Please do not let children touch, so as not to confuse food.
—Note on package of drywall repair kit
Hollywood’s screenwriters are on strike, but at least they have some expectation of returning to a writing job. For others in the business of arranging letters on a page in useful form, the arc of a journalistic career is long but it’s bending toward a greeting job at Walmart.
On July 19, a New York Times headline declared “Google Tests A.I. Tool That is Able to Write News Articles.” That probably chagrined those journalists still in the Times bullpen; earlier, the paper had laid off its entire sports department, electing to use the staff of a sports website it has acquired to produce its sports coverage. At the end of June, another journalistic institution, National Geographic, laid off all of its staff writers. Late last year, the Washington Post ended its award-winning Sunday magazine. CNN, Gannett, Paper—oh, heck, just put in the name of nearly any editorial company or production and it’s likely had a round or six of layoffs.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of hiring numerous interns from U.C. Berkeley and other local universities who were planning careers in journalism. Things are very different from when I graduated; it was amid a recession, but at least there were still thousands and thousands of newspapers and magazines in existence. Instead of being able to fill these interns with high hopes of exciting careers chronicling the world around them, I found myself hoping they’re flexible in their career choice.
They need to look elsewhere.
Thirty years ago, I interviewed for an editing job at a small manufacturing company in the northern Chicago suburbs. I was shown around the offices, told about the company, and then given some of the catalogs and instruction books that I would have to write and edit. I have always prided myself on being able to keep an impassive face so I don’t accidentally insult anyone, but after I got home, I found I was just consumed with gloom by the prospect of spending eight or more hours a day slogging through that material. I wasn’t worried about being able to get the words straight; I was worried I couldn’t stay awake. So I called the man who had interviewed me and politely let him know I was taking myself out of consideration. To my surprise, he said he could tell I was unenthused when he had interviewed me. So much for my proud impassivity.
But the concept of being an editor among nonwriters and noneditors is not bad; nonjournalism businesses need writers and editors.
Eventually my career took me to Manhattan. I walked everywhere, and I would sometimes entertain myself by noticing the misspellings in the signs of local businesses. At one point, I decided to see how many blocks I could walk while spotting at least one error on each block. It was many blocks before I saw one that was mistake-free.
Even a small business should be able to cough up $50 to pay some English major to read a sign before it’s printed and let them know “It’s spelled c-h-i-c-k-e-n, not c-h-i-k-e-n.”
Government needs help, too. Any of you who are international travelers know that the State Department is way behind on processing passport applications, the result of having downsized its pertinent staff during the pandemic. But people are traveling again, and a surge in people seeking a passport has meant long delays. I know; I’m one of them. My last passport expired long enough ago that I needed to make an appointment and couldn’t just do it by mail. The problem is that the State Department website tells you all appointments have to be made over the phone; when you call the given number, you are informed that appointments are handled through the website. Yes, the same website that just told you you had to call.
FIRST THERE WAS THE WORD
Watching a low-budget foreign film that’s been subtitled with hilariously bad English is an enjoyable experience all in its own. We don’t want to change that. But all other businesses should find someone who has read Dreyer’s English and have them proofread their signs, pamphlets, assembly instructions, websites, press releases, and other materials.
I’m not presenting myself as an example of perfection. I still remember fondly the charming Marina Times reader who criticized a column of mine, accusing me of having worse writing skills than grade schoolers. Yeah, well, I got an A in English in Mrs. Ness’s fourth-grade class.
Certain jobs will never come back. But as long as we’re using some language to interact, there’ll be a need for writers and editors to prevent businesses from looking like they’re owned by real fourth graders.