Category Archives: Journalism

The danger of lame local news

Everyone who has trumpeted hyperlocal news as the future of newspapers should read this hilariously merciless Bill Wyman post at Hitsville.

Wyman, who notes that he gets three newspapers a day, gives a brutal assessment of one edition of the Arizona Republic’s “Arizona Living” section — which includes such interesting stories as “Free burrito for teachers, ” “Post office food drive,” and “Fight Crohn’s and colitis” as well as

a short filler AP item (“Jump-start day sweetly, swiftly”) about how the Tootsie Roll company has a new product: “Maxxed Energy Pops, a cleverly packed energy drink in the form of a lollipop.” It’s almost hard to believe that life forms above the level of a somewhat dense tree sloth took part in the selection, editing, hed-writing and publishing of that piece of prose.

Yowza. I’m always wary of hyperlocal pushes because of the danger that papers will end up with lots of lame community-newsletter fluff like this. Of course there are ways to do hyperlocal that don’t result in stories-as-boring-calendar-items; Wyman himself suggests a much better approach to one of the Arizona Living stories. So let his post be a warning to journalists everywhere, hyperlocal or otherwise. Please, please, don’t end up like this:

It’s clear that everyone involved long ago had any bit of originality or innovation beaten out of them. They know that they can’t go wrong producing and designing the page to appeal to some imaginary doddering grandmother, so they scour the day’s press releases and then sit around and brainstorm to zero in on the bloodless, the trivial, and the utterly mundane.

A solution for journalism, in one sentence

From Matthew Yglesias:

Why not get political news from a political news outlet, movie reviews from a place that specializes in movies, and local news from an organization that’s really passionate about covering its community rather than viewing it as a JV form of journalism to be endured before moving on to something bigger?

The problem with journalism, in one sentence

Amy Gahran has a good column at Poynter Online (via Craig Stoltz) about how closed-mindedness is keeping newsrooms from plunging headlong into the future — and leaching all the fun out of journalism, to boot.

Gahran identifies a number of attitudes that “directly cut off options [for change] from consideration” and can lead to a “toxic” newsroom culture. She also articulates what, to my mind, is turning out to be the central problem with objectivity-era mainstream journalism:

Journalists (more so than most other professions) are supposed to be fundamentally curious and profoundly interested in what’s happening around them.

An apparent lack of curiosity shows up in today’s newspapers in the form of ignorant political journalism, stories written straight from press releases and PR pitches, stories that treat technology and consumer electronics as alien subjects. It shows up inside newsrooms in the form of old-timers who still aren’t comfortable with computers, new-timers who’ve heard of RSS but haven’t tried it out, higher-ups who rarely read journalism/new media blogs.

Institutional strictures are probably the main culprit here. Why bother being well-versed in policy if objectivity conventions forbid you from betraying your expertise in print? Why bother learning how to use new technology if the paper is (until recently) making boatloads of cash doing things the way they’ve always been done? Why explore things like RSS if nobody in the newsroom has articulated why you should do so?

Still, just as newspapers as institutions will have to change, individual journalists will have to ask themselves if they’re curious and interested enough to pro-actively face the coming shakeout. Because in three to five years, it’s likely that the only people to still have journalism jobs will be those who view journalism as more than just that job they’ve always had.

Ignorant political journalism in full effect

In light of this post, it seems appropriate to mention that Wednesday’s Democratic debate turned out to be the apotheosis of mindless, ignorant political journalism. I only caught the last 45 minutes, so I didn’t see the really egregious stuff at the beginning. But even some of the policy questions were bad — i.e. Charlie Gibson channeling Grover Norquist and trying to get the candidates to agree to a no-tax pledge — and from all accounts the rest was a joke as well. (Update: Crooks and Liars has video of the more inane questions.)

