kitchen table math, the sequel: "writing is rewriting" at the New York Times

Monday, August 6, 2012

"writing is rewriting" at the New York Times

I'm not sure how journalism works these days.

Last Friday, shortly after the BLS released payroll data showing 163,000 jobs created in July, the Times posted its story. The American economy, it said, had "continued" its "long slog upward from the depths of the recession." That was the lede.

The next paragraph reported that the economy was "just barely treading water."

I found this exasperating. Where jobs are concerned, the economy has not "continued" a long slog "upward." Employment crashed in 2008 and never came back, and there's an end to it. The economy is slogging sideways.

But even more annoying in some ways, to me at least, the metaphors are mixed. Barely treading water is not compatible with continuing a long slog upward. One is up, the other is down, or down as much as up. A person who is just barely treading water is not gaining altitude, and I'm pretty sure I remember a time when anyone working for the New York Times would have known this without having to think about it.

A half hour or so later, the story changed. Someone had cleaned up the mixed metaphor, which was good, but the story itself had gotten worse.

The lede was the same--the economy was still slogging upward (not true for jobs!)--but now the 2nd paragraph opened with the observation that while the payroll survey was better than economists had expected, "no one is yet popping champagne corks."


I saw one estimate showing that if the economy continued to produce 163,000 new jobs every month from now on it would take 8 years -- 'til 2020 -- to return to the employment level we had in 2007. Eight years to produce a jobs recovery for a 4-year 5-year slump (to date): nobody uses 'yet' in a context like this.

And nobody pops champagne corks at the end of an 8-year slog.

So Take 2 was even more exasperating, and then finally a third version of the story cropped up:
America added more jobs than expected last month, offering a pleasant surprise after many months of disappointing economic news. Even so, hiring was not strong enough to shrink the army of the unemployed in the slightest.
Hiring Picks Up in July, but Data Gives No Clear Signal
By CATHERINE RAMPELL | Published: August 3, 2012
This is the same story! We've gone from the economy slogging upward to economists not popping champagne corks to an army of the unemployed not having been shrunk in the slightest, and all of this in just a couple of hours.

How does this happen?

How do mixed metaphors and bad metaphors get through copy editors at the Times, and how does a story completely change meaning within just a few hours?

I'm wondering whether, these days, news organizations post stories as soon as they possibly can, knowing they can clean things up later.

Do newspapers deliberately post first drafts these days?

update 8/8/2012: Anonymous leaves word that the story changed 9 times.

(click on the images to enlarge)


Anonymous said...

It gets better. The story has changed 9 times...

Glen said...

When Bush was President, any junior staffer at the Times could have handled this news in one take on a five-minute deadline: "Job numbers show no relief in sight for average American." With a seven-minute deadline, they could have added, "... while President plays golf with wealthy patrons." And since the Times just reports the facts without political favoritism, as they always insist, it's puzzling why they couldn't just handle it the same way in this case.

Why would this be any harder? Why would they now need nine drafts and who knows how much internal debate on the wording of bad economic news? Who occupies the White House couldn't possibly make any difference to an unbiased, professional news organization, so what could it be?

Jen said...

Ahhh. I'll pass on editorializing Glen-style but link to this graphic which does a better job of capturing the situation than the multiple revisions seems to:
(it's the top graph currently, "change in payroll jobs per month")

You've got a snapshot of 4 1/2 years, you've got an idea of the "volume" of jobs lost and a way to compare the pace and size of gains.

Andrew Sullivan uses this chart each month with his round-up of commentary on the report:

BUT, yes, I think that now that there's the internet, news sources feel the need to get the info out asap, whether or not they've made any sense of it yet.

It seems like perhaps a better course would be to report something like: "Here are the numbers, story to follow." Then they could have done the majority of the revisions out of sight and posted something rational in a few hours.

But you only have to look at the last Supreme Court ruling to see that clearly the goal is being FIRST and being accurate may (or may not) follow.

Anonymous said...

I think several things are happening:

(1) As Jen says, the most important thing is to be first (or at least close to first) with a report. This leaves less time to get the report correct.

(2) The NYT has reduced their newsroom by 10-15% in the last few years:


so they have fewer people doing the same work. This leads to cutting corners, or handing work to interns but not supervising them as closely as one would like. If you then add being even more rushed on top of this ...

(3) And I think Glen may have something ... but a straight partisan slant should be pretty easy to achieve. I *do* think that the NYT is far from objective, but I don't think that this is the problem with the story Catherine is following.

-Mark Roulo

ChemProf said...

I don't know, Mark, it seems like a decent example of the "unexpectedly" phenomena. (Google "unexpectedly economy" if you don't know what I mean).

Anonymous said...

My point (3) was that I don't think it is very hard to slant the news to fit your biases*. This seems more clumsy than it should be, thus (1) and (2).

-Mark Roulo

(*) I see these biases even in technical fields. If you see what you expect, then you tend to stop. If you are surprised then you keep digging. So if something you expect to run slowly does, in fact, run slowly ... well, what did you expect? This isn't political bias (though it might be related). I think the same thing is happening at most/all media outlets. You see what you expect.

But nine iterations is just being inept, not political.

Catherine Johnson said...

I haven't Googled the unexpectedly economy, but I may know what chemprof is talking about --- I spent MONTHS of my life fuming over 'the economy unexpectedly' stories.

Catherine Johnson said...

I think Glen is right: if Bush were still president, Rampell would have had no problem writing "Job numbers show no relief in sight for average American" (though they wouldn't have added the golf line because Bush was well-known for not playing golf while soldiers were fighting in Iraq).

Nevertheless, while I think the story would have been more accurate from the get-go with Bush in office, I actually don't think ideology is the problem. (And the reason I don't think ideology is the problem is that a 'no relief for average Americans' story would have been right for the wrong reasons...)

So is the new standard that a 'rough draft,' so to speak, is OK to publish?

I'm thinking it must be.

btw, I'm not necessarily critical of this standard, although I think people ought to know that a new standard is in play. this case I ***think*** the first version of the story may actually have appeared in print (??)

Catherine Johnson said...

What's surprising to me about this particular story is that Catherine Rampell writes the Economix blog for the Times .... and her post about the unemployment figure was ***filled*** with negative data.

That made me wonder whether the editor wrote the lead.

I'm not sure how that works. I remember Mickey Kaus once saying that the Times has a specific problem with headline writers (meaning that headlines often were incompatible with the actual content of the story).

I wonder whether copy editors write & rewrite ledes.

Catherine Johnson said...

btw, speaking as a writer, the wording of the final version (at least, the final version I saw) suggests to me that the editor (or reporter) got a fair bit of blowback on the wording of the first version:

"not strong enough to shrink the army of the unemployed in the slightest"

That's very strong wording, so strong that I don't think it's accurate, quite.