Friday, April 22, 2005

ACES 2005 from LA - editing the future

The first day of the American Copy Editors Society convention in Los Angeles got started with a great discussion among top editors of The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee -- along with some heavy-hitter academics/observers -- about where the business of newspapering is going and where editing is going with it.

There was a consensus that a lack of promotion and marketing and, as one put it, "a little bit of arrogance" that newspapers were the only kid on the block, have left papers in the position of declining readership they're in now. (As another noted, in some markets the relentless promotion of TV has convinced people that TV has the only real investigative reporting.)

What newspapers spend on research and development "is rounding error" in their budgets, said Phil Meyer, the North Carolina professor whose book "The Vanishing Newspaper" has become the must read for the spring. "The industry needs to be scared enough to take risks," he said."To head for the lifeboats."

Interesting was the reaction from Rick Rodriguez, executive editor of the Bee, and Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, who said copy editors too often fly under their radar. Rodriguez said that if his copy editors don't bring it to his attention, he won't know who has made the good catch, and Keller said papers need a liaison from the copy desk to top editors.

LA Times Editor John Carroll calls it "an ongoing diplomacy." "A copy editor ought to be a full citizen of the newsroom," he said, and converse more with assigning editors and reporters.

Meyer, who was joined on the panel by fellow North Carolina researcher Frank Fee, is pushing the idea of professionalism -- not licensing to keep people out of the business (which probably would run afoul of the First Amendment anyhow, if not legally, then morally), but what he calls "certification of technical competence."

"It's using the First Amendment to communicate excellence," he said.

The panel struggled with questions about diversity, especially when one questioner from the floor suggested it would be hard to find a true conservative in most newsrooms.

Diversity in newsrooms has not made much difference because most newsrooms are not open enough to hear those voices, said Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. He bases that on CCJ training programs in more than 100 newsrooms.

Rodriguez said the problem is "we don't have enough characters" like those of past years in newsrooms. The editor noted that his parents were illegal immigrants, that his father was a garbage collector and that he worked in a grocery store and tortilla factory before taking a newspaper job. "And I took a 10-cent-an-hour pay cut to work for the newspaper," he said.

Keller warned about generalizing that diversity equals conservative. Arguably, the most diverse hire the Times could make would be someone from Middle America who had served time in the military, he said.

And Meyer, in a remark that brought down the house, dryly noted: "If you want journalists to be conservative, pay them more."

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