There’s been a ton of response to the debate around the blogosphere. Andrew Sullivan has roundups here and here, and a good post of his own. James Fallows weighs in from China with an important post that includes an excerpt from his 1996 article, “Why Americans Hate the Media”:

When ordinary citizens have a chance to pose questions to political leaders, they rarely ask about the game of politics. They want to know how the reality of politics will affect them—through taxes, programs, scholarship funds, wars. Journalists justify their intrusiveness and excesses by claiming that they are the public’s representatives, asking the questions their fellow citizens would ask if they had the privilege of meeting with Presidents and senators. In fact they ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about.

In the same vein, anyone interested in this topic should read Matthew Yglesias’ December Washington Monthly piece on how NBC’s Tim Russert is the driving force behind this kind of political coverage.

The one good thing about the debate is that it was such a monumental debacle — even Tom Shales, the Washington Post’s TV critic, called it “shoddy” and “despicable,” — that the backlash might finally be strong enough to keep this conversation going and (one can dream) eventually spark some changes.

Ridiculous newspaper prudishness, cont’d

Via Hitsville, I see that the New York Times continues to assure readers it is dowdy, out-of-touch, and scared of printing language spoken by actual 2008 adults. The latest is an article about vulgarity in NBC’s Thursday-night shows, helpfully annotated by Bill Wyman at Hitsville:

“In the case of ’30 Rock,’ the reference came in the form of an acronym — part of the title of a make-believe ‘Survivor’-like show — referring to a teenager’s crude designation of someone’s sexy mother.* In ‘The Office,’ besides the bleeping, the character’s lips were even pixilated to prevent lip reading. But it was not difficult for many viewers instantly to realize what was said**.”

* The show-within-the-show in “30 Rock” is called “MILF Island”; MILF stands for “mother I’d like to fuck.”
** In “The Office,” Jan and Michael, hosting the dinner party from hell, engage in a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”-style face-off, culminating in an argument about having children in which it’s revealed that Michael has had a vasectomy, had it reversed, and then had another one because of Jan’s indecision. “Fine, let’s have a fucking kid,” she says sarcastically. “Do you mean it? Do you want to have a kid?” Michael asks, ready to have his second vasectomy reversal.

See, the real problem with the Times’ (and, by extension, 97 percent of daily newspapers’) prudishness is not only that it drains all the humor and realism out of the topics at hand. It’s just plain confusing, people!

Readers might think 30 Rock’s show-in-a-show was called “YMAH: Your Mom’s a Ho” or “YMSMASPFROMS: Your Mom Sent Me a Spam-Porn Friend Request on MySpace.” The Times may think it’s sheltering readers from put-cotton-in-your-ears language — but it’s really just giving them license to mentally run through all the dirty words referring to a teenager’s sexy mother. Shame on you, gutter-dwelling Times readers!!!

Political journalism’s policy ignorance

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a post about the pointlessness of the “Is the media finally getting tough on Barack Obama” meme. The gist would have been that the media’s “getting tough” on Obama — just like the media’s alleged “Obama bias” — had zero to do with policy and everything to do with personality, image, and media meta-narratives. Likewise the media’s alleged bias against Hillary Clinton has nothing to do with her policy proposals.

Furthermore, the near-total focus on these sorts of things to the exclusion of policy shows the general shallowness of newspaper political journalism, especially campaign journalism. There are many reasons for this, starting with objectivity conventions, which give reporters little reason to read white papers, policy proposals, scholarly books, etc. Whereas writers for New Republic, Atlantic, Slate et. al. are a) not bound by “objectivity” strictures and b) well-versed in policy.

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Journalism reality check

Layoffs are never nice; financial pressure is hard for any company in any field. But I think Pat Thornton’s sense of scale is just a little skewed when he writes:

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: Journalism is under fire right now, much more so than just about any other industry in America. More than a thousand jobs have already been cut this year from mainstream media organizations and thousands more will be in the coming months. It’s a very dark hour for journalism.

