Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Yelvington throws a nod to copy editors

Steve Yelvington, who is paid by Morris Communications to, among other things, peer deeply into the future and figure it out, looks back a bit to his desk days as he throws a nod to the copy editors and subs of the world who, especially after the past two weeks, are in deep disarray.

Yelvington's paean cuts both ways, however. One of his first lines will get shouts of "huzzah" and "hallelujah" inside the cathedral of the rim:

The dirty little secret of newspaper journalists is that a lot of them can't write very well.
But don't go crowing yet, dear subs, because Yelvington's message isn't that you need to be there to save the world. His message is that newspapers -- heck, newsrooms in general -- no longer can afford the specialization that copy editors (and a lot of other newsroom jobs) represent. Specialization is an artifact of the Industrial Age, a time when we were manufacturing newspapers, not serving people by trying to get them the most relevant news where, when and how they want it (something I dubbed a long time ago as "rapid relevance"). Or as he puts it:

If you're studying journalism, you'd better learn to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time, without making any mistakes, because there's not going to be anyone there to save you from your own shortcomings. ...

Some copy editors are going to lose their jobs. But so will some reporters.

Because without copy editors, the reporters who are weakest at writing, at attention to detail, at stepping out of their own heads and critically examining their work, are going to be subjected to the harshest editors of all: a readership that today is empowered to talk back.

Once you've chewed on that, pop over to Jeff Jarvis' little exercise in creating your own newsroom budget. (Thanks to Yelvington for the pointer.) He's got a Google doc spreadsheet up that you can edit if you want to try your hand at it. He's not overly kind to copy editors either. (Here's the link directly to the Google doc.)

I'm not sure I'd cut the desk quite as deeply as he does, but the copy editors I'd have left would have to be multitaskers -- just as Yelvington's reporters will have to be. Yeah, you might spend 70 to 75% of your time editing copy, but the rest you've got to pitch in with another skill: moderating online communities, some design, seeking out the best blogs/sites/etc. to bolster our opinion offerings, etc.

Interesting in all this is the renewed emphasis on beat reporting. Cool.

I seem to recall in a dim memory somewhere when I was just a cub that's what we did. I remember coming in and hitting the phones and working City Hall incessantly for the first few hours to find out what was going on that day -- and then reporting on it. What a concept -- we found out what was news that day and reported it (as well as throwing a feature or enterprise piece or two in the can for the weekend).

Of course, in the '80s and '90s we got into "planned news," because its easier and cheaper (you keep your costs down if you can plan it). And little by little reversal crept in, so it was suspect if you were out of the office, instead of if you were in it. I take the latest developments as welcoming back the old admonition from the city editor: If you don't want me in your hair, get the hell out of the office (subtext: but don't you dare come back without a story).

Yes, it can be abused, but it's generally a good thing.

(Update: BusinessWeek profile of Mindworks, one of the big outsourcing shops in India.)

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