Sunday, January 8, 2017

Yahoo’s naval gazing

THE VALUE of copy editors in the social media age has been much debated (and deflated) for years, as the digital economy, and the digital speed central to it, have made getting it first as much a priority for news organizations as getting it right. And sometimes more.

We’re the captives of a quick-twitch media environment, and the longtime prisoners of the clean, polished, correct look of everything we look at on a screen. It all just looks so right. Until we hit SEND or TWEET ... and find out how wrong it was.

Those are — we hope — the only sensible explanations for what happened Friday at the Yahoo Finance news desk. A tweet, in the Yahoo Finance Twitter feed, was accompanied by a story on the Yahoo Finance web page — a republished piece by Eric Pianin of The Fiscal Times about plans by the administration of president-apparent Donald Trump to increase the size of the United States Navy.

By now you’ve heard about or seen that tweet published by the Yahoo Finance social media oarpuller without thinking, and apparently without even reading:

Trump wants a much nigger navy: Here’s how much it’ll cost

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The keyboard you’re using with your computer right now almost certainly follows the QWERTY alphabet protocol of Western-language keyboards, a convention under which the B and N keys are right next to each other.

A keystroke mistakenly uttered at high speed on deadline. A managing editor howling for that competitive tweet. The TWEET command, locked in for eternity with a click before it should have been and ... that’s how this happened, of course.

The error, while embarrassing in its own right, has a subtext that should give copy editors and wordsmiths cause for something like optimism in the continuing disaster of their — our — craft.

When things like this can happen, and they happen hundreds of thousands of times a day, there will always be a need for that extra pair of eyes on a story or a caption or a tweet before the Twitter bluebird — our high-speed version of the stork — delivers our wisdom into the world.

Or that which we’ve convinced ourselves is wisdom.

Most of the time, it’s no such thing. Sometimes, it’s worse.

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ANYWAY, predictably, Twitter went wild, with a lot of people coming up with fanciful, visually-driven tweets of how such a new navy would manifest itself under the Trump administration.

The Root offered a good roundup

The digs at Yahoo Finance were mostly couched in an acidic kind of fun. We knew how this happened; there’s every reason to think it was an accident. Yahoo has too many existential challenges facing it already, and we've all generated too many typos of our own in a lifetime. Benefit of the doubt.

It was regrettable, though, that someone, somewhere in the vast Yahoo editorial chain of command didn’t see this, didn’t notice. It’s sadly ironic that this hugely glaring error didn’t intellectually permeate into the subconscious minds of Yahoo’s editors for about 20 minutes.

By which time the damage was done.

If you’ve ever wondered what copy editors do at the news organizations either treading water or doing all they can to keep from treading water, it’s this. Copy editors push back against the executive-suite demands for triage-ing more content in less time with fewer people for the same money or less, doing what they can to keep that content — stories, headlines, captions, tweets — as close to error-free and readable as possible.

And there’s also a role that’s been a historical fact for editors at news orgs for generations: sometimes, as much or more than anything else, they save their writers from themselves.

Or they try to.

Image credit: Yahoo Finance bug: © 2016 Yahoo.

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