Tell that to the auto, mortgage/housing/banking, and manufacturing industries. As I pointed out in this post,

Ford lost $2.7 billion in 2007 and $12.6 billion the year before — and those aren’t just losses in market capitalization (that was probably a heck of a lot more), but $15 billion in actual money down the drain. Think they wouldn’t kill for that 21 percent margin [Gannett’s 2007 margin]? (Their 2007 margin: minus-6.8 percent.)

The mortgage industry lost 14,000 jobs in the first three months of the year. Subprime mortgage losses have cost insurers $38 billion so far. Banks, brokers, and insurers could end up writing down $285 billion in subprime losses (writedowns have already reached $150 billion).

Dell just closed a Texas plant, costing 900 people their jobs (of the at least 8,800 people the company plans to fire, some will surely be in the United States). Motorola has laid off 10,000 people in the past year (though again, not sure how much of the total is American workers). In the U.S. manufacturing sector overall, 67,000 people were laid off in February.

Yes, these industries are all much bigger than the news media. But let’s keep a sense of perspective here. As Chris Anderson notes, the newspaper industry is “a $45 billion business, which is twice as big as Google and Yahoo combined.” Times are tough, but the apocalypse is still a ways off. Operating with a clear-eyed view of the situation, rather than panicking and overstating newspapers’ very real problems, is the best chance we have at keeping the end times at bay.

(All that being said, I actually agree with much of Thornton’s advice for would-be journalists.)

The Washington Post transforms editing (in theory)

Does Leonard Downie Jr. read my blog? (I’ll field this one: no.)

Via Jack Shafer, I see the Washington Post has accepted that the current editing system is outdated, inefficient, and unaffordable. From a memo to Post staff by executive editor Downie and managing editor Philip Bennett:

We will remove layers of editing by providing greater flexibility to determine when a story is edited and by whom. We will create truer alignment of editing for the web and for the paper, recognizing that deadlines for many pieces are defined as the earliest moment they can be edited and published online. We will deepen collaboration among editors on assignment desks, copy desks, photo and the news desk to change how a story, graphic or photograph goes into the newspaper.

Overall, these changes are meant to make our editing model less like an assembly line — moving copy towards the presses on a pre-determined schedule – and more like a network, responding to how journalism is actually created, distributed and discovered by our audiences in print and online.

My main recommendation for keeping copy editors was to give them more responsibility as editors. This is the first element of the Post’s plan:

Several editors will move from the National and Foreign copy desks to take on new roles that begin earlier in the day. These assistant editors will have broad responsibilities for moving early copy to the web and for the next day’s paper. They will provide the first read on some stories and the final edit on others. They will compose working headlines. They will collaborate with the News Desk to assign stories to pages earlier than our current practices allow.

I argued that giving copy editors more responsibility would potentially allow for fewer eyes on a story because a handful of thorough edits can be better than a half-dozen cursory edits. This is the Post’s logic as well:

With the involvement of assistant editors, we’ll reduce layers of editing. Currently, stories in the A section are routinely changed by a half-dozen different editors (an audit by Don Podesta for this project found fingerprints of 12 different editors on one single inside piece). Under the new model, many stories will be handled under a “two touch” rule; they will have a first editor and a second editor.

My next recommendation was to free up copy editors for new roles by giving reporters and line editors responsibility for basic tasks traditionally left to copy editors. The Post calls for this as well:

In addition to supervising their reporters, assignment editors will advance the editing process by doing more fact-checking, and (along with assistant editors) composing working headlines for pieces. Working headlines will also be welcome from reporters when they file.

Finally, I disagreed with copy editor curmudgeons who doubt change is possible because “this is the way it’s always been” or because they think reporters will never learn to write or worry about the little things that copy editors have always had to check. My answer to that argument: make reporters change. So it was especially nice to see this in Shafer’s piece:

The reason many newspapers rely so heavily on editors—a reason rarely spoken—is that some reporters can’t write. Their copy isn’t edited as much as it’s rewritten. Bennett has a message for them: “Reporters who can’t write are a dying breed.”

If the Post truly follows through, this will amount to a revolution. Every newspaper editor should read Shafer’s story and the Post memo — and consider making the same kinds of changes.

