
Fifty-six percent said they spent less than an hour a day getting the news. Of the 66 participants, more than 50 percent of them said they got their news from “the Internet” but not necessarily from a branded news site like nytimes.com, washingtonpost.com or something similar.
Readers saw four edited articles and four unedited articles each, and they were asked questions about them.
Vultee measured the readers’ assessments on a series of seven-point Likert scales. He focused on the relative importance of three main criteria that editors had suggested: professionalism, grammar and organization.
Vultee stressed that his research was only the beginning. Questions remain.
For example, although Vultee’s research included for ethnicity and other factors, it did not ask about income, which would matter to publishers trying to reach a particular audience.
Vultee will also consider whether readers would stop visiting a website altogether because of poor editing.