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Just sack all the editors

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.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:08 AM | | Comments (19)
        

Comments

I neglected above to point out Pam Robinson's post from last week on this subject. Worth a look:

http://wordsatwork.blogspot.com/2007/10/copy-editors-pay-attention.html

Doug Fisher's comments are also very much to the point:

http://commonsensej.blogspot.com/2007/10/clarion-call-for-copy-editors.html

And if you haven't seen it before, this is the quality MediaNews is willing to pay for -- right now:

http://www.gradethenews.org/2007/bowmanpv.htm

I think you puff up the job of copy editors much too much. Anyone given an AP style book can deal with style issues in copy, and aren't pictures of James T. Smith run with obits of James F. Smith under your current foolproof copy system. A good road atlas will tell you in which county Savage is located, and I see from the corrections that they sort of mistakes are made in the Sun all the time. But one suggestion I have to the MediaNews idea is why not take advantage of a huge pool of potential copy editors hungry to keep their toes in journalism, and willing to work cheap at piece rates: newspaper retirees. You don't have to raise the horrors of Bangladore. There's a huge low-cost pool of great talent out there that could be harnessed to cut horrendous labor costs in newsrooms, from editors to reporters. Retirees may not be able to work fulltime, but they could easily be harnessed for editing from home, and even as reporters. Retirees made the golden age of newspapers, and they still retain the talents that once made newspapers great and compelling reading _ something I don't find in what I read these days.

Thank you for writing this. Having worked at MediaNews' consolidated copy desk in the Bay Area, I know Dean Singleton really cares about one thing only: maximizing profits. If that means decimating the quality of journalism at his papers, then so be it. He has done this for years, even before the Internet started draining revenue from his papers. And if for some reason his papers start to make back this lost money through their Web sites, guess what? He'll continue to slash away at editorial resources. That's just what he does.

Mr.Allen makes an interesting point about using retired editors and I certainly think that all kinds of employment ought to be considered.

However, what MediaNews is talking about is simply not needing its own crew at all. Copy editors are interchangeable, if they're needed at all. And the idea is driven by cost. So the simplest way of cutting costs is to not hire enough people. All those people Mr. Allen thinks will stop and look up unfamiliar items will not. They won't have time because they will be driven to produce dozens of stories and pages each night. And what happens to the individual play of stories, determined by what is of interest locally? It will be gone, sacrificed to cost containment. And once you decide you can do without the local knowledge, it's a hop, skip and a jump to go to Banglalore, who wil be cheaper than retirees, work longer hours and always be available from a vast pool of employees. It is, in fact, already happening.

Regarding the retired employees: A decent idea in theory. I would point out, though, that many retired copy editors in the Bay Area have passed through the MediaNews operation at some point in their career. I'd be willing to bet that the thought of spending their retirement working for Dean Singleton again wouldn't be very attractive to them.

Most former copy desk workers (myself included) have left newspapers because we've found other side industries to practice our craft. Many now have "normal" work hours with bigger salaries. Getting former copy editors to come back to newspapers will be very difficult. MediaNews will probably do what they've always done: hire straight from college at very low salaries.

Lodovic obviously doesn't understand that, for many newspapers, copy editors don't just edit copy. They lay out pages, doing the job that compositors used to do. They oversee press production and make corrections on the fly, essentially acting as late-night managers (a little overblown, I admit, but the responsibility is still there).

In short, there's very little downtime that can be applied to editing copy for another newspaper.

And if he needs a cost-value for copy editors, it should be pointed out the number of errors we've caught that prevented the filing of a hugely expensive libel suit.

Reporters and editors are, in general, unable to do a thorough, accurate job of writing and editing stories. Hand any one of them an AP style guide, and you will get copy that's full of style mistakes. Read almost any story turned over to the copy desk, and you will find misspelled names, incorrect ages, simple typos, incomplete sentences and things that just don't add up. The copy desk cleans up the mess that the reporter/editor wasn't careful enough to mop up before turning in the story. Yeah, sure, copy editors make mistakes. But if there weren't any copy editors, or if there were so few that they could barely spend any time at all on any given story, the paper would be absolutely horrendous.

As a former MediaNews reporter with a vivid memory of spending one morning in shock as I saw one of my stories about Fremont, Calif. affixed with a headline about Fresno, Calif (a mere 170 miles away), I can assure you that MediaNews' copy editing in the Bay Area was already a mess back in 1999. I'm sure it's only gotten worse since then.

In the case of MediaNews, I don't think it is public pressure to reduce newspaper costs (via stocks), but rather pressure from the banks who hold MediaNews' debt and are fretting declining newspaper revenues mean they won't get all their money back. This would seem to make MediaNews problems much more acute than newspapers owned by pubicly-traded companies who are only seeing their stock price decline. I also believe the Sun could taste what this sort of exquisite agony means if Ted Venetoulis and his happy band of investors take back local control of the Sun, using bank loans to finance the deal.

