How to fix newspapers III: Don’t cut editors, change them

(Also see Parts I, II. and IV.)

Alan Mutter has a post making the rounds today bluntly titled “Can newspapers afford editors?” Mutter wonders how many editors really need to look at a story before it goes to print.

There are some obvious rejoinders to Mutter’s post. John McIntyre has a good one:

Dear reader, as a copy editor for the past 28 years, I’ve seen what writers, both amateur and professional, file, and you don’t want to. Unless you have a depraved appetite for factual errors, blurred focus, wordiness, slovenly grammar, peculiar prose effects and other excesses, it is in your interest for someone other than the writer to go over that text to clean it up, identify its point, and make sure that it gets to the point before you lose all interest.

John Robinson writes:

Of course, editors do much more than edit copy. They teach. We aren’t the New York Times. Reporters don’t come to us fully baked. (No one does, actually.) Editors help guide coverage. … We have also developed specialists. A good conceptual editor who can inspire reporters may not be a good technical editor who can find grammatical flaws or write pithy headlines.

But if we’re going to seriously rethink newspaper assumptions and traditions, we have to rethink all those assumptions — including the ones Mutter questions.

My own feeling is that we shouldn’t think of editing as a zero-sum game, as a choice between three edits (or six, or whatever) and pristine stories on the one hand, and no edits but awful copy on the other. Fewer eyes may be absolutely appropriate — if those eyes look at stories differently than they do now.

That means empowering and giving more responsibility to reporters and editors alike. It may be that having copy editors who focus on style, grammar and headlines are increasingly a luxury. But the answer isn’t to fire all copy editors and rush stories to print without thinking about any of those elements. The answer is to change the definition of a copy editor, reporter, and line editor.

Here’s one crazy idea that would help start redefining roles: Scrap the AP stylebook. Or rather, drastically simplify the stylebook so there are a handful of basic rules that every journalist can easily remember. This is a topic for another post, but I think the stylebook is a largely outdated artifact that mostly gunks up a newsroom’s works and adds confusion, not clarity, to stories. (For example, the average reader probably doesn’t know that Mo. is the abbreviation for Missouri rather than Montana, or why there are two different ways of depicting numbers in this sentence: “The 3-year-old boy ate three cookies.”) Even McIntyre seems to have conceded that maybe we can ease up a bit on the linguistic taskmaster role.

So first, radically simplify the stylebook — and then give reporters some responsibility for learning the new basic style rules. Also train them to write headlines, so each story draft is accompanied by a headline idea. Bloggers have to write headlines for each post, so why shouldn’t reporters write headlines for their stories? Yes, I know — headline writing is a skill and a craft, not everyone is good at it, etc. But if we’re asking journalists to become increasingly multifaceted technologically — giving reporters video cameras, making copy editors post to the Web — I think we can ask for some basic journalistic multitasking.

Line editors need to become more multi-faceted as well and take some responsibility for the kinds of things copy editors traditionally do. In my first full-time newspaper job (as an assistant news editor at a small New Hampshire paper), I did first reads and final reads, pointed out holes in stories and fixed grammar, helped reporters recraft ledes and crafted my own headlines. I was a conceptual- and technical-minded editor. If more editors took on more of those responsibilities, fewer eyeballs on a story might be fine.

“But I’m already drowning under too much copy,” a line editor might respond. Then the obvious answer is to make more line editors. And once the stylebook is simplified and reporters and line editors have started paying more attention to what’s left of copy editors’ traditional focuses, copy editors would be freed up to be more like line editors. Instead of funneling a flood of stories through a small number of line editors before sending them to a larger copy desk, why not have copy first flow to a larger group of empowered line editors? That would ease bottlenecks of copy flow, put more focused eyeballs on copy earlier in the process, and possibly allow papers to cut down on the number of edits involved — not for the purpose of firing people, but for freeing them up for other things.

