Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Case for Laying Off Copy Editors

This will no doubt sound like sacrilege to my former journalism colleagues, but in most scenarios, if a newspaper or other publication has to choose between laying off a copy editor or a reporter, it should can the copy editor.

Yes, copy editors perform many essential functions. They clean up grammar, spelling, wordiness, and writing that just doesn't make sense, thus saving reporters embarrassment on a daily basis. They help protect the paper against libel. They write the headlines and photo captions, and if these elements are lame, vague, or inaccurate, readers won't bother with the underlying stories. At many papers, they also design the page layouts.

But reporters provide an even more essential function: producing the stories. (The same can be said for photographers.)

When staff reductions are needed (we don't even need to get into how newspapers are becoming increasingly less profitable in the Internet age), what makes the newspaper less worse off: having relatively fewer stories or relatively less copy editing? You can't keep both sides fully staffed, so which would you cut first?

When I worked at the Washington Post a few years ago, I was assigned to copy-edit two or three stories a night. We were expected to check every fact in every story, no matter how mundane. Spending an hour on a story was typical, even though the story had already gone through an assignment editor (who checks for bigger-picture issues) and would also seen by a slot (copy chief) and a proofreader.

For instance, in this paragraph from a baseball story:

But in the bottom of the sixth, Flores drilled a 1-1 change-up from Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez to center field, tough territory for even seasoned power hitters to reach at RFK. Flores's season, though, has been about defying expectations. He is 22, had never played above Class A, was a Rule 5 draft pick whom Manager Manny Acta said the club hoped to "hide," but he has long since proven they don't need to do that.
I would check: Was it really the bottom of the sixth? Was it really Flores? Was it really a 1-1 pitch? Was it really a change-up? Was Sanchez really the starter, and is his name spelled correctly? Is Flores really 22? Did he really never play above Class A? Was he really a Rule 5 draft pick? Is Manny Acta's name spelled correctly?

The vast majority of the time, this was wasted effort. The hours spent fact-checking hardly justified the number of errors caught. In today's journalism environment, such extensive fact-checking is just too expensive.

It seems to me that cutting the copy desk in half (eliminating about 30 jobs, if I recall correctly) won't make the paper that much worse off. Sure, there will be more mistakes and slightly less compelling headlines, but this is a much better outcome than if 30 reporters were eliminated (and the hundreds of stories a week that they collectively produce).

In some cases, however, newspaper should be substituting away from reporters and instead use wire copy. I've long been critical of the Post for flying reporters to the Super Bowl, Olympics, American and National League Championship Series, and other national sporting events. Maybe there are local angles in these events, but why do the reporters need to be there to write about them? The expense of covering them is not justified, as the articles will just be needless duplication of whatever the Associated Press could have produced and thus will have dubious value for the paper's readers.

And this is all a matter of relative magnitude. If a paper has 100 reporters and three copy editors, it's better to lose one of the reporters rather than cut the copy desk by a third. Chopping the copy desk only works up until a point of critical mass, but it should still be the first department trimmed.

But in short, producing is better than polishing. The success of blogs and other online news sources shows that people are willing to put up with a little sloppiness if it means a steady stream of content.


Zuri Berry said...

First off, I like the new layout. Looks awesome from the last time I was here.

Second, do you also like punching puppies too? Just wondering, you know.

Just kidding. But in all seriousness, this is the equivalent of a chicken and egg argument for journalists. Representatives from both sides argue their importance over the other, with legitimate claims. I'm just glad you joined the dark side, buddy.

Greg said...

Sorry for being so bleak, but if cuts have to be made, they might as well be made intelligently.

It doesn't matter how superb the editing is if there isn't any content.

Anonymous said...

Your column assumes that everything that reporters produce is worthy of readers' attention. The reality is that much of what reporters crank out is boring, irrelevant, overwritten crap. With fewer reporters, assigning editors would have to prioritize their resources better. The result would be a more-interesting newspaper, and one without the errors that undermine its credibility.

villette1 said...

You also assume that reporters can write. You may be an exception, but many small newspapers across America employ reporters who can barely spell their own names, let alone produce cohesive, clearly written, grammatically correct copy.

Bill said...

I can see where you're coming from on this, but the 'leave it to the wires' argument could just as easily be extended to photographs as well as features and even reporting. Although a paper that consisted only of wire copy would probably read about as bad as one that hadn't been copy edited!

Anonymous said...

Where to begin.

1.) Wire copy is, for the most part, garbage, and in your time at the Post, I can't believe you never picked up on that. A wire reporter's job is to write up the box score. A Post reporter's job is to make the reader care. Post readers expect as much.

2.) Perhaps you haven't noticed (perhaps you only read the hard-copy version), but the Post cranks out more product than ever on the Web site, and most of it is NOT edited by the copy desk. So to say it's sacrificing content because there are too many copy editors is pretty much foolish. Know what you're talking about before you blog like some sort of authority. Just because you worked there a while back doesn't mean you have a clue about what's going on now. You obviously don't.

3. Going back to No. 1, Post readers expect a certain level of professionalism. Leaving it up to reporters alone is not a way to meet those expectations.

4. The paragraph you cited would take a good copy editor about 30 seconds to fact-check. You make it seem like it needed to be translated from Flemish.

Sorry, your arguments are weak.

Greg said...

To restate my argument as concisely as possible:

A paper must divide its resources between producing content and copy-editing it (among other things). When the budget decreases, more emphasis should be put on the former than the latter.

I don't see how having a lot of unedited online copy violates this assertion.

Anonymous said...

Come on, Greg. Stop thinking like a robot. Readers can go ANYWHERE for wire copy. What's the point of publishing if you're just publishing the same drivel as everyone else? Anyone can produce content for the sake of producing content, which is what it seems you're promoting here. Producing GOOD content is a whole other story.

And the Post publishes VAST amounts of unedited wire copy on its Web site.

You do know it has a Web site, right? And that it's a fairly important part of the enterprise these days? And that copy editors produce --GASP!-- a lot of content (like getting your precious wire copy up on the Web site; yep, they do that now).

You have not one clue what is happening in that newsroom at the moment.