UPDATE: David Sullivan has a much more skeptical take on the Post memo. He argues that this has been tried in the past, and all that happened is dayside people spent their time working on pretty centerpieces and still left all the real editing and too many stories for the night desk. I think he’s right to be wary, but the Post’s plan seems to be different in several ways from similar attempts in the late 80s/early 90s.

According to Sullivan, those attempts came in response to investors getting crabby about poor (or no) earnings growth during a general economic downturn. But the business was still sound; the industry was doing fine; that’s just shareholders doing what they do. The Post’s attempt to transform editing is a response to a crumbling industry whose business model is in peril. It’s less a “hey, where can we shave costs regardless of if it makes sense for day-to-day operations” plan than the start of a holistic attempt to reconfigure newsroom roles in the face of the new reality.

The plan will only work if the Post is serious about rethinking newsroom roles; as I said in my original post, changing copy editors’ roles without giving more responsibility to reporters and line editors for basic stuff won’t solve anything. But the Post’s memo and Phil Bennett’s comment to Shafer about reporters who can’t write indicates to me that they understand that. At least I hope they do.

The Niche-Reader Fallacy

A reader (uh, my brother) has a response to my post about newspapers’ bad decision-making that helps clarify why papers are often paralyzed by small decisions. As a newspaper reader, he’s unsure of the wisdom of cutting some elements like box scores and TV listings. He writes:

As my students remind me, an awful lot of people (in raw numbers) don’t have fast Internet access or even home access at all. Those box scores and op-ed pages take a long time to load via dial-up. And one of the reasons I subscribe to print newspapers is to have the TV listings as a ready reference without having to go online yet again. The L.A. Times recently dropped its weekly TV guide section, and I’m seriously considering dropping my subscription because that was one of the most important resources it gave me that I couldn’t get online – a week’s worth of planning in one shot, whenever I wanted.

This is a perfect illustration of one reason newspapers are so sclerotic. Call it the Niche-Reader Fallacy: Newspapers live in such fear of readers canceling subscriptions if there’s any change to the horoscopes, comics, TV listings, box scores, stock tables, Miss Manners, etc., that they end up hanging on to everything for way too long.

Every paper has its own audience, so there’s no single right answer about what to cut and what to save/rethink (though stock tables come pretty darn close to being an across-the-board no-brainer). But part of this isn’t just “what’s more effective on the Web” — it’s “what’s the best use of increasingly limited print space to give readers news that they can’t get anywhere else?”

So yes, box scores may take time to load — but the average person wouldn’t be going online for results from the Arena Football League, horse racing, dog racing, WNBA, MLS, non-major tennis or golf tournaments, boxing, college baseball, and all the other obscure miscellany that takes up sports sections. The people who care about those things will watch SportsCenter or go online, and the average reader won’t care. Those readers would be better served if that space were used for more local investigations or what have you.

As noted in the post, the typical newspaper response to this is fear of making any changes or deletions because those few people who do care about all the box scores (or stock tables, or comics, etc.) will cancel their subscriptions — just as my brother is thinking about canceling his because of the TV listings. The solution isn’t then to cater to every reader’s niche interests — it’s to convince readers that the paper is worth reading for more than just that niche element. (In other words, leave the long tail to the Web.) If the L.A. Times can’t put out a paper that’s interesting enough to keep my brother’s interest once they drop the TV guide, then they don’t deserve his subscription.

Why newspapers make bad decisions

There are a hundred reasons why newspapers are in such poor shape. I’ve discussed some of them here and here: an outdated view of what’s news; an outdated view of readers; major inefficiencies in use of newsroom resources, as seen in the current roles of copy editors, reporters, and line editors. In a great post calling for a tax on newspapers that still publish stock tables, Craig Stoltz points to an often overlooked factor: newspapers seem to be institutionally clueless about how to plan for change. (Hat tip: Publishing 2.0.)