As we move toward a Web-centric newspaper world, editors will increasingly be valued as curators who point readers to the most interesting news and miscellany from all over. Eventually the print paper will be just another distribution channel for a news organization’s content. Imagine if copy editors at that point were line editing stories as well as writing headlines, plucking stories from various places to package with local content as well as repackaging or rewriting that local material, and figuring out how to present it in a new, compelling way. They wouldn’t be copy editors anymore — they’d be a hybrid of line editor, copy editor, wire editor, reporter, and designer.

Now imagine a newsroom where instead of rigid boundaries between all of those positions, there was simply one group of empowered supereditors. That’s the paper where I’d want to work.

Realistically, yes, this might allow for a rapacious, soulless media company to fire some people. I don’t want to sound like Templeton on The Wire, dismissing layoffs as simply casting off deadwood. But “change or die” is not just the new motto for some amorphous group of newspaper industry titans. We each have a responsibility to be thinking about that change, offering up ideas, and being willing to challenge assumptions and try new things — just as the powers that be have a responsibility to encourage and experiment with those ideas. Otherwise, we will all get left behind.

UPDATE: Bill Walsh anticipates my argument:

If you’ve worked your way into a content-editing position at a major publication, as a colleague recently asked me rhetorically, why can’t you be expected to be reasonably competent at 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. …

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 cream of the crop — 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. … Until then, we go to press with the staff we have, not the staff we wish we had.

I find this type of response to Mutter’s post — “This is the way things are because this is the way they’ve always been” — unpersuasive. The Rumsfeld dig is meant to be cute, but remember that Rummy’s lame quote was based on a false deadline imposed by a Bush administration bent on going to war. So in that sense he was actually right — they didn’t have time to train a new generation of soldiers or move more battalions based on their manufactured timetable. But newspapers could and should have been planning for this moment for at least 10 years now — more than enough time to work toward a staff they might wish to have.

More to the point, I’m not sure why Walsh assumes that only the “cream of the crop” will be successful “multiple threats.” Every journalist from here on out will need to learn multiple new skills to be able to survive in the new media landscape. Again, I don’t see why a little more basic journalistic multitasking can’t be a part of the average journalist’s arsenal.

And what if the “staff we have” comment is true. Why do things have to stay that way? What if journalism schools started training their students to become “multiple threats,” and newspapers changed the way they work (in the ways I suggest in this post or otherwise) to both take advantage of these new journalists and retrain current ones? Maybe there would be issues of “barriers of concentration, time management and perhaps left-brain-vs.-right-brain function,” as Walsh says. Or maybe if editors were trained differently from the beginning and newsrooms empowered all editors instead of segregating them according to narrow different tasks, we’d find that it’s possible after all. I don’t know. But I do know that “that’s the way it is” isn’t going to cut it much longer.

UPDATE II: Nancy Nall has a similar take. After recounting an example of unedited copy from back in the day, she writes:

Not all reporters are this bad. But more are than you might think. In my experience, the number who check spelling, style, grammar, facts or anything else dwindle by the day. Their mantra is: That’s the desk’s job.

Okay, fine. Maybe that’s the way it is. The answer isn’t to throw up your hands and tell your shareholders, “Sorry, we can’t change the way we work because reporters are lazy and that’s the way things are.” (And no, newspapers ideally shouldn’t be worrying about shareholders and quarterly earnings. But until more papers are taken private or go the St. Pete Times/Poynter route, that’s the reality.)

Instead, start telling reporters that this attitude is no longer tenable or acceptable and that they have to change their damn mantra. And if you actually do change the desk’s job, in ways suggested above or otherwise, then you have that much more weight behind you when you tell reporters the old way isn’t how it’s going to work anymore. If you tell any one part of the paper to change on its own, that probably won’t work. But if it’s part of a larger process where everybody’s roles shift and their responsibilities increase, it’s doable.

I also like how Nall casually says, “For my money, you could can one-third to one-half the designers at any given newspaper.” So to recap: reporters are lazy and worthless, half the designers are useless — but the copy desk must stay exactly as it is!

