News Leadership 3.0

October 23, 2008

Whither the copy desk?

The debate over “outsourcing” vs. “quality” needs a reality check

Dean Singleton says MediaNews Group might consolidate copy editing functions across its more than four dozen newspapers, perhaps even moving a general copy desk offshore. “In today’s world, whether your desk is down the hall or around the world, from a computer standpoint, it doesn’t matter,” Singleton says.

In response, the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) says such a move is guaranteed to kill credibility. ACES put up on its Web site a photo of Singleton with the blaring headline: “Will this idea never die? It’s time to look out for readers and credibility, not save a buck.”

I’m not fan of Dean Singleton. MediaNews debt alone suggests the CEO is a poor business steward whose cost-cutting moves are reacting to payment deadlines rather than building a long term future. His comments about copy desks reflect as much nuance as a buzz saw.

Still, I’ve got to challenge ACES and others who rest on the credibility/quality argument. You’re right, folks. But you’ve got to do better. That argument won’t take you where you need to go, which is to update your role and re-invent your value (like virtually every other journalist in the room).

Consider:

1. In newsrooms in transition, the copy desk often look like the last bastion of print culture, and that’s a traditionally change-averse culture the bosses have decided must change. I have talked to editors who have put their newsrooms on promising tracks to create more online content. They invariably scratch their heads about a “print-centric” copy desk that plays little or no role on the Web. The value of copy editing is clear, but the role and shape and culture of the copy desk may have to change.

2. Some functions of the copy desk might be contracted out (domestically, one hopes) without damage to the quality of the product. Copy editors have been complaining for years about coding and other production chores that came their way with pagination and more labor-intensive page design. Some editors went as far as to say they’d largely been stripped of meaningful editing time. As newsroom staff size falls to a level that the market will support, shedding incidentals in order to focus on the core (quality editing) is a must.

3. Good copy editors have long helped news organizations maintain their authority in their communities, as ACES notes. But the role and definition of authority in news is changing, and more and more of it is shifting to readers and users who can decide what news they want to see, when they want to see it and can easily check other sources. The vetting role of the copy editors will be critical, but it may not be applied to all content and more and more print content may well be vetted by users on the Web.

4. Newsroom jobs will continue to disappear. Just about every journalist in a newsroom contributes to quality. The new question is: What else have you done for me lately? Smaller, more nimble organizations tend to value priorities over absolutes. For example: Absolutely perfect style is a wonderful goal. Increasing interactivity may trump 100 percent adherence style on the priority list.

I worked in newsrooms for nearly 30 years (including on the copy desk).  I cannot count the times a smart copy editor improved on my work or made a good save in a story I wrote or edited. (And I’m scared of making a mistake every time I post directly to this blog.) I wish I could offer some solace to beleaguered copy desks.

I do have this advice for copy editors: Learn some new skills. Learn some new online skills—Search engine optimization in headlines, tagging, a little html, shoot and upload audio or video, create a photo gallery with captions, read comments on news stories and respond to them, figure out Web analytics. Learn. Grow. That’s what your newsroom needs to do. It’ll get there faster with you on board.

Has the role of the copy editor changed in your newsroom? What skills should your copy editors learn? Have you reorganized your copy desk? Please share your experiences and ideas in the comments.

Comments

I started as a copy-editor before becoming my paper’s first ever online editor, but I’m unfortunately the exception rather than the rule.

Technically, our copy-editors now are all referred to as “multimedia editors”, but beyond the title change, there’s been a lot of resistance to them going beyond their traditional role here of paginating and editing.

Pagination is the main culprit. I know because I used to do it myself, paginating takes up so much of the day. It’s the first thing they do when they come in and it’s the last thing they do at night. Editing copy gets squeezed in whenever there’s a chance, so there’s not much room for anything else.


Patrick: Thanks for this insight. Pagination is indeed a culprit. I wonder, though, if simplifying the print newspaper (less coding, fewer moving pieces) might free up copy editors for work of substance. I know that may go against the grain of newspaper design gurus, but I cannot help but think that core print readers will hang on while more non-core will move to the Web.


I disagree with the last clause in the sentence, “The vetting role of the copy editors will be critical, but it may not be applied to all content and more and more print content may well be vetted by users on the Web.”

Few users verify anything. Consider statements like, “Obama is a Muslim.” Patently ridiculous, but widely echoed and believed to be true by gullible Web readers.

Most would rather be popular than correct. Vetting goes beyond finding other blogs that repeat a statement. Professional copy editors are sensitive to the reliability of sources; casual Web browsers rely on the number of times a statement is repeated.

Quality trumps quantity in seeking truth. Retractions lack the impact of published errors. “You can’t unring a bell.”

Cost-cutting is bringing back yellow journalism. Increasingly, content resembles ads and press releases. Much of the public can’t tell propaganda from unbiased reporting. Informed honest editing withers on the vine and the public gulps down rotten fruit.


I think this is the real factor but informative . best Blog.  the diet solution


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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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