More more with less

The Baltimore Sun

At Testy Copy Editors this week, Phillip Blanchard quoted this passage from a memo on buyouts to the Boston Globe staff from Brian McGrory, the editor:

“Over the coming weeks, the plan is to focus change, in part, on the production end of the newsroom, including our copy editing, page layout, and web production functions. We’re proposing a new job category of ‘multiplatform editor,’ someone who can copy edit, post to the web, and design web pages, morning through night. Some editors and producers will roll into that category quickly, but we expect all copy editors and layout/makeup/slot editors to take on significant web responsibilities in the very near future.”

Mr. Blanchard’s headline was “More wrongheadedness,” but I think I can put the situation in a larger context.

When I started work at the weekly Flemingsburg Gazette in the summer of 1968, the paper was a hot-type operation. I wrote articles on a typewriter, and the Linotype operator set them in type. I marked up a proof with corrections, which the Linotype operator also set. At the high-water mark of this technology in Baltimore, the Sunpapers employed five hundred people in the composing room, Linotype operators, compositors, and others, to produce the morning Sun, Evening Sun, and Sunday Sun.

By the time I emerged from graduate school to my place on the copy desk of The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1980, the relatively primitive computer system in use there had eliminated the Linotype operators. We wrote on computers and the type was transmitted to the composing room on paper to be pasted up on the pages.

Today at The Sun there is no composing room. There are no printers. Page designers and copy editors produce entire pages on computers, and those pages are transmitted electronically, emerging as plates to be placed on the press.

These advances came at a cost, first to the printers, whose craft was remorselessly rendered obsolete. But also to the copy editors, who had to take on production responsibilities in addition to editing. The formatting had to be done to produce the paper, and that was often at the cost of attention to the editing. Copy editors who were unable or unwilling to adjust to the new environment were nudged out, not always gently.

Today, I have to tell you, working as a print-only copy editor is not a job with a future. A tremendous amount of content goes online, and it must be produced, formatted, and, yes, edited. If you can’t or won’t master these skills, the paper will find someone who will. This situation is exactly parallel to the introduction of editing for print on computers thirty years ago.

It won’t do to repine. The challenge for editors today, as it was then, is to master those new skills, to become fluent and nimble with them, so as to allow as much time as possible to the editing. The material needs editing as much as ever, perhaps more so, because of the speed and volume at which it is produced, and there will be less and less time and attention for it.

 

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