Sunday, October 21, 2007

A clarion call for copy editors

A poster on the American Copy Editors Society discussion board calls attention to a Bloomberg article, "Singleton's MediaNews Plans to Triple Web Revenue."

In it, MediaNews President Joseph Lodovic is quoted thusly: ``We have to find ways to grow revenue or become more efficient by eliminating fixed costs. ... Why does every newspaper need copy editors? In this day and age, I think copy-editing can be done centrally for several newspapers.''

If copy editors have not heard the clarion call before this -- well, now you hear it. It will do no good to proceed with business as usual, insulated in our own little world on the desk and failing to make our case. This was my post in reply on the ACES board:

I think the most telling thing in that quote is lumping copy editing in as "fixed costs." That ought to send chills down the spine of everyone on this board and redouble efforts to figure out ways to change that image.

If you are a "fixed cost," it generally means in the business world that you are to be taken to as close to zero as possible. Fixed costs are the evil of making money. They are to be tolerated only insomuch as they absolutely are needed to the production of the good or service. Variable costs are preferred because they can be adjusted to the variability in revenue.

We will never become variable costs (consider the implications in that), but we must make the case that we are absolutely needed to the production of the product/service (I prefer to think of news these days as a service). And it wouldn't hurt if we figured out a way to generate a little cash flow, too, and not just be a fixed cost. See my challenge to copy desks that I issued at last year's ACES convention.

(It was greeted with some fair amount of revulsion in places like Testy Copy Editors. But here it is, in black and white, from Mr. Lodovic himself, why it's important to consider such things. You simply are not speaking his language unless you get some skin in the game.)

Copy desks exist for two reasons. The first these days is simply to assemble the paper, a rather mechanical (sorry if I offend anyone, but it is) task that drops in value every time something else can be digitized and automated. The one creative function that is a core part of that, writing heds and cuts, may rank high in our eyes, but I suspect not so much in the eyes of publishers who see the relative space contribution of reporters (a pity, since every study shows that we are the most widely read writers in the paper, and on the Web it's even more critical for clicks).

Quality, the second reason and the one we like to think we exist for, is probably a lesser function among those who control the finances and becoming more so with the bastardization of the "good enough" standard set in the Newspaper Next report. (See my recent column and comment exchange on that.)

It's a tough challenge to sell, especially in an otherwise commoditized market. Why does BMW command a premium? Because the image of quality is built into its very being. We have not done that in our newsrooms -- in fact, I would argue too much of our journalism has contributed to the commodity image, not the quality one, and the industry by and large has been perfectly happy with that. In a commodity industry, you get big and you ruthlessly cut costs, especially fixed costs.

So how do we change that?

That needs to be a central topic of the Denver convention and of this organization in general.

We are not helpless, but we will be hopeless if we don't deal with this reality.

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