Monday, June 30, 2008

The cold, hard skinny

I fear I will not be invited to the next Martini Tasting & Poetry Reading committee meeting of the fraternity of copy editors.

This Orange County Register move to outsource some copy editing has the troops riled -- I suspect because in the back of their minds they realize a Rubicon has been crossed, likely never to go back.

Until now, it was one of those things that was dimly distant. Occasionally there would be a small outbreak of such silliness, but some smelling salts and a little brandy, and common sense usually returned.

But this time it might actually be for real. The owners of the Register are known for their ability to squeeze a nickel until it becomes a penny, and, truth be told, if they can make it work others will notice. (And under the radar, Miami is back again, this time planning to outsource the work on its International Edition.)

Reality has hit, and hit hard

Thus has broken out a round of verbal fisticuffs at the Poynter site between Sir Journalists and one Dr. Rajiv Medanki. A consultant in internal medicine, according to his Poynter vita, and one quite learned about the ways of international trade, it seems. A sample:

America is outsourcing copy editing to India for the same reason it outsources computer manufacturing to China and Taiwan: lowered costs and greater profits. Doesn’t every business in America try to maximize these two objectives within the limits of law? Outsourcing of copy editing is legal, and was ironically made possible by a series of media business-friendly free trade agreements that the US and Europe arm-twisted poorer countries into signing. It hurts, doesn’t it, when the best-laid plans have unexpected side effects?
This is not going over well on the American Copy Editors Society's discussion board, prompting me to post this and thus likely becoming uninvited to the annual Reporter Roast and Comma Toss. Oh well. For your consideration:
I've got to give the points in this set to Rajiv.

See, the problem is copy editors are arguing all these fine noble points about "American Journalism." Rajiv is arguing cold, hard business. And he's good at it, and it's not sleight of hand.

We can have all the outrage we want, but the folks pulling our levers could give a damn. Their job is to make the corporation money -- and so is ours. Copy editors don't really "make" the company money. They conserve it by making sure it doesn't have to spend it on things like lawsuits and lost subscribers (we assume here that some folks become so agitated by whatever errors appear that they cancel) and, most important, lost credibility (except no one really knows what that costs). That's a valuable function, but not the raison d'etre of business, which is to expand revenue. (If you don't believe that and you have a 401K or mutual fund with stocks, well, yes you do believe it or you wouldn't be investing in stocks. Steady-state gets killed on the stock market because of the erosion of value.)

Problem is, even our most valuable functions don't translate particularly well into dollars and cents. And that is copy editors' biggest problem -- our costs translate well, our benefits not so much. So when the great accountants in the sky descend, you are a cost center. You can sputter and fume and twirl about in rage all you want. Doesn't make a diff.

You don't like it, go work for a nonprofit. Oh wait, anyone done that recently? I have some acquaintance with it sitting on a nonprofit's committee. And let me tell you, it's every bit as much about cost containment in the NP world these days, if nothing else so that you maximize the dollars going to your causes (and because your largest donors are now focused on a metric they call "efficiency").

Here's the business reality -- businesses will outsource as many copy editors in the coming years as they possibly can as long as the economics favor it. They will handle the "commodity" part of our jobs. Some domestic staff will be retained to review the work of the outsourced and to do those things that require local expertise. A new equilibrium will be found. To think otherwise is to repudiate 150+ years of industrial and economic history.

All the feel-good Web sites we put up won't change that (though maybe they'll give us a little ammo to change a mind or two for a little bit before the inexorable economics kick in). You want to save jobs? Then get some real ammo, the kind with dollar signs attached. And to do that you are going to have to fund studies that show quality and credibility actually make money -- and that's damn hard to do. Just ask Phil Meyer.

"Journalism is different." Agreed. But the companies we work for (or in my case worked, though I still do some freelance and, of course, teach) aren't different. They are creatures of the economic system they exist in. They will not account for all those noble things we talk about unless a) they see it makes money or b) the social costs we trot out are forcibly internalized. And generally you do that only through legal means. Problem is, this First Amendment thingy kind of ties our hands on that. (I have some knowledge of this since part of my grad work was utility regulation, which is all about internalizing social costs.)

If you want your "journalism" to be different, set up your own operation. See if you can find a different way to feed the beast. The "journalism" we love to talk about and the "business of journalism" are two separate things.

Until then, introduce yourself to some former rubber workers, auto workers, steelworkers, Linotype operators and back shop people (Remember them? They were no less "essential," were they?), and dozens of similar groups. Too many journalists are about to join them.

I did make a suggestion on the ACES board that if the organization's leaders are serious about opposing these moves, they may well want to start a rear-guard action by contacting and trying to make their case to the libel and errors & omissions insurers. (Here's one insurer's pitch.) Ultimately, they will be the ones to judge the risk of the venture and thus effectively do any internalization of costs to be done.

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At 7/1/08, 4:30 PM, Anonymous mike said...

I'd be interested in the policies of copyediting at some of the new leading blog sites, like Techcrunch or Gawker. (I am sure there are others I forgot to mention.) Is the new model to just post it, and the public will point out the inevitable errors? Strikeouts will be used to show the offending passage?

Good article. I agree entirely. I have been around the newspaper industry for a while. Game is over folks.

At 7/2/08, 8:00 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Not sure of the specifics at those sites, but the general model has been to post and then edit, if any editing is to be done, or yes, just let the comments roll in and deal with it as necessary.

Interesting you note about the strikethrough. While that certainly is the ethos with a lot of blogs, it isn't generally practiced, and I think it should be more, including on newspaper sites (except, probably, for defamatory material that, if left up in any form, could subject you to legal action).

At 7/3/08, 2:03 PM, Blogger Andy Bechtel said...

One problem with the strikethrough: It's often used ironically.

One problem with "let the readers give us the edits": When they do, sometimes no one listens:

At 8/5/08, 12:08 PM, Anonymous Mike said...

Of course the game is over. Good riddance to these greedy pieces of shit and their 30-percent profit margins. I hope they die horrible deaths before being able to enjoy one day of the retirement they "earned" on the backs of other people.


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