Monday, October 27, 2008

Cold Winds

The Suburban Newspapers of America group recently took an "innovation mission" to Scandinavia. Pages of ads in Editor & Publisher trumpeted its findings along with winners of its yearly contest.

My eyebrows went up when I read in their report "Newspapers in Norway and Sweden were early adopters of a Web platform -- some taking to the Internet in the early 1990s. Because of this, pure play competitors like and never really penetrated their markets."

Because of this? What about Hot Coco? Nando Times? I know there is a point there, but I think that the differences in the national marketplace between Norway and the United States -- the size of the national market, for one thing, both in numbers and in geography -- played a role here as well. Craigslist, after all, happened in the home base not only of the Contra Costa Times' Hot Coco, one of the earliest newspaper Web sites I can remember, but of Sfgate as well. I don't know enough about Norway and Sweden to say this isn't true, but I suspect the Norwegians and Swedes don't know enough about the United States to authoritatively make this claim either.

But worrisome was the tale of publisher Margaretha Engstrom and her community newspaper Ystads Allehanda. She "shut down the evening shift of copy editors and put them out on the street as reporters." This is a "nearly a decade ago," according to the report. Let's give some license and say 2001. "I started wondering why we were sitting at 10 o'clock in the evening still editing stories when the reporter goes home at 5 o'clock," Engstrom says. The story says "dozens and dozens of templates -- for nearly every situation, even breaking news and long-term projects -- have shrunk the editorial day at Ystads Allehanda to half of what