More advice for Vice: Why hiring copy editors is a really good idea

red penEverybody has some advice for Vice Media in its quest to hire a freelance copy editor, from the folks at Gawker who noticed “for it’s upcoming Vice News website” in the ad (since corrected) to a former online and magazine editor whose suggestion was blunt: “Whatever you do, Vice, don’t hire that copy editor.”

Anecdotes are entertaining, but the evidence says otherwise.

So here’s some more advice: If Vice News wants readers to think it’s putting out a well-written, professional product – one they can tell from the sort of stuff you can find for free anywhere – hiring someone to “read news stories for grammar, clarity, structure, style” is a really good idea. That’s the sort of quick, routine editing that made a difference for a general audience reading online news in an ACES-supported study two years ago, and it makes a difference in how the value of the content is perceived as well.

This study contradicts the claim that “online audiences don’t notice the majority of the work a copyeditor does”: It took online stories from newspapers, TV stations, and Web-only operations, gave them a quick edit, and let readers rate the edited and unedited versions. Everyone saw four edited stories and four unedited stories; which four you saw in which condition was determined by random assignment. The scales that the stories were judged on were combined into four overall outcomes: professionalism, writing quality, organization, and value.

The headline finding is that editing works. Editing made a statistically significant and moderately strong improvement on all four outcomes overall. Most stories were improved on at least one outcome variable. When communication majors were taken out of the mix (the study used a student sample, but it was older and more diverse than most student samples), every story was improved on at least one outcome – suggesting that readers notice editing even when they aren’t trained to look for it.

Granted, readers notice spelling mistakes; unless you think everyone at the New York Times has magically learned how to spell Edgar Allan Poe’s middle name, that’s a call for more editing, not less. And granted, readers don’t sit there with the AP Stylebook and mark us down every time we fail to use figures for a date, weight, age, time,  or percentage under 10. That doesn’t mean they dismiss preposed modification as trivial; they can tell a man eating tiger from a man-eating tiger as surely as Fowler did. It does suggest that they appreciate it when copy editors decide not to obsess about hyphenating constructions like “school board candidate” and instead concentrate on the clarity and structure that Vice is advertising for. (No, I don’t think they’re especially bothered by clause-final prepositions, either.)

Did copy editors really slow a website’s publication process to the point where readers fled in droves? I wasn’t there and can’t say. But Vice is advertising for applicants who can work under “fast-paced daily deadlines,” and if that assumption wasn’t clear at readwrite.com, it’s hard to say the editors were to blame.

“Six months from now, Vice, let us know if anyone, anyone at all has noticed.” That’s a fair challenge. Let me suggest that Vice take a dozen or so stories, save the raw and edited versions, and bring some real people in to see what they think. People who don’t think online audiences see value in editing might be surprised. Readers are busy, but they aren’t dumb.

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