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News You Don't Say

The empty copy desk

Gregory Moore, the editor of the Denver Post, is, I believe, a good man grappling with a difficult challenge. The Post, as described in an article at Poynter.org by Steve Myers, is essentially eliminating its copy desk. Eleven are going or gone, a couple have been reassigned to other duties, and the nine survivors become assistant editors assigned to the various newsroom departments.

When explanations of these and similar changes are made, there is talk of moving away from "assembly-line editing" and "outmoded nineteenth-century industrial processes" to some bold, modern, fresh, immediate journalism that removes all those unnecessary "touches" between the writer and the reader.

This is, of course, cant. The brutal facts are these: Terrified by declines in revenue, newspapers are shedding employees to save money. They are attempting to keep as many reporters as possible to generate content, and they are gambling that you will tolerate shoddier work.

Mr. Myers quotes Jim Brady, editor-in-chief of Digital First and an apostle of the new era, on these points.

On the sacrifice of copy editors: “No question, you’re walking more of a tightrope when you do that. … We can buy ourselves more security by keeping that layer, but at the same time we decided you don’t want to cut feet on the street.” And “We’re not going back to the era of having that many touches on stories.”

On the consequences: “I doubt ... Greg will tell you they’ll have a better product after having fewer copy editors.”

To make this new era work effectively, with the editing/production tasks shifted upstream to the writing/editing level, will require some cultural changes about which I am deeply skeptical.

Reporters tend not to be production-oriented. They want to report and write and take as much time as they can. The question I've most frequently heard from reporters over the past thirty-plus years is "What's my deadline?" (And from assigning editors, too.) Some reporters, as you can see from reading their blogs, cannot even be troubled to run spell-check before publishing.

What you can expect from the copy-editor-free newsroom is a first-draft text from a writer to which someone bearing the title of editor will have made a quick swipe before posting it online. You will notice the typos and lapses in grammar and usage, which stand out. What you may not be so quick to notice is that the reporting is often thin, superficial, uncritical, because no one was there to pose hard questions.

Remember those nine assistant editors in Denver? Steve Myers quotes Gregory Moore saying bravely, "We have not given up on copy editing. We’re going to still edit stories before publishing online or in print." Those nine assistant editors are part of the "copyediting DNA” being retained for editing and training. 

Permit me further skepticism. Those nine assistant editors are going to be buried under the weight of the daily copy, attempting to do what they can of the editing formerly accomplished by twenty-three editors.

And as for training, you should keep in mind that even when times were flush, newspapers were notorious for neglecting training. One journalism professor attempted some years ago to calculate  the percentage of budget that American newspapers spent annually on training, and concluded that it was roughly equivalent to rounding error.

So how much time are those nine assistant editors going to have, day to day, to spend on training reporters to do the things that copy editors used to do? And how much authority are they going to have? I can guess.

Mr. Brady is right that the old model is passing away or already gone, not to return. Mr. Moore and other editors are right to explore new models, to see what can best serve the needs of the organization and the readers. Editors, people like me and the dwindling band of survivors of the purges, are right to focus on what is most essential for accuracy and clarity. There never was much of what you might call bespoke editing at newspapers, and there's going to be much less now.

If we are smart enough, and lucky enough, we will discover the balance between those feet on the street and those eyes on the desk.

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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