Stoltz argues that “There really isn’t a use case to justify continuing to publish daily stock tables.” There are plenty of other newspaper elements that are beyond justification, or at least deserve a rethinking — box scores and general sports agate, TV and movie listings, op-ed pages. Stoltz’s description of newspapers’ decision-making related to stock tables perfectly captures why other unjustifieds continue to take up space:

I have heard reasons for continuing to publish stock listings. They usually boil down to (1) the fear the paper would lose subscribers; (2) results of a focus group that found people liked the stock tables; (3) our publisher/editor emeritus/board of directors/influential stockholders insist we keep them.

No. 1: You’re hemmoraging readers anyway. The thought that a business decision with profound impact on the future bottom line should be driven by a couple of hundred indignant (let’s be plain) older readers who over-represent themselves with phone calls and (written!) letters to the publisher and top editors is. . . just plain bad business. Sure, you’ll get 200 calls. Accept them politely and forget them immediately. …

No. 2: Focus groups do not have to deal with zero-sum budgets. Focus groups like lots of stuff you can’t afford to keep. In fact, unless you give them a roster of features and tell them they have to lose half of them, you’re not gathering meaningful data. Secondly, doing focus groups with current readers isn’t a good idea anyway. Find potential future users of your news products online and in print. That’s who you have to re-build your business around.

No. 3: They are sentimental, retrograde, self-satisfied, isolated from reality or not paying attention. Do your best to make the case that the choice is another 10 percent staff cut or losing the stock tables. If they don’t buy that argument, do your best to subvert, ignore and marginalize them without getting fired.

This is what traditionally passes for strategic thinking at newspapers. So it’s no wonder that at a time when actually making imaginative, forward-thinking, potentially risky decisions is necessary for newspapers’ future, they are singularly unable to make or even consider those decisions.

Consider, for example, the recurring hand-wringing over comic strips. Something as basic as jettisoning outdated and unfunny strips becomes a perpetual exercise in self-flagellation based on a handful of readers who promise to revolt if the paper kills Family Circus. And if newspapers can’t intelligently and pro-actively decide that Marmaduke and stock tables have had their day, they probably can’t make intelligent higher-level decisions, either.

Worst. Justification for copy editors’ existence. Ever.

I recently proposed a new vision for copy editors in the newsroom of the future, in response to a provocative Alan Mutter post asking whether papers can still afford editors. My basic prescription: Have reporters and line editors take responsibility for some basic things they’ve traditionally left for copy editors, which would free up empowered copy editors to also take on more responsibility.

I took issue with some responses to Mutter’s post that essentially argued for the status quo because a)”that’s the way it’s always been” and b) reporters and line editors are so lazy and useless that copy editors are needed to pick up their slack. Now comes an even lamer version of the latter argument, in the latest American Copy Editors Society newsletter. ACES president Chris Wienandt writes:

I’ve just been hit with another reason copy editors are indispensable: We know how our computer systems work. …

When a story goes missing in the system, who’s the person who can find it? When a reporter doesn’t know how to generate the character ä, who’s the person who can tell her? When two versions of a story are floating around, who can spot which one is actually going into print?

[large snip]

So when these little glitches … no, snafus … crop up in your newsroom, it’s great that you can fix them. But be sure to take that next step: Let someone in authority know … that there was a problem, and that it was the copy desk that solved it. It’s another demonstration of how valuable we are. (italics mine)

Is Wienandt serious? Newspapers are hemorrhaging cash and he’s trying to justify keeping copy editors because they possess the most basic technological knowledge? I’m sure Wienandt has written plenty of other pieces about why copy editors are important as editors rather than as IT cheat sheets, but come on.

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Jimmy Kimmel is engaging in coital relations with Ben Affleck

The New York Times provided a hilarious example of newspapers’ selfenforced irrelevancy the other day, when they attempted to write about Jimmy Kimmel’s “I’m Fucking Ben Affleck” response to Sarah Silverman’s “I’m Fucking Matt Damon” video. The article is meant to show the Times is totally plugged into the viral vidgeist — but of course it serves only to show how out of touch and prude newspapers are.

