Wednesday, June 25, 2008

UPDATED View From the Trenches

For people not acquainted with copy editors, it may seem rather remarkable that it took two people, one a columnist at The Washington Post, and the other a former copy editor who writes for The New York Times, to push us into speaking up a little louder on what is happening to our craft and profession.

But we need to speak up, now. And I want our industry leaders to talk to us. No. Talk with us before it is too late. Because it's not just newspapers you are wrecking. It is journalism. The building is on fire and, in some places, the arsonists are in charge.

I beg the industry for an honest conversation. Do you want journalism to survive? Do you want your print readers to go away? If you want them online so you can eliminate production costs, do you plan to offer them anything besides the latest celebrity scandal? Are you Pro Publica or TMZ? What do you hope to have left standing in a year? Five years? Besides your own career, your bonuses for trimming staff, that is.

The American Copy Editors Society came about in part in response to what we saw happening a dozen years ago, more work being put on the copy desk while the level of respect was declining. Not that there was ever a lot of respect but in those days, we were hearing stories about reporters posting snotty anonymous notes on newsroom bulletin boards, griping about the copy desk; troubled reporters were "demoted" to copy desk; copy editors were routinely finding that they were paid less than reporters, and too much work formerly done in production shops was landing on our heads. The newspaper industry could see that we were tired of it; the time was ripe to speak up. And so we did.

But the question has to be raised: is it too late? Is the trainwreck that is newspaper leadership in too many places going to continue to throw everyone onto the tracks in an effort to save their jobs, temporarily bolster their paychecks and stock prices? Have they no shame? Have they no interest in preserving their core product, the quality of a newspaper, no commitment to public service? Is panic drowning all common sense?

Having just fired off a series of notes about the new site Why Editing Matters I'm not yet sure what to think or whether it's time to put our pencils down and walk away. My e-mails got the kinds of comments copy editors often give. One extremely competent editor responded with this:

One gloomy headline after another on Romensko today. And this? What good will it do? The folks who run our companies won't read it. And even if they say they value what we do, there'll still be bloodbath after staffing bloodbath, and the powers that be will go for copy editors... before cutting local reporters....

What is particularly disturbing about this response is that the editor may well be right. In the past, copy editors escaped some of the worst of the cuts because often newspaper editors hadn't a clue how to get the paper out without them. Technology had left top editors behind while others thought they were too important to learn a little code, a little computter savvy. Now technology has automated certain functions, templates are used lay out pages, and the attitude of senior editors often seems to be, well, we'll live with the rest. (Automated systems give you stuff like this, by the way.)

So what if that bad sentence that can be read three different ways gets into print.

So what if we're unfair to the suspect in that police story and it turns out he's not guilty.

So what if we say the former governor had been arrested when he had simply resigned. We'll run a correction. Or not.

So what if we aren't serving our readers. So what if readers tell you that there are too many ads in the paper, when what they really mean is that there aren't enough stories.

And even having said that, that portrays us as purely stopping a negative rather than adding to the value of the product. So talk with us, if you don't know what you're doing. Even if you think that you do.

If we're not going to give our readers what they need--an examination of issues that goes beyond whether Hillary Clinton cackles or Tim Russert is still dead--then we need quality. Surely at least some top editors must realize that reporters are not perfect, that there is a benefit to maintaining a team of people who spot the errors, realize that story the city desk is so excited about is deeply flawed, who know something more about what is going in the world than the summer intern knows. And that knowledge has a value.

Would it be better if we stopped what used to be staff reductions that resembled paper cuts that have turned into throat slashings and get off paper and move the entire news operation online? Stop this death by a thousand cuts and move now? I love the feel and smell of a newspaper but I love journalism more. (It is not an accident that most of the better political blogs and websites are run by people who started in print so it can be done.)

Over the years, copy editors often said, under their breaths, they need us, we stop the libel. But frankly, that doesn't seem to matter much anymore to some people. If you're willing to give up your last line of defense, have you given up thinking that there's anything left to defend?

UPDATE: Some blogs comment on the value of editing and outsourcing of issue:

Some blogs note the outsourcing of copy editing:

As usual, John McIntyre expresses himself quite well.

Kathy Schenck weighed in last week.

David Sullivan was a bit more upbeat on the previously mentioned Newseum issue.

Bill Walsh

Shaping the Future of Newspapers

Foothill Cities Blog

Here and There

Mike Cane

The Cranky Copy Editor

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