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Why the I/internet will kill style guides

January 29, 2011

Gutenberg bibleDavid Marsh at the Guardian blogged recently about reading through the Telegraph’s style guide. Along with a few choice quips (The Telegraph takes a lot of time to describe how to describe the nobility, nothing how to describe asylum seekers though) Marsh looks at the little jokes and oddities contained in the guide.

The Telegraph isn’t alone in having a style guide of course. The Guardian has one. AP has a famous one too, as does Reuters. The company I work for has one too.  Even Yahoo published one for the internet – ironically, as a book. Though if you’re writing for the New York Times, that should be “Internet“.

None of these guides agree completely. What’s interesting is the comments on Marsh’s blog post – lots arguing for or against putting a hyphen in “email” or “website”, none wondering why there needs to be one set way of writing it in the first place. Email or e-mail? Does it really matter? We know what people mean.

Style guides have always bothered me a bit for that reason. The company I work for has various papers and magazines (and websites) serving different readerships. Why should they all use the same style? Is it just a matter of consistency, and if so, do readers actually care? Is it jarring to read one article only to find a different style in the next?

Some readers and media staff mind an awful lot – and any news orgs will have the letters and emails to prove it. I’ve heard sub-editors get into heated arguments about “Internet” vs “internet”.

People who work in newspapers seem to care too. It strikes to the heart of the philosophy of an old-school newspaper. It’s supposed to be a record of what happened, an accurate record in accurate language. In the bad old days most people only read one newspaper regularly. How that paper spelled “email” was important because a lot of readers never saw it another way. A style guide was a newspaper’s bible.

But things have changed. The free-wheeling, open-ended media landscape of the internet will spell the death of style guides. Here’s why:

1. It’s expensive to create and maintain a style guide. The economics of online news is pretty brutal, and unnecessary costs are cut fast. Style guides are a luxury the online news world won’t want to pay for.

2. Speed counts. News is produced much more quickly for online. People just don’t have time to check for proper style.

3. Fewer checks. Content is seen by 3-4 people before it gets in the paper. That drops to about 2 for online, sometimes just one, and those people aren’t reading as closely because theyr’e trying to get the article published as quickly as possible. So proper style for breaking news already doesn’t matter. Standards for the rest will slip soon enough as well.

4. The competition doesn’t use them. I’m not talking about other professional news orgs, but about the smaller ones – blogs, start ups, etc. Most will let the writers write in the way that suits them. Being picky about correct style just takes too long and costs too much. The economics don’t stack up, especially if they’ve never worked off a style guide before.

5. It’s harder to keep track. Content comes from all kinds of sources online, and the content food chain isn’t as well defined. Lots of people in different roles publish content, and they’ve got other worries. Remember, style guides used to be the domain of sub-editors, who are much less important in digital news (more on why in a future post). Most people in a news org don’t know the proper style, and don’t bother to look it up because they never have before, and plus they’ve probably got better things to do.

Go to any big news site or blog, and you’ll see various styles used in various places, especially comparing blogs vs news articles.

6. More choice. People read news from many different sources online, from “real” news orgs to Wikipedia to the Drudge Report to blogs like mine. They’re not bothered by the style differences between them. And they’ll become less and less bothered by the style differences within each one.

7. Things change much faster now. What’s the point of taking time to pin down a style, when styles change so quickly in online communities? It’s basically guaranteeing that a publication will look old-fashioned. Style rules need to be more fluid, especially in publications for tech-savvy audiences.

8. Finally, most readers don’t care. Take Stuff.co.nz, the site I used to work for (full disclosure: I still work for the parent company). We never received an email I’m aware of while I was there complaining about different styles in different parts of the site (and because different people edited different parts of the site, this was inevitable). And that’s because most readers just don’t care. As long as it’s clear what’s meant, it’s not important to them.