The overarching tragedy in all this is that the readership mostly doesn't care about the things copy editors care about. And that dwindling readership is less and less able to discern the errors at all.

Nay-sayers are always the first to be heard from, but let's scrutinize Edward Allen's idea a bit longer.
Stories today are already posted to Web sites after a quick look through and sometimes even largely unedited, libel and other issues notwithstanding. Then, as the day progresses, the story is added to and changed. Newspapers still publishing editions are already used to this process, and there's no reason why retiree editors could not be brought back to the process (assuming some monetary incentive) to clean up copy using their home computers. By the end of the day, Web copy would be in a form that could be put cleanly into a newspaper. Wikipedia does this in a very sloppy way because it doesn't control who edits the stories, but it provides a model of how it could work. Newspapers can control access to their Web pages by outside copy editors without too much difficulty. The print edition would then only need some souped up version of the old-fashioned news desk dummies to lay out the pages, make heads fit, and give priority to stories. So a dying craft is saved, at least for a while. Why not?

An invitation to consider Mr. Allen's proposal further that includes "largely unedited, libel and other issues notwithstanding" brings me to an abrupt halt.

The most effective way to put an end to schemes like Lodovic's is to let him try it. Copy editing -- like sound editing in a movie or any of the other production crafts whose Oscars are presented in separate ceremonies that aren't shown on TV -- is noticeable to the reader only when it is poorly done. Readers might not consciously care, but few people will bother to read a publication that consistently fails to address them in an authoritative, professional, polished voice.

Yes, "intensive local coverage" would seem to underscore the need for a local copy desk. But let's not forget that good copy editors do more than catch mistakes (such as MTA vs. MdTa police). Hopefully, they understand and appreciate what kind of local news is meaningful to the readers and can find ways to enhance those stories. They have a sense of context and history that can be supplied to stories when reporters overlook that aspect. They might even give a damn about the community and feel as if its residents deserve the best coverage humanly possible. It's not just a job -- it's an adventure and an obligation to the community to produce solid journalism.

According to Mr. Allen, "Retirees made the golden age of newspapers, and they still retain the talents that once made newspapers great and compelling reading."

Today's copy editors are equally as talented as our predecessors. We have, however, less time than they did to exercise our skills. Not only are we editing and proofreading copy and writing headlines and cutlines, but we are also processing photographs, designing pages and posting photos and edited copy on newspaper Web sites.

(Yes, processing photos. My employer laid off the photo imagers to cut costs. Apparently it makes much more sense financially to have $20-an-hour copy editors, not $12-an-hour imaging staff, carry out this process.)

Here's another one written deliberately to confuse Sun readers:
Headline:
Man sought in Balto. Co. armored car heist
xxx
Jerome Willis, 23, of the 2800 block of Pelham Ave. in Baltimore, is accused of robbing a guard making a delivery at a Wachovia Bank in the 6800 block of Belair Road on the morning of Sept. 26. Police said that Willis was in a car waiting for another man who assaulted the guard and took the money. When the other man arrived at the car, Willis drove off, police said.
xxx
So tell me, the reader, what happened here. I guess that Willis was the alleged driver of a getaway car, and when the bank robbery went bad, he drove away leaving an accomplice behind. But I can't tell this from the story, and I see he's being charged with "robbing a guard" rather than being an accomplice, meaning to me that his involvement in this was more active than being in a car and waiting. As with the Blob's Park story, your desk is not doing its job here to make things clear for a reader.

Oddly, we don't publish the paper intending to confuse. The passage Mr. Brown quotes clearly says that police accuse Mr. Willis of being the driver. The story says he is accused of robbery because accomplices are typically charged with the same crime as the principal offender. So the confusion here appears to be manufactured.

The published article identifies the other suspect as Joseph dukes Jr., who was, police say apprehended by an off-duty officer at the scene.

It's possible that Mr. Brown saw an early version of the story that lacked all the detail of the final version. If what the police gave us initially was less than complete, then that is all we had. We don't -- no, we don't -- manufacture information beyond what is furnished to us.

It's very easy to forget what copy editors do for a newspaper, working as they do behind the scenes. When I worked at the Sun, I would complain that our copy eds took their job as final gatekeeper too much to heart, worrying as much or more about a story's structure than the basics we expect from the copy desk. Since then, however, I have greatly missed John's seemingly authoritarian stewardship of both the paper's and its writers' reputations. Oh, how I miss the periodic issues of John's "Publish and Be Damned." Now I work for the aforementioned Bay Area News Group, and rarely hear from the copy desk or see any evidence of its existence. I attribute that to its being overburdened with copy. When I need to make a fix late in the editing process, though, our copy eds are always available and happy to help.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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