As Vulture points out, “The entire article is a masterpiece of tortured syntax that deftly removes all humor from the videos.” Here are the best parts, as flagged by Vulture:

“A satiric video in which Mr. Kimmel, the host of the ABC late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live, talks enthusiastically — jokingly, we are led to believe — about his sexual relationship with Ben Affleck, has been a huge hit online. …

“After Ms. Silverman revealed that she was hooking up with Mr. Damon — everywhere, it seemed, and all the time — Mr. Kimmel vowed to take his revenge. … Most of the lyrics of Mr. Kimmel’s and Ms. Silverman’s songs are too graphic to be repeated here. One vulgar word describing the coital relations between, on the one bed, Ms. Silverman and Mr. Damon, and on the other, Mr. Kimmel and Mr. Affleck, was repeatedly bleeped out for the broadcast of each video.”

Never mind the priceless juxtaposition of New York Times second-reference style with the subject (Mr. Kimmel is fucking Mr. Affleck — must show the proper deference!). Could the Times possibly have written a more unironic, monocle-wearing ode to their own dowdiness? It’s not just the language dodge, which is bad enough. They’re still writing about comedy bits with a straight face — the way the Times probably wrote about that just wonderfully droll Church Lady in 1988.

This was a one-off (two-off, really) viral video attempt. Proper responses include laughing and forwarding to a friend; watching a second time; ignoring; and writing a blog post about the inevitable and annoying response videos. Responses that show you don’t get it include: writing a long article simply summarizing the videos — even while blushing and hiding from the central joke — and treating them like big productions that need to be explained and reported on.

The linguistic idiocy of TV meteorology

I know I said recently that newspapers should stop worrying so much about AP style and other copy editing minutia. But I have to add a large exception for jargon — particularly, as John McIntyre notes in a great post, redundant meteorological jargon:

Listening to the radio in the car yesterday, I heard an announcer warn of the possibility of “rain activity” later in the day. How, I wondered, does rain activity differ from rain?

McIntyre also gives a nice rundown of the many unnecessary words TV weatherpeople use for snow:

snow event, snowfall, snowstorm, snowflakes, sleet, slush, wintry mix, blizzard, precipitation, icy pellets, powder (for skiing), blanket and the apparently irresistible vulgarism white stuff.

Ah, mid-Atlantic winters. One of the great things about living in New Hampshire (lots of snow) and then Florida (no snow) is not having to watch TV newspeople go nuts over the hint of flurries and report from the supermarket on people rushing to buy bread, toilet paper and milk — just as they (both newspeople and shoppers) have done every single other time ever that there’s been snow in the region.

And yet, you never hear anyone worry that TV news is going broke. No justice, I tells ya.

Why can’t news be interesting just for the sake of it?

I came across two blog posts yesterday that offer reminders of how the prevailing view of what’s news needs to change.

First, Alan Mutter calls out The Oklahoman for wildly overplaying a story about a U.S. Geological Survey project mapping out where burmese pythons could survive in an ever-warmer U.S. The study found that the pythons “could colonize one-third of the USA, from San Francisco across the Southwest, Texas and the South and up north along the Virginia coast,” according to USA Today. The Oklahoman’s story examined the finding that most of Oklahoma is now a possible python habitat, and concluded in the fourth paragraph that

Even though the pythons might find Oklahoma’s weather suitable, local wildlife experts don’t expect to run into any of the massive constrictors any time soon.

Nonetheless, the piece ran as the front-page lead story with a large, two-deck headline reading: “Big snakes could slither into state.”

The story, of course, says no such thing. Mutter asks, “why did the Oklahoman play this non-story in the sensational fashion it did?” I think the answer — besides simple bad editorial judgment — is that papers fear running interesting stories just for the sake of running an interesting story. There has to be some ostensible “news peg” or other timely reason for running the story.

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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.

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