Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ideas on the March

John McIntyre opened his blog to Michael Bullwinkle, a student who has put some careful thought into the state of copy editing and those who practice the craft.  He sees, and encourages other to see, opportunities that might become available to copy editors as standard newspaper and magazine jobs disappear.

Here's part of what he wrote:

What I wonder is if perhaps one could take the basic model of these overseas copy-editing establishments and set up a similar little agency of native-speaking editors in the United States. To start, all you would need is a loosely connected group of work-at-home freelancers who had a common website and e-mail and divided up the editing accordingly. Billing could be done based on number of pages edited or specific contracts depending on customers’ needs.

I commend Michael for thinking about it and finding the perfect example in a TED talk, and John for opening his blog to a smart young guest writer.

Beyond that, here's what I think.

Several months ago, I floated a similar idea I was calling an editing combine that would offer its services to newspapers or other publications. Through ACES and other connections, several of us know editors in every time zone and imaginable work schedule. And there's no shortage of unemployed or under-employed highly skilled people available. The combine would take assignments, helping mostly smaller publications, by providing quality editing at a rather low cost because people would be freelancers and not staff. Someone carried the idea to AEJMC for discussion but we heard nothing further. Those who were talking about it had deep reservations about several aspects, though were not put off by the daunting task of organizing such an operation because, after all, we'd launched ACES with little more than sheer determination. Eventually, we parked the idea for further thought and the reality of having to make a living intruded.

But we haven't completey given up, though serious obstacles come to mind:

  • Technological issues could be severe. As someone who worked from both a newsroom and home office for many years and dealt with major changes in editing systems on both production and delivery ends, I can tell you that no one format--say, using MS Word--would work for everyone. Trying to make stories appear in the right format could be excruciatingly complex and frustrating and sometimes simply never work.
  • A combine/agency assumes that publications, print or online, are interested in quality work. We see evidence running in both directions. As a marketing device, we discussed taking on a web site that clearly needed help and gently prodding them to hire us through repeated editing reviews of their work. Quite a number of sites, both traditional journalism and others, could benefit from this, though they might not be receptive for some time, if ever. But if you see what passes for reporting at some of these sites where story churn is king, you know simultaneously that your services are needed but, appparently, not wanted.
  • Our combine editors would work cheap but not as cheap as those in India. If you haven't explored the freelance market, especially those run by services that invite bids from around the world, you're in for a shock. People are offering to work for literally $1 an hour, and that's your competition. You can find work that pays better, certainly but it is often rooted in some connection or a local company with a short-term need. In in the rich days, when newspapers were practically printing money, too many didn't want to spend on finding ways to improve quality, such as staff training. So that means we'd have to pitch primarily on financial grounds. And that means:
  • Contributing to further staff cutbacks. If our services were accepted and led to several others losing their jobs, the result would be counterproductive. Do we want to be responsible for costing someone a job with benefits, even if we could offer that individual freelance work? I don't think so. Others may disagree but this would be a deal breaker for me. And I see no way to enforce an agreement with a publisher who initially agreed that no jobs would be lost if he signed with such an agency.

Those are the primary negatives I see to such an editing combine. I don't think that such an organization is out of the question but I'm not sure it would be so different from companies that already exist to offer freelance editing. The major differences would be, I suppose, that it would be populated primarily by journalists, and be available for daily, rather than more long term,  assignments.

There are individual freelance jobs out there and, to repeat myself, I like the idea of engaging a web site and offering services. Too many, however, take the publish-first approach and, in fact, pride themselves in speed over accuracy, quite literally telling writers to skip the editing and legal checks in favor of posting. But perhaps we could focus on the sites that are a bit more thoughtful.

In recent weeks, I've been suggesting to people that should more newspapers continue to fold, and more editors be thrown out of work, that perhaps we could at least apply our values to the web. I simply do not believe that everything we learned to do in our careers will prove to be of no value in the coming years. It appears that we will have to find ways to put them to work, to preserve and use what we know.

To get rather hyperbolic, I find editors facing a kind of Dark Ages. In "How the Irish Saved Civilization," the Irish monks are credited with saving classical works from marauding Germanic tribes, transcribing and preserving the works for later generations. We, too, can put our values and knowledge to work, rather than just fading away, if we figure out the right approach, jettison the mourning for the way things used to be, and step forward with new ideas.  There is, after all, no newspaper copy editor I know whose job hasn't undergone changes thanks to new technology, the arrival of the internet and new publication demands, so it's not as if we haven't experienced change before.

So, congratulations, Michael, for starting the conversation again. Anyone else?

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