And at the end of the day, that’s all that matters. As they become increasingly irreleveant, style guides are costing news orgs money for less and less benefit. Expect them to start getting axed altogether in the next few years.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2011 1:28 pm

    I agree with some of your bold headings, but not with the reasoning that follows. For example: “the competition doesn’t use them” would actually be a good reason why you should have a style, if it were provably true. Use style as one of your differentiators, rather than abandoning it simply because others don’t care.

    Maintaining a style guide (especially if it’s online) doesn’t really cost that much. Most of your ‘style’ already exists and is easy to document. HTML and the internet makes it easier to search your own stories to strive for and maintain consistency, so there are actually fewer excuses for NOT maintaining a style guide.

    The notion that “readers don’t care” is dangerous. How do you know they don’t care? Have you even asked them? The fact they haven’t necessarily voiced an opinion does not equate to not caring. Readers don’t necessarily articulate what they want. You’re doing them a disservice by equating “Haven’t said they care” with not caring.

    Dispensing with a style guide might not be remarked on at the time, but apart from the fact that it’s clearly preferable to maintain consistency within one story even if you don’t do it across your entire database of stories – if only for writer and subeditor sanity, a style guide is exactly that: a statement of STYLE. It’s akin to choosing the clothes you wear and not just grabbing the closest thing that comes to hand in your closet in total darkness.

    The fact that publications, websites and bloggers don’t agree about whether it’s e-mail or email is a different matter from not being entirely sure yourself which it is. A statement should be a statement: as far as possible unequivocal. If you start letting inconsistencies creep into ideas as lowly as whether you allow your writers to say “centred around” instead of “centres on”, who knows what other inconsistencies and lack of clarity you’ll allow?

    Speed is not a serious constraint: referring to a style guide often provides you with a definitive answer on a point of style in seconds. Especially if you have the Economist’s online style guide in your bookmarks.

    A style guide is good housekeeping. It’s the writing equivalent of having all your ingredients and implements in a known and central place before you start cooking a meal. It makes sense.

    It’s not about “pinning down” the right style. It’s not about right versus wrong. It’s about deciding what your style is and sticking to it. Having no style is not style. It’s sloppy and sloppiness is contagious.

    • January 29, 2011 1:54 pm

      Hi Chris, thanks for your comment.

      I agree about the lack of data to back up my “readers don’t care” assertion. I wish I had more, but I just can’t find any out there, so have to go with my own experience. I know some people do care a lot about style and typo errors, but I’m not one of them, and I can’t find much evidence that people changing their online habits to avoid them.

      I do disagree with you when you say style guides don’t take much effort to maintain. That’s not been my experience. Once print style guides were digitised it took a lot of the pain out of searching, and I don’t think putting them online will actually help much more than on a company intranet.

      I suspect it’s a philosophical difference between us more than anything else. I grab the first shirt out of my closet in the morning. I don’t mind if I see words spelled wrong or styles used inconsistently, as long as the meaning is clear. Maybe I’m weird though.

      I’m interested in your thoughts on my previous post, using the same logic on typos.

      Cheers,
      reuben

  2. January 29, 2011 2:21 pm

    I concede that a lot of what you say IS supported by the disruption being caused to be the media through the internet, much of which is self-inflicted.

    BUT…

    It’s convenient for publishers not to complain or even comment on typos and style inconsistencies in their own publications and websites. After all, they have themselves to blame for most of them, in that they laid-off the people whose job it was to prevent them.

    This is a huge topic with many aspects, from the economical to the philosophical. I can only say from my own experience as a writer and editor that there’s an imperceptible positive side-effect of giving a news story the kind of scrutiny it requires to question everything about it.

    On the one side, it’s easy and refreshing for writers and readers to argue that nobody cares about spelling and style matters.

