Monday, March 17, 2008

Copy Editing: The Post's Changes

I'd be more inclined to see the changes announced Friday in A-section editing at the Washington Post to be a realistic assessment of a smaller, 24/7 newsroom if I didn't hear Glen Campbell singing "Wichita Lineman" in the back of my head.

It was back during the last giant U.S. economic collapse -- the one in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in which many newspapers that had had a decade of unchecked stability or growth in staffing confronted for the first time the reality of investors: We don't care that your business is cyclical and tanked, they said. Give us growth in earnings every quarter. Newspapers had already reaped the savings from getting rid of the composing room. Now they had to cut elsewhere. They started looking at that notorious cost center, the newsroom, and that notorious cost center in the newsroom, the copy and news desks.

(Remember, this is before the Internet.)

Some newspapers just whittled here and there, but others devised what they saw as progressive and systematic responses. The copy desk no longer had the responsibility of feeding type in slugs to the Linotype operators, right? Why spend all that time on an assembly-line production system? Besides, we need feet on the street.

And so emerged ideas like the Maestro concept and "blowing up the copy desk," an exercise in which a number of Knight Ridder papers engaged.

The idea seemed good. Have a copy editor assigned to each section to work on the centerpieces and main stories during the day. They'd be part of the team, working with the reporter and editors and photographers. By working with them, they'd do the most justice to the story and photos. There wouldn't be late tinkering by some cantankerous copy editor bent on spoiling the flow of the story by changing all the "says"es to "said"s or arguing that "Although statistics are hard to come by, it seems apparent that more and more people..." isn't solid enough to state that something is true.

And by doing the editing earlier in the cycle, fewer people would be needed, because you wouldn't have the big bulge in the snake's belly before deadline.

(Remember, this is before the Internet.)

Well, most of us who were around then saw what happened. One of the biggest management problems you face on the copy desk is that the hours and days off suck. Lots of talented people don't want your jobs because they don't want to be at work at midnight on Friday. So a number of copy editors flew to these positions. Nothing bad about that. But they found that much of the day went into thinking about the centerpiece and an off-lede -- the only stories that were actually done during the day and the ones that the top editors would pay the most attention to. They found that they liked to pay the most attention to these stories as well.

The rest of the copy -- most of it -- fell on the curmudgeons or politically inept types or people with unusual child-care issues who remained on the "night production team," who were now completely overwhelmed by the big bulge in the snake's belly before deadline.

Meanwhile, some copy editors found that as part of the dayside team, they weren't supposed to ask the snarky, "this doesn't make any sense" questions copy editors ask. Their job was no longer to hold up a hand and say, "Before this goes into print, you've got to deal with this." Wasn't it better with everyone on the same wavelength? And there were more feet on the street -- or at least, the reduction in feet on the street wasn't as big as it might have been. And there was earnings growth.

I remember being in Kansas in the mid-1990s when the Wichita Eagle had blown up the copy desk. I was on vacation, but when I would say I worked for a newspaper, people could not shut up. They were so mad at the Wichita Eagle. Headlines were misspelled or wrong. Names of important people were wrong. Addresses were wrong. Stories ended in midair. Recipes lacked ingredients. Captions were wrong. Stories were illiterate. The few curmudgeons left at night were having to edit most of the paper while the day staff worked to craft the centerpiece. A paper that had been a source of pride to Wichita was now viewed by many in the community as quite the opposite. Apologies to anyone at the Eagle who remembers it differently; I admittedly wasn't there.

None of this blowing up the desks happened because we needed to publish electronically.

After enough years had passed, the Wichita Beacon re-established a copy desk. The rest of Knight Ridder also stopped blowing up copy desks; indeed, the company went 360 and started to strengthen them. The Maestro stopped conducting. Then came 2001, and then Help Wanted went on the long walkabout from which it will not return.

Now comes the Washington Post, whose managing editor says: It's time to put the safety net away. Jack Shafer notes: "He's confident that reduced editing won't necessarily sacrifice quality if it's done smartly. As an example, he points to the quality work done by reporters whose copy appears on the Post's Web site without the extensive editing and re-editing traditionally lavished on the print product. 'The more people who touch a story, the less authority and responsibility each take,' (Phil) Bennett says."

Further: "The plan also mandates 'fewer touches' on some stories by editors, which will elicit cheers from many Post reporters. They've long complained about 'drive-by editing' in which editors up and down the chain of command drop into their stories and fiddle with them to the point of destruction. According to the memo, a half-dozen editors routinely make changes on A-section stories, and an internal audit discovered one inside story that 12 different editors changed."

In praising the decision, Shafer notes the editing process at major magazines and compares it poorly to that of Slate: "I think it more than makes up for (the lack of magazine-style editing and copy editing) in timeliness with a Webby approach that gives maximum control to writers."

Clearly Shafer's sympathies do not lie with editors. Well, these are hard times and hard choices need to be made. But I suspect the managing editor of the Washington Post may drop into their stories and fiddle with them. I suspect the national and foreign editor will as well. A rim editor apparently won't.

Because, what were those changes by 12 different editors? Just fiddling with an adjective or making sure it was "Juan D. Peron"? Making a nicely written sentence worse because someone had a hangup about ending it with "to"? Or was it someone who was looking at the story and noticed that the date was wrong or that Dubai is not the capital of the UAE or Dmitri Medvedev was spelled Dimitri? Or even changing "most Luxembourgians" to "many Luxembourgians" unless the reporter had done a statistical poll of Luxembourg? We don't know. Statistics are hard to come by, although it seems clear that more and more...

Yeah, I know what Shafer means. I just spent almost an hour writing this and going over it five or six times. I like my voice too. But just for fun there are two common mistakes in it. They're ones that I made at first and then decided to leave in. Did you see them? They're in the same graph. Any one editor might catch them. Or not. And I suspect there are other errors that I simply missed.

I hope for the best for the Post. One does look for a way out of this meltdown, and with the global audience and reporting staff of the Post they operate in a different room than most of us do. But at the moment, I remain a lineman for the county, and I drive the main roads, searching in the sun for another overload.


Brian Cubbison said...

The Post's 12 touches on a story reminds me of Dean Smith's four corners stall offense.

Your concerns are valid, the most important being that the "dayside" tends to overestimate how clean the copy is. But I don't think it's wise for us to be defending 12 touches on a story. Even six is high compared with what goes online, and many newsrooms could easily reach that. Or, in the case of the Los Angeles Times, the newsroom was defending glamour gigs such as covering the Beijing Olympics.

The 12th touch was probably the night-side curmudgeon. Touches three through 10 were most likely unnecessary, and of the "I would have written it differently" variety. The Post is getting a reality check.

By the way, you seemed to have done a 180 on whether it's the Eagle or the Beacon.

vtuss said...

Right with you. See the last post on this thread:

vtuss said...

Oops. That last part is: viewtopic.php?t=9296

Brian B said...

Just got here from Doug Fisher's blog (I know I should read yours regularly too, but I can't get around to everything worth reading these days).

You said: "Apologies to anyone at the Eagle who remembers it differently."

I was at the Eagle during that time, and I remember it just as you describe. In fact there were frequent meetings at which the quandary of what to do about all these mistakes was discussed; the only option not on the table was paying someone to specialize in catching the mistakes.

Meanwhile some copy editors did become reporters (and some of those excelled in their new jobs); some, including me, became page designers. I think one reporting team was actually large enough to assign member to edit its copy full-time. All other teams rotated editing duties, with mixed results. Some took it more seriously than others.

And yes, a fine newspaper became a mediocre one almost overnight.