Copy editors have made a big mistake. For years, coming in to work, typically in the evening, after the Important People at the paper have gone for the day, editing through the night and producing, all things considered, a remarkably clean newspaper, they saw no reason to trumpet their achievements. The work, after all, the product, speaks for itself.
Their misjudgment was thrown into high relief last week when Joseph Lodovic, the president of Dean Singleton’s MediaNews publishing concern, was quoted as saying, “We have to find ways to grow revenue or become more efficient by eliminating fixed costs. Why does every newspaper need copy editors? In this day and age, I think copy-editing can be done centrally for several newspapers.''
He’s right. Any kind of quality assurance is expensive. Meat inspectors are also a cost. They do not generate any revenue. Reduce their number, and you can save a few bucks. Sure, a little E. coli will get into the hamburger, and you may have to recall a few million pounds of meat, and a few soreheads may file multimillion-dollar lawsuits — but really, all you were doing was eliminating some fixed costs. And who’s supposed to pay for people to check all those toys for lead paint? Doesn’t the public understand that maintaining a satisfactory profit margin depends on reducing costs?
While Mr. Lodovic appears to understand money, his grasp of newspaper production seems less secure.
To start with, if intensive local coverage — the current industry mantra — is the future of daily newspapers, then they will need local copy editors. We have enough trouble at The Sun distinguishing between the MTA police (Maryland Transit Administration/buses, trains, light rail, subway) and the MdTA police (Maryland Transportation Authority/toll bridges and tunnels, airport and port). A bunch of entry-level editors huddled in a converted warehouse in say, Sioux Falls, or worse, Bangalore, is not going to do a better job of observing our local distinctions. Do you suppose that a copy editor working five states away is going to recognize when the photo desk has supplied for the James F. Smith obituary a photo of James T. Smith? Or that an article has located Savage in Anne Arundel County rather than Howard?
It isn’t just the errors in grammar and usage that the copy desk catches (though Lord knows we catch enough of them), but it’s also the multitude of local details that will either enhance or diminish the credibility of the report.
Perhaps Mr. Lodovic was thinking primarily of the Bay Area in California, where MediaNews owns a handful of papers. Surely there, centralizing the copy desk would be a prudent economy.
Perhaps not. The obvious goal of centralizing copy editing is to save money by reducing the number of people. One diminished copy desk putting out a handful of papers won't be able to produce all of them at once, so some of them are going to have an unfavorable deadline schedule, going to press too early to capture late sports scores or other news. Or they are going to run common news or even common pages in all the papers, which will undercut the effort to be intensively local.
What it comes down to is an unstated but pervasive belief that quality can be sacrificed without any serious penalty. If local news is our strongest remaining franchise, then we have to produce papers with local employees who know their area and their audience. These papers have to be edited, which is time-consuming and expensive; otherwise, the accumulation of little errors and great ones over time will erode the reliability of the product.
But all this does make sense if the goal is what Philip Meyer describes in The Vanishing Newspaper as “harvesting the assets.” In brief, one reason for the decline of newspaper circulation is that older readers are dying without being replaced by younger ones. Since no growth is foreseen, cheapen the product to wring out the profits. The dwindling number of readers still on this side of the ground will continue to read; they have the habit, and there is no substitute. Eventually the business will collapse, but only after the current owners have taken the money and gone elsewhere. In such an environment, copy editors are a frill easily to be dispensed with.
In Santa Barbara, California, where the local paper has been plunged into turmoil — the publisher sacked the editor, many staff members quit or were fired, and the paper in enmeshed in legal disputes — a new news outlet has appeared. William H. Macfadyen has announced the arrival of Noozhawk, an electronic community paper produced by experienced journalists. I know Bill Macfadyen from the American Copy Editors Society. He is a smart and energetic editor, and his new publication shows the marks of responsible journalism. It is too soon to tell whether Noozhawk will succeed, but it is encouraging to see someone with a broader vision than squeezing the last couple of dollars out of the operation while destroying it.
As for Mr. Lodovic and the other managers who figure that they can do well on the cheap, verily, they have their reward.