    But if you wrote a news story about me in which you assumed that since my name was Chris that I’m a woman called Christine Bell and you referred to me throughout as “she”, that might not only (arguably) cause me personal offence, it might have other repercussions to someone actually named Christine Bell and who might then be mistaken for me…

    You can see where this line of reasoning leads. In close line-editing a story, a subeditor or editor engages a critical part of his or her brain that, ideally – deadline and economic pressures permitting – leads to questioning everything about that story. This is when editors earn their money just as much as the writer who submitted the story does. “Is this a quotation or the opinion of the writer?” “Is such and such really a ‘world-leading solution’?” “Should we assume the reader knows what Rolls-Royce is? Would it harm to clarify that in a couple of words?” Probably not.

    All of this might seem remote from your arguments about style, but I propose it’s not. Style guides evolved, as books did, over centuries. When movable type was invented, there was no publishing style, very little consistency in language use (especially in English).

    Professions were created and styles were honed over time, and we can only assume that they served a purpose, apart from justifying editors’ existence.

    I submit that we’re going through a period of largely welcome disruption but that, over time, the value of typography, written style, clarity of speech and thought will again come to be valued as highly as they once were.

    One of the reasons we’ve temporarily lost them is economic. But you can guarantee the next standout media leaders will begin to implement Style again to differentiate themselves from the dross.

    Look at blogs like Boing Boing – they already have editorial policies, etiquette and guidelines. Its own bloggers and readers have arguably created their own components of language (e.g,. “Unicorn chaser” :-).

    It’s not a huge stretch from there to the maintenance of a style guide. And not a stretch from there to having readers comment about scrappy bloggers and news sites, just as my mates would (I trust) do if I went out to meet them in track pants, a pyjama jacket and jandals:

    “Mate! What DO you look like.”

    Finally, thanks for the posts – we need to have these discussions, and we definitely SHOULD NOT leave it to ignorant publishers and apathetic readers to set the agenda through ignorance or lack of time.

    • January 29, 2011 2:49 pm

      I see what you’re saying, but I think (maybe conveniently) that the game has changed online. A typo is easily corrected, so it’s much easier to argue you don’t need a sub-editor to correct it before it goes live in the first place.

      As for style, the physical maintenance of the style guide isn’t the problem. It’s the discussion beforehand that takes time and money. Is that worth it economically? Probably depends on the publication. For a blog I’d say definitely not. For a specialist news site, I’d say maybe, especially if it’s for wordy types. For a general news site, I’d say probably not.

      I don’t think having good fact-checking and good quality content necessarily means having perfect spelling and consistent style. I think the two have been linked because of the staff in the article’s food chain doing them are usually the same people.

      The first two I’d say are still important, though less so for free online news than premium or print products.The last two I’d say aren’t.

  3. guy permalink
    January 30, 2011 5:10 pm

    i would argue that there is no economic cost to maintaining style. i wouldn’t consider putting a story up on my site without reading it, and fixing style and spelling (and running a spell check) is just part of the reading.

    could it be that regular style is just one of the ways a news organisation tells its readers that accuracy matters to them?

    what about if the story is ap, with american spelling, but the web editor writes a headline using english spelling? is that ok? would american spellings for ap copy and english spellings for reuters be better?

    i don’t disagree that the more pernickerty points of style are far less important than hoary old subeditors believe, but there have to be some bottom lines. like one spelling for one word.

    • January 30, 2011 5:25 pm

      Thanks guy for your comment. Maybe you’re right and it is almost a branding exercise by the paper. “We take time to keep things consistent and accurate.” It certainly looks less sloppy when one style is used. I’d just argue that policing the style of pieces from different sources isn’t worth the cost of doing so, because most readers aren’t so bothered.

      I’d say too that US vs English spellings aren’t important.Most people in NZ are familliar with both. It may be less jarring for a reader to see what they were taught is proper in school, but on a free website, I don’t think they should expect it, and I don’t believe they mind that much when they do. That will become more and more true in time.

      I also think some papers use it as a commercial opportunity. Many sell their style guides in book form (which is stupid to me, because styles should be fluid online). They promote their style to sell books, maybe?

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