Monday, June 11, 2007

Distant Copy-Editing Dangers

With all the talk recently about outsourcing and consolidating copy desks (just follow the labels at the end of this post for more), here comes a real-world example of how bad it can be.

Grade the News has a lengthy story/interview with John Bowman, an editor at one of the Media News Group's papers that now dominate the San Francisco Bay Area. Media News has consolidated its copy editing in Pleasanton. Som excerpts:

"Copy desks are so thinly staffed that they are making an incredible number of errors," says Mr. Bowman. "These errors are in the headlines and [photo] cutlines so they are glaring."

"They are the kind of errors that destroy our credibility," he complains.

He showed the front page of the April 23 Times. The centerpiece story was about an event in Pacifica, but the headline placed it miles south, in Half Moon Bay. On the same front page a story about the salary gap between men and women claimed to continue on page 6, but copy editors forgot to put the rest of the story in the paper. The day before, the local front page contained a story about a San Mateo County Board of Supervisors meeting, but the headline attributed the action to Redwood City.

"These mistakes are not made by reporters and editors," he fumes, "but every member of the public thinks we don't know the difference between Pacifica and Half Moon Bay."

And from another anonymous journalist in the story:

Errors made by the centralized copy editing desk, the journalist complains, are routine, sometimes even comic. "One day there was a blank space on the front page where a photo was supposed to go. What concerned me was that there was no noticeable alarm that this had occurred. There's no connection to the community, so why be embarrassed by anything?

This is the response from Kevin Keane, the editor in charge of most of Media News' Bay Area papers:

To the charge that the centralized copy desk makes frequent errors, Mr. Keane says, "There's no question that the one copydesk has had some problems, but it's a solid operation."

The optimum solution, he says, is the traditional one with the copy desk in the same newsroom with reporters and other editors. But, he adds, "We're just not in a position to function like that."

MediaNews is moving toward a centralized copy desk next year that will serve all of its papers in the region, he explains, including the Mercury News. When pressed as to why each paper couldn't retain its copy editors, he responds, "We're just not."

Read more. Worry greatly. That last line about the Merc may take more than a few people by surprise (or not, given what's happening).

These sorts of things come about because the owners view the paper as a "product," not a service. A product orientation tends to be one that minimizes the economic principle of substitution -- it views consumers as those who cannot as easily do without what is being sold. A service orientation understands that things are very fungible and easily replaced.

I think some editing operations can and will be centralized, but there still has to be someone back in the community as a final touchstone.

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