Dealing with the shrinking copy desk

Today’s copy editors face the prospect of being tomorrow’s unemployed as the copy desk has begun to go the way of the pica pole and proportion wheel. Just as technology made those ancient tools of the trade obsolete, it has contributed to the decline

of the position itself. As more of the job has been mechanized, copy desks have begun to resemble assembly lines. With the growth of centralized editing hubs, where copy for multiple newspapers in a chain is edited and pages are designed, copy desks might better be called copy finishing plants.

These changes have implications for the future of journalism on paper and online, and for how we teach future journalists.

“The role of the copy editor today is to move copy as they get it,” David Arkin,

vice president of content and audience for GateHouse Media, said when he announced the company’s plan to centralize design and copy editing.

Arkin may epitomize the modern news executive: concern with efficiency, speed and the balance sheet merged with the inability to see journalism as anything but a product. But even those with deep backgrounds in journalism are being pushed by financial pressure to adopt an assembly line approach to editing.

Design and copy editing for Tribune Co. properties the Hartford Courant and the Daily Press of Newport, Va., are handled in Chicago. Others in the chain are expected to follow. Editors in Chicago also assemble national, international, features and non-local sports news into “modules” that can be dropped into other papers in the chain. GateHouse’s larger papers will be designed and copy edited in Rockford, Ill.; smaller papers will be handled in Massachusetts. Other chains, including Gannett and Media General, have gone to similar models. Even The Associated Press now has regional editing hubs, taking some of the control over content out of the hands of journalists in its bureaus, who presumably know their areas better than editors from other cities.

“For a central desk to work, you basically have to standardize everything,” says Doug Fisher, a senior instructor at the University of South Carolina who spent many years as a reporter and editor.

And that’s one of the problems with centralized editing. Not only do newspapers lose their individual flavors when they become as standardized as a Happy Meal, they risk losing their connection with readers as editors in other cities make decisions that are not based on knowledge of the newspaper’s locality and audience. Fisher says leaving some people on local desks, as Gannett has done, can help editing hubs avoid such problems while meeting the goal of cost efficiency.

“I think it can save some money. But it has to be done judiciously and with a bit of art rather than a hammer,” he said.

Centralization has led to more job losses for copy editors, who were already among the hardest hit by the incessant buyouts and layoffs that have reduced the size of newspaper staffs dramatically in recent years.

“Papers have just decided that given the fantastical drop in advertising revenue over the past five or six years, this is something they don’t need,” said David Sullivan, a copy editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, which had 60 copy editors in 2005 and now has 23.

“It’s difficult to monetize exactly what copy editors do. Even the weakest story can be measured in clicks,” he says.

Sullivan said Arkin’s view of copy editors is becoming standard. The mechanics of online publishing are easier than print, and reader expectations for quality are at least thought to be lower, he says.

“The role of a copy editor is to run spellcheck and put it online,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan, of course, knows that the role is much more than that. Often regarded in newsrooms as glorified proofreaders, copy editors bring much more to the job. They read stories from a different perspective, questioning facts, seeking holes, guarding against libel. And, yes, they look for problems with grammar and usage.

“We’re representing the reader. That’s what we’re losing,” Sullivan said.

Whether a decline in quality will only accelerate the demise of newspapers is open for debate. By some measures, quality has suffered with fewer copy editors, but most chains find it an acceptable tradeoff so far.

“Corporate executives are paid to assess risks and take reasonable risks, and one of those is balancing quality against getting sued,” Fisher said. “You want to translate it into dollars and sense, you go to Bermuda and make the case to the libel insurers. Until they do that, they’re basically spitting in the wind.”

Sullivan and Fisher know that the old model is not coming back. The issue, as always in journalism, is tomorrow.

Reporters need to realize that no one is going to clean up their copy for them anymore, Sullivan said. Young journalists need to learn to think like editors, because they will often find themselves posting their own stories online and they will not hsve multiple layers of editing to catch their errors, he said.

“The only people who are necessary to a news organization in the 21st century are reporters,” Sullivan said.

Fisher teaches his editing classes with that in mind.

“I’ve shifted my classes to teaching with the idea that I’m teaching reporters to be editors,” he said. Fisher wants to be sure his editing students learn to find holes in stories and to look for potential libel.

“I do sometimes fear my colleagues assume I teach moving commas around on the Titanic. That’s not editing and it never was,” he said.

With reporters using Twitter, blogs and the web as well as newsprint, they are increasingly becoming their own brands and need to make sure they can protect their brands. Sloppiness and poor writing are unlikely to help them prosper in the age of journalist as entrepreneur.

Despite all the changes in the field, journalism schools should focus on developing old-fashioned critical thinking skills. More than ever, journalists need the ability to analyze and synthesize information, spot holes, and detect the odor of falsehood. They need to be able to do those things quickly and they need to be able to organize their thinking into clear reporting, no matter the format. When those skills are no longer necessary, journalism schools won’t be needed either.

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