Cutting copy desks: Penny wise or pound foolish?

It’s no secret that newspaper copy editors work in obscurity. They toil at night, on weekends and over holidays, without even a byline to note their role in delivering the news to the publication’s readers. But as the industry moves toward consolidating copy desks across the country, these unseen journalists are becoming an endangered species.

Consolidating copy desks is part of a nationwide trend by newspaper management. It’s an attempt to enhance newspapers’ bottom lines by assigning a set of copy editors in one location the task do the work that previously was done on-site at each newspaper.

Erica Smith, the social media director at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, maintains an online blog called “Paper Cuts” ( that tracks newspaper layoffs and buyouts. In 2008, according to Smith’s research, the layoffs and buyouts at U.S. newspapers shrunk staff levels by 15,993 jobs. In 2009, 14,825 jobs were lost. In 2010, Smith reported that 2,920 newspaper jobs were cut. (That number included 31 newspapers in Illinois reporting layoffs that year – the most papers reporting layoffs of any state.) In 2011, Smith found that 4,111 newspaper jobs were eliminated, and the 2012 layoffs stood at 858 as of early March.

On her blog, Smith said her figures “include all newspaper jobs, from editor to ad rep, reporter to marketing, copy editor to pressman, design to carrier, and anyone else who works for a newspaper.” But those figures may be understating the total, she said, because many newspapers don’t announce layoffs – and the numbers she’s collected don’t include jobs lost through attrition.

The trend to consolidate copy desks as part of this downsizing in the industry isn’t new. The “virtual copy desk” been part of some newspaper journalism discussions since at least 2008, if not earlier.

The trade magazine Presstime identified the consolidation of the copy desk as one of eight newspaper trends for 2008. A story in that year’s January edition reported that “as newspapers seek to become more efficient in tough economic times, using technology more and combining job functions are two approaches, says Steve Buttry, director of tailored programs at the American Press Institute in Reston, Va. ‘In a perfect world,’ he says, ‘local copy editors could review non-local stores and offer insight the paper might otherwise miss, such as the need to add a paragraph on a local person who is a central player in a national story. But if anybody believes newspapers are operating in a perfect world, they haven’t been paying attention.’ ”

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the peak number of journalism jobs at U.S. newspapers occurred in the late 1980s, when almost 57,000 journalists worked in the newspaper business. That number had fallen down to around 41,000 by the end of 2011.

The ASNE figures showed that nearly one-third of newspaper journalism jobs have been eliminated since the number of workers in the industry peaked at 56,900 in 1989, according to its annual survey. At the end of 2010, just 41,600 journalists were still collecting a newsroom paycheck.

The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists that “exists to ensure that our communities have access to excellent journalism,” addressed the trend of copy desk consolidation in a story written by Bill Mitchell on its website,

“The intent is to find the minimum number of people required to produce each newspaper without eliminating critical functions,” said Mitchell, a Poynter affiliate who served as a member of its faculty, in the story from July 22, 2009.

At the website for the American Copy Editors Society (ACES),, freelance visual journalist and instructor Charles Apple had this to say in an Oct. 27 blog post: “I’m against any consolidation that puts editing of local copy – about local cities, local people, local streets and landmarks, local history – into the hands of folks who aren’t local. Any such effort will result in a decline of quality and an increase in errors.”

Tim McGuire, the Frank Russell Chair for the business of journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, agrees with Apple. McGuire, in a blog entry dated Jan. 20, 2010, at the website, had this to say about the value of newspaper copy editors: “I think just whacking a bunch of copy editing positions out of the system and expecting spell check to pick up the slack is a terribly ill-advised path. Copy editing is a subtle, nuanced art that goes way beyond spotting typos. That is proofreading, not copy editing. Most spell-check systems can catch some typos, but not all. Copy editing corrects context errors, provides expertise on local points of history and location, and supplies subject matter expertise that often saves a piece of copy. Copy editors also supply a little thing called judgment. Every writer pushes a point too far, uses language that is ill-advised or makes assertions that can’t be supported. A copy editor’s job is to catch those.”

To be sure, the copy desk cuts are being fueled by a drop in advertising sales, the primary source of newspaper revenues. Ad sales plummeted by 17 percent in 2008, then fell off the edge of a cliff with a 27 percent drop in 2009, according to data provided by the Newspaper Association of America.

For his part, Apple has been keeping close tabs on the copy desk consolidations. In a Jan. 17 blog post, he reported that GateHouse Media, which owns 97 newspapers in 20 states, had revealed its plan to consolidate its copy desk and design functions of its daily newspapers to hubs in Boston and Chicago. The first of the company’s daily papers to be moved to the hubs included the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill., and the Register-Mail in Galesburg, Ill. According to Apple, “Design and copy editing desks for those two papers will be moved to Chicago by June.”

Not everyone is lamenting the consolidation trend, though. Longtime newspaper journalist Steve Yelvington, who was the founding editor of the Star Tribune Online ( in Minneapolis in 1994, posted an article titled “Let’s just bury the nightside copy desk” on his website

“Forgive me, nightside copy editors, for I have come to dash your hopes and crush your spirit,” Yelvington wrote in his June 8, 2011 post, adding: “We are seeing the sunset of print, and no amount of wishing and hoping will make it otherwise. Cutting the cost of print production as print revenues fade is the only responsible path, the only way to ‘save newspaper journalism’ for a digital future.”

Yelvington makes the argument that “editing should be tightly coupled with newsgathering and writing. If your newsgathering process isn’t producing clean, publishable copy, you’re not ready for a digital world. Fix it. Print is, at best, a static fork of a continuous digital process. If you’re waiting to post news until it’s edited for print, you’re killing your job. If you’re posting news on the Web that isn’t of publication quality, you’re killing your job.”

On that point, veteran editor John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun agrees with Yelvington.

“There, I think, is the point that is missed by the managers who are eliminating copy desks,” wrote McIntyre in his “You Don’t Say” blog at the website “They would be better advised to find ways to incorporate copy editors more thoroughly into the production of the electronic editions.”

Share our journalism