Monday, February 18, 2008
Can newspapers afford editors? Alan Mutter at Reflections of a Newsosaur asks that question in a depressingly timely discussion of the idea that the jobs of editors, mainly copy editors, will be in danger as newspapers continue to cut costs in the face of shrinking circulation and advertising revenue. These are difficult times, and I don't pretend to have my own answers, but I have some concerns about the idea that my job doesn't need to be done.
Mutter quotes an unnamed top editor at an unnamed top newspaper as asking: "Why do we have all these people processing stories after a reporter writes it? They are not producing anything that will get us traffic on the Web."
"Processing" makes me wince a bit, as does the "Why are there so many gnats buzzing around at my wienie roast?" tone that I'm picking up, but once you get past that, you have to admit that you've asked that question yourself. I often point out that I was surprised to learn as a beginning journalism student that the job of copy editor even existed at grown-up papers. If you're like me, though, the question was answered when you saw your first samples of raw copy. (As John McIntyre and at least one commenter to the Newsosaur post point out, the prose produced out by many reporters, even at the top level, needs a lot of work.)
And I do have to concede that copy editing isn't generating Web traffic. I didn't realize Web traffic was the only goal of a newspaper -- if that's the case, I have a one-word solution:
But perhaps I'm taking that quote too literally. The issue is whether the blog model of little or no editing can be applied to a print publication, whether we copy editors have managed to be demoted from necessary evils to unnecessary evils. Of course such a model can be applied, and has been in many cases, just as the paper always comes out no matter how many editors call in sick, and just as hundreds of small-town papers are "copy-edited" by the first just-out-of-college kid with Quark skills who's willing to move to the small town in question. The real question is whether a major print publication would want to make such an approach standard. "If we have to economize, the editing process is the place," says the top-paper top editor quoted by Mutter, and it isn't surprising that sometimes-sloppy writing about more beats will be favored to win out over well-edited coverage of fewer beats. But at some point the term "foolish economy" must come to mind. We don't need copy editors, but we don't need a lot of things. Why this big building? We have cellphones and modems, don't we?
Readers of top-flight publications don't get their copy directly from the reporters for the same reason that a stalk of wheat and a cow do not a hamburger make, for the same reason that fiancees don't have a freshly mined chunk of carbon, mounted on a sliver of ore, deposited on their fingers. We hire editors to make the writing presentable the same way we hire designers instead of letting the stories flow onto the page or the screen scroll-style, a la Kerouac. There is a certain level of refinement that the readers expect and deserve in the presentation.
Why not hold the assigning editors responsible for copy editing (or vice versa)? Well, they're busy doing their own very demanding jobs, and they may or may not be qualified to do ours (and vice versa). Reporting, assignment editing and copy editing are separate skills. And whereas nobody would automatically expect an assignment editor to be able to design pages or take pictures, it's widely thought that if you're a word editor of any sort, copy editing is a lesser included skill. If you've worked your way into a content-editing position at a major publication, one might ask, why can't you be expected to be reasonably competent at the finer points of spelling and grammar? The answer is (a) we should be aiming higher than reasonably competent, and (b), to quote Paul Simon, 'cause that's not the way the world is, baby. If being an "editor" means that of course you can edit, then save me a spot in the Indy 500. After all, this here license says I'm a driver. I've worked with plenty of reporters and assignment editors who do turn out clean copy, but I also know that some of the very best at what they do are not at all good at what we do. To push aside those journalists would be just as foolish as pushing aside the journalists who populate copy desks.
Perhaps someday consolidation will reshape the business to the extent that all aspiring journalists know that news organizations can afford to insist on hiring only the latter-day renaissance men and women -- the multiple threats who can report, write, big-picture edit, little-picture edit, craft display type, take photos and video, design pages, and code HTML. (Hell, sell an ad or two and vacuum the office while you're at it, you lazy bastard.) Until then, we go to press with the staff we have, not the staff we wish we had and never knew we needed till five minutes ago. And there are barriers of concentration, time management and perhaps left-brain-vs.-right-brain function that make such an arrangement questionable even for those most qualified.
I once worked for a truly exceptional slot man, a man who was and is one of the best copy editors I've ever known, and he took an exploratory detour to work as an assignment editor for several weeks. And you know what? He made mistakes he never would have made on the copy desk. He turned in clean copy, by assignment-editor standards, but it still needed to be copy-edited (just as my books on copy editing needed to be copy-edited). If this guy, copy editor extraordinaire, couldn't reflexively copy-edit to his usual standards while he's assignment-editing, it's doubtful that an assignment editor with lesser, or no, copy-editing skills would be able to do so.
It's true that readers of blogs and news-aggregation sites don't expect the same level of refined presentation that newspapers, magazines and books have always strived for, and it's possible that down the road, when the online publication is supreme and the print version is secondary or nonexistent, we will live in an idiocracy in which scrupulous attention to detail in accuracy and language usage is strictly optional. (Some at Testy Copy Editors think so.) Things are changing fast, but for now, at least at the big news organizations, the question of copy editors vs. no copy editors should be seen as the false dilemma that it is -- in a big newsroom, as in any office, it's not hard to find people with too little to do.
Posted by Bill at 3:20 PM