Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Sobering thoughts for copy editors

The upheaval at Britain's Telegraph Group brings some sobering thoughts for copy editors -- or subs (for sub-editor) as they are known across the pond. One wonders when we will start to see the same thing here. Telegraph Chief Executive Murdoch MacLennan wrote to his executives:

Some aspects of our news operation have not altered significantly in decades. The digital revolution is rapidly making them obsolete. When we move, we must take the opportunity to do things differently, particularly in the way we produce our content.

As we have recently seen at the FT, integration of print and on-line inevitably provides considerable scope for reducing duplication of effort and for simplifying the editorial production process. As a result, resources can be released which will allow us to develop the business in a way which keeps us ahead of the pack.

The Guardian's Roy Greenslade chews on that a bit and concludes that the days of the sub-editor may be numbered.

I'm not yet quite certain what those "practices" might be, but I'd guess that he means production and that means, of course, waving farewell to sub-editors.As a long-time newspaper sub of yesteryear, and therefore deeply appreciative of all that subs do and have done, I lament their passing. But it's plain, and getting plainer all the time, that this revolution is allowing reporters and writers to speak directly and instantaneously to readers and online users. There is less need for the middle man (and woman), though I'd guess that many a sub-editor who has laboured over a reporter's tortured prose, sloppy fact-checking and poor spelling will disagree. In truth, though, all journalists in future will need to have all those skills. Hundreds of thousands of bloggers post perfectly readable copy hour by hour without the need for anyone to write a snappy headline or insert a semi-colon. They are the future, and both their input and output, seen in purely commercial terms, is cheap.
As witnessed at ths year's ACES convention, copy editors are already a nervous lot -- too often not sure where this particularly enshrined "print" skill (though no less needed in broadcast and online if one looks at the output of those media) is headed. This can't help.

They can take a little solace, maybe, in the comments to Greenslade's column that are largely supportive of the job they do without being shrill about how the world might end without copy editors (it won't).

But they also will have to listen to what MacLennan is saying: As big as the challenges are, there are unparalleled opportunities, too. In a multi-media world, strong brands will flourish.

Copy editors need to start promoting their "brand" a lot more heavily and what they can bring to any publication. Too often, however, they revel in their anonymity. That will not serve them well. Likewise, sticklers for standards and consistency as we in the copy-edting business are, I fear that midset sloshes over into an overall reluctance to change. Oh, change on a desk happens, but if you've ever looked carefully, too often it is tepid at best (more charitable folks would use the word "deliberate.") Copy editors are likely to find their jobs changing radically in the next decade, yet their core principles need not, and should not. To survive, they must be able to distinguish the two and accommodate those changes while promoting themselves as a value proposition, not a cost center.

Pam Robinson highlighted some of the fears with one of her recent blog posts about how Indian companies specializing in outsourced jobs are bulking up in the editing and media areas. Yes, it's probably going to happen, I said in an e-mail

I suspect we will see some other work go to the subcontinent, and you know what I think it might be first -- design! Design does not need context to operate (witness many of the newspapers we now see and how, as copy editors, we have to shoehorn things into design for design's sake). If I give you a story budget and order and the specs for my publication, design work can be done anywhere, with maybe one or two domestically to handle deadlines and touch up anything you've screwed up.

Producing briefs -- yep, that can probably go overseas, too. In fact, I've said that were I starting a paper, I'd find a computer program to take any press releases that needed briefing and have the program write them. (I want my reporters out on the street, not processing copy.) However, nothing would see the Web or my paper without going through an editor.

Of more concern, I think, are things like Scripps' consolidated desk for three or four of its Florida papers. I think Media General has (or has considered) a couple of those, too. As we get more clustering (McClatchy, for instance, now owns six papers in South Carolina, if you include Charlotte's substantial circ. in the northern part), we're going to see more of that, and that will be the danger for copy eds.

Oh, I think some publisher will try to outsource copy editing at some point, but similar things have been tried before, and the results are almost uniformly bad because the person has no local context to spot those errors that don't come from a dictionary or stylebook. (As an example, though imperfect, back in the '80s, UPI was having all its state broadcast copy produced and edited at three or four regional hubs. That ended after lots of errors crept in.)

One other thing -- expect to see papers drop more full-time staff and go to contract temps for editing. They might for reporting, too, but I expect it more for editing. The reason: The copy desk is like a utility -- it has to be ready to supply power at peak times, but that means there are times it is staffed too heavily (say 4 p.m. when there's relatively little copy in queue -- or whatever the slow time is at your shop). So if my "peak" period is from 7-10, let's say, why do I hire a person for eight hours? I hire just enough full time to cover those slow periods, then bring in the contract workers for the peaks. (Oh, and I don't have to pay them benes, either.) I'm not saying I like it; I'm just analyzing it from the business perspective.
That note about consolidated desks took on some new meaning with rumors later circulating that Tribune was looking at combining desks. Supposedly, that has cooled for now, but the idea of consolidating design still apparently has legs in the company. As the New York Times' post-mortem on Knight Ridder noted, combining copy desks was one of the options considered in that company's final throes ("Knight Ridder also suggested that copy-editing functions could be consolidated, even among far-flung papers.")

So expect to read more -- a lot more -- about this in the next year or two. I predict ACES conventions will not be the most upbeat of gatherings for a while unless and until copy editors do a lot more to assert their value, but in a way that recognizes and incorporates new media realities along with old media sensibilities.

And I forgot to note that the Baltimore and Washington Examiners are laid out and paginated from a central desk in Alexandra, Va.

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