Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Fewer 'touches' at the Post; realignment at the AP

I find myself having mixed emotions as I read Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie's memo outlining the news editing setup for the A section. (More in Jack Shafer's story from Friday that I just got to today.)

Yeayyyy. They get it.
We will remove layers of editing by providing greater flexibility to determine when a story is edited and by whom. We will create truer alignment of editing for the web and for the paper, recognizing that deadlines for many pieces are defined as the earliest moment they can be edited and published online. We will deepen collaboration among editors on assignment desks, copy desks, photo and the news desk to change how a story, graphic or photograph goes into the newspaper.

Overall, these changes are meant to make our editing model less like an assembly line -- moving copy towards the presses on a pre-determined schedule – and more like a network, responding to how journalism is actually created, distributed and discovered by our audiences in print and online. We believe this evolution is possible while ensuring the quality of our editing and the quality of life of editors.
But then I find myself saying wait a minute. It sounds simple, but it's not.

In a nutshell, the nightside national and foreign copy desks will be combined. Some folks will come off those desks and move to dayside where they now will be "assistant editors." More editing will be done on days, especially feature and enterprise material that does not have to wait till the evening. There will be more collaboration, etc. etc.

Doing more editing on dayside is common sense; it never made sense, all those years I was in newsrooms, why stories would have to wait till the copy desk filled up at midafternoon or later. Well, yes, it made sense in the long-entrenched culture of the newsroom: The hunter-gatherers worked days; the cooks worked nights, preparing the repast for the next day's audience. But it never made logical sense, so in that way, bully to the WaPo. In the digital age, it is silly to have a half-dozen editors "touch" most stories -- it was even silly in the day of the sheet-fed letterpress -- and it is even sillier to relegate it to one eight- to 10-hour period of the day.

After three people (assigning editor, copy editor and slot) touch a routine story (OK, four if you include a proofer), in most cases the marginal benefits drop rapidly. Managing Editor Phil Bennett is right in suggesting that too often the additional editors are less about quality and more about diffusing responsibility.

But about those "assistant editors." That bothers me because -- you'll think this silly if you haven't spent time in a newsroom -- titles mean and imply something. When copy editors become "assistant editors," there's this implication -- and you can pick it up from the memo -- that they go from being challengers to collaborators -- maybe even co-conspirators.

I fear there will be less of an imperative to challenge. Assigning editors are not always inclined to do it -- nor, in some ways, do I expect them to. I want them invested in the story, in there fighting for it, a passionate advocate for the writer and the work. That makes it tough to call "bullshit" (Exhibits A through Z are some of the stories that reach a copy desk every day) though the best can and do. There needs to be an outside party advocating for the reader, and I'm not sure "assistant editors" fit that, unless you have a major shift in newsroom culture -- and that includes getting reporters to file those pieces early enough to be edited early. (Read some other insights from Testycopyeditors.)

Shift, of course, is exactly what Downie & Co., are trying to do, which is why this bears close watching. If they can pull it off and maintain quality, it will be an important step.

Update: See the well-crafted post by David Sullivan, a Philadelphia copy editor, who elaborates on the difficulties involved. As Sullivan notes, this has been tried before, pre-Internet with the "pods" and "circles" of the early 1990s, with pretty uniformly bad results. But that was then, when the industry was not under siege. This is now, when even the most recalcitrant journalist probably would concede the stakes have never been higher.

At the AP, which already is laying plans for centralized editing desks, the consolidation beat goes on. A friend sends along this memo from AP President Tom Curley. Doesn't it just send warm chills down your spine to hear talk of "unification of ... revenue operations" and to see things like sports and business as "verticals" under, essentially, a super-sales operation? (So then what is "news" -- you know, the kind of stuff that holds governments' feet to the fire? Guess it falls under that "breaking" commodity stuff AP plans to sell as almost a loss leader.) No wonder the members are restless:

AP Staff:

To help drive AP s growth and competitiveness as the content marketplace evolves digitally, I'm excited to announce a unification of our revenue operations.

AP will consolidate its three business units -- newspapers, broadcast and digital -- so that they can better meet the converging needs of today's media industry. This reorganization will allow us to improve the speed and execution of decision-making, so we can more quickly and effectively bring new products to market. It also should simplify points of contact for members and customers. The restructuring puts into action a critical piece of the strategy mapped out last year at the Lake Placid corporate retreat.

Tom Brettingen, senior vice president for global newspaper markets, will become chief revenue officer for AP and senior vice president in charge of the new consolidated Sales and Marketing Department. In that capacity, Tom will oversee all sales and marketing operations worldwide. His department will include:

* Jane Seagrave, currently vice president for new media markets and director of AP Digital, who is promoted to senior vice president for global product development. In her new position she will oversee continuing development of our content verticals -- entertainment, sports, elections and business -- as well as Web video and all future product development.

* Sue Cross, now vice president/U.S. newspapers online, who is promoted to senior vice president for global new media and U.S. print and broadcast markets. Sue will also join the AP Management Committee, the group of senior managers that oversees AP operations and strategy.

* Joy Jones, vice president for global business operations, who is promoted to vice president for marketing operations. Joy will manage marketing, customer service, distribution platform planning and sales planning and analysis.

* Ian Cameron, vice president of AP Images, who will continue his current position.

* Eric Braun, vice president and head of AP Television News, and the regional directors of Global Newspaper Markets will also report to Tom.

Jim Williams, senior vice president of Global Broadcast, who has presided over the enormous revenue growth and success in AP's global broadcast division, will be retiring. Jim has agreed to stay for another month to help steer us through these changes. Jim departs with an enviable track record of accomplishments and a great fan base. To say that we appreciate his nearly 30 years of service and that we wish him continued success is an understatement. He will be missed.

As these changes take effect over the next days and weeks, a number of people will also be changing reporting relationships. We ll keep you informed as developments occur.

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