Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Let's fire all the copy editors

Alan Mutter has stirred up the predictable hornets nest of posts about copy editing with his post "Can Newspapers Afford Editors?" No need for me to repeat what has become a long-running discussion on this blog and elsewhere. (Click on "copy editing" or "jobs" in the labels below to get a snootful of all the posts.)

There are an excellent number of responses and other blog posts at the end of Mutter's -- I encourage you to follow all of them. I would especially recommend John McIntyre's for its usual erudition, Nancy Nall's for her example of real-world copy (Nancy is a former colleague in Indiana), and the give and take between Bill Walsh and Josh Korr (I think Korr has it more right as to the ultimate outcome of all this; Walsh has it right as to the current reality of newsrooms). David Sullivan's got some good thoughts, too, but as I said, follow all the links.

Also check out the ongoing discussion at the American Copy Editors Society board.

Alas, many of the responses are of the same variety as we have seen before: We need editors because they ensure quality, and quality somehow sells. Sullivan puts it well: Look, we are who we are. The only way we can realistically continue to operate as newspaper journalists is to show how what we offer is better than what someone else offers. That means operating behind a brand. That brand has to stand for something. Quality is a good thing to stand for.

And I have a sign hanging on my office door: COPYED - Conserving Our Precious Yearly Earnings, Dude (We keep you from getting sued).

But all this just ignores reality, which I've argued here has gone on for too long. And perhaps that's why Mutter's post hit a nerve -- again. So let me restate it: This is business, and in business quality rarely sells.

But, you say, you can trot out a dozen names of companies getting top-dollar for their goods because of the impression of quality. You sure can. But what such arguments generally forget is that those goods maintain the sheen of quality through enforced shortages. They restrict where they can be bought. They limit production. And they market the hell out of their quality image.

Your local newspaper, magazine or TV station generally doesn't fit that bill. Quality is a secondary goal for those running the business (please note I did NOT say of the newsroom). I love to hear copy editors and their supporters talk about quality and all the battles fought, some won, some lost. Then I walk away and mutter something like, "Those poor souls; they'll never see it coming." And they haven't, and now it is here.

ACES has been part of this -- for as much as I love that organization, it has hardly been at the forefront of this momentous change breaking upon the publishing world. The dynamic may be glimpsed in the reason it does not have a job fair at its annual meetings -- it implicitly, if not explicitly, has promised not to do that for fear that newspaper managers will not let copy editors come because of the concern they could be lured away. I understand entirely how this came about, but if it is going to be a truly effective organization, it's going to have to reconsider the changing times and the "please, master, may I have some more" orientation.

I've argued here before that copy editors have got to find a way to show they can generate some cash flow, that they understand the business game. Or they are going to have to make a doubly powerful case that quality in the publishing biz translates to money. Otherwise, they are simply a cost center, and in a commodities business, cost centers are dead. That's what Mutter, essentially, is arguing.

Every time this topic comes up, I hear from people -- including fellow faculty members -- who say just wait, there will come a time when people will wake up to all the crap on the Web and just search for those quality sites they can rely on.

Just as you are not going to spend your way out of a business decline when the underlying model has permanently changed, just as you are not going to write your way out of declining readership when the underlying demographics and time use have changed, institutions are not going to "quality" themselves out of their business woes when the underlying patterns of information consumption and expectation are changing.

First, your underlying product -- information -- is a widely available commodity. Second, the "quality" argument relies on the idea that people will somehow come to you as an information portal. But everything we've seen shows us moving further from that. People come to items all different ways -- social network references, e-mail, blogs, RSS feed, aggregated feeds on things like Netvibes.

Third, as a result, credibility, especially online, is transactional, not institutional. Does this item fulfill the information need I have at that moment and -- and this is an important "and" -- how does it line up with what else I'm reading online? Because, you see, unlike the print product, if you really are playing by the online rules, you're sending me to many other different places so that, as one person famously wrote, "We can fact-check your ass." Given that, do I need multiple editors doing that job for me? Maybe not. Maybe I need only one, two at the most, reading behind the writer to catch anything egregious (be it fact error or language tangle). I think Korr has it more right than wrong when he argues, "Don't cut editors, change them."

Yes, we do need multiple layers of editing for print because it is a different kind of product. But we are in shifting times, so we tend to view things not how they are or where they are going, but how they have been.

Given this, I think Mutter rightly addresses the issue head-on. He's posing the business calculus that hundreds of copy editors might not want to hear, but need to hear. The correct question back to them is: Instead of standing around bleating about it, what are you going to do about it?
While you're at it, read Korr's three other posts on fixing newspapers. Korr's is a good example. I'd never read him before seeing the link from Mutter. But a lot of what he says has credibility based on what I know and what he links to. He's now in my RSS reader. (Oh, yeah, his work could use some copy-editing, too. Does it bother me that much? No.)
Update 2/20
Pam Robinson, one of ACES' founders, fills in more on the thoughts behind the "no job fair" idea. And I agree with her (as I said, I knew the reasons). The "job fair" really is just a symbolic thing. I bring it up because we have enough layoffs in this industry now and enough people fearful for their jobs that things may have changed enough to reconsider.

But I'm not sure what a job fair has to do with the state of the business now or what it is any single organization can do about the current situation we confront now, she writes. I have immense respect for Pam, but that tone is exactly what concerns me. One organization, fighting and making the case for its members and the worth of their work -- and maybe looking into working with researchers to find new ways to quantify that -- is more than we have now. Let's at least go down swinging.

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At 2/21/08, 12:48 AM, Blogger Pam said...

Hi, Doug: glad you came by--was planning on writing to you directly.
What I was saying was NOT that we shouldn't fight for our members but rather that simply having a job fair wasn't a solution to the bigger problems of respect for the craft. We started out saying that ACES purpose was to bring copy editors, identify common problems and find solutions. A job fair, at the time, was a distraction, not a help in any realistic way I could see. And yes, ABSOLUTELY, an organization ought to be fighting for its members, the quality of its work, its value, etc., now more than ever. Passively accepting the deterioration of the craft is foolish. I don't know, I think there are better ways that any organization can help its members. On re-reading--perhaps I should rephrase--I didn't mean a group couldn't do anything for its members but that the job fair idea seems not to be the solution.

At 2/21/08, 10:42 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Thanks for all the insight. I think we're getting hung up on the words "job fair."

As I said, it's merely a symbolic thing. I use it almost in a metaphorical sense of the idea that it's just one of the things we can consider doing, and, especially given the current layoffs, might be timely to consider. But if ACES doesn't do it, I don't think the world would stop turning.

(A thought I've floated before is a college-level job fair. That has the benefit of attracting students to our jobs -- and to us -- and showing them there is interest (oh, and if a few recruiters happen to be around and veterans get to talking to them, well ...))

The larger point remains that we can shout "quality" all we want. I think few people are listening. We won't be heard until we start talking the language of the boardroom. That means it's time for innovative thinking, perhaps finding some way to support and extend the work Phil Meyer began "The Vanishing Newspaper" -- trying to tie quality to some sort of quantitative measure.

At 3/1/08, 2:12 PM, Anonymous Maurreen Skowran said...

Doug, I agree that quantify the quality and its effects could or should be key. Also that Philip Meyer's work with the Vanishing Newspaper should be extended.

Here's another point: The print and online numbers for many specific newspapers are not parallel. The online audience size as a proportion of print audience size can vary greatly.

So, there is some difference(s) apart from the quality of the print product that is either attracting or repelling audience.

Doug, if you or anyone is interested in looking further into this, maybe we could work together.


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