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7 responses to “How to fix newspapers III: Don’t cut editors, change them

  1. Thank you.
    From the POV of this non journalist Baby Boomer info junkie this sounds so sensible.

  2. Thanks for the link. For whatever it’s worth, I never said reporters are lazy and worthless. I was a writer and columnist for 25 years, and a copy editor for six months, so my loyalties are always going to sway toward the writing side of the aisle. However, the biggest shock I got when I became an editor was seeing the craptastic copy too many of my colleagues turned in. (Designers, however — don’t get me started. Nothing chaps my ass more than opening my constantly shrinking, pamphlet-like broadsheet to find one-third of Page One devoted to a promo for the new Spiderman movie. Excuse me, the review of the new Spiderman movie.)

    You’re right — for the industry to recover, everyone’s job definition has to change, attitudes have to change, standards have to change. Good luck accomplishing that in a downsizing newsroom, which doesn’t inspire boldness in most people. A solid decade of non-stop lying from the front offices doesn’t help; publishers have been crying wolf over 22 percent profit margins for so long, it’ll be hard to convince the staff they’re serious now, that the ship really is taking on more water than we can bail, and no more lifeboats until everyone grabs a bucket.

    I think I’m going to stop writing about newspapers, anyway — it’s been three years since I walked out of my last newsroom, and it’s plain my expertise is dated.

  3. I know, I was just adding a bit of hyperbole to your hyperbole. But to be fair, calling out reporters for not checking “spelling, style, grammar, facts or anything else” (emphasis added) isn’t much different from calling them lazy bastards 🙂

    Don’t get me wrong — I’ve seen plenty of bad copy, and it annoys the heck out of me, too. I also don’t disagree that some reporters too often think “that’s the desk’s job.” But I would put more of the blame on a newsroom structure that has allowed that mindset to prevail for too long, rather than on reporters’ talent and drive.

    That newsroom structure is built on the luxury of having enough bodies that reporters can get away with leaving too much for editors to clean up. And that’s a structure that’s probably no longer tenable for most papers (or soon won’t be, the way things are going) — which is what inspired Alan Mutter’s post in the first place.

  4. Agreed. A friend of mine put it much more succinctly in a private e-mail:

    If I ran a newspaper I would cut down the number of people who see most stories. But, except in cases of extreme deadline crunch, there would always, always be three. Writer. Supervising editor. Copy editor. And all three would be held equally responsible for any mistakes. I think there are often times when a reporter doesn’t proof carefully, knowing that an editor and copy editor will do so. Then the overworked editor doesn’t read carefully, knowing the writer is good and the copy editor is careful. And the copy editor is overwhelmed and says, good writer, good editor, ship it.

    It’s the “equal responsibility” part that is key, I think. The shit can’t all run downhill.

  5. As one of those designers: It’s Spider-Man. You can’t really be blaming a designer for running a movie review, right?

    I’m all in favor of simplifying the process. The current system is obviously not going to work much longer. There aren’t going to be enough people in the newsroom to let it work much longer. Why hasn’t someone created an AP style check? You know, similar to spell check? (Or maybe someone has and I’ve missed it?) I know there are a lot of things that a computer can’t pick up on. But a little scripting, and it would know the difference between “3-year-old,” “3 years old” and “three cookies.” Technology should be making all of our jobs easier.

  6. An AP style check is a great idea! Though I have a feeling it would be like a grammar check — ultimately unable to grasp the nuances well enough to be worthwhile. Better to just cut back on those confusing style rules that don’t serve a purpose, I think.

  7. Erica’s first graf has it right on both points, most notably the second. If one-third of the front page is a movie promo, how is that the designer’s fault?

    At my last newspaper of employment, the designers were good at their jobs and could put a fine movie-review promo together when told to. I doubt any of them would do so on their own. The selection and play of 1A stories falls to news editors, managing editors, whatever the job title is. Maybe things were different where Nancy worked, but I doubt it.

    Copy editors (and reporters, and all news workers) aren’t going to secure their future by picking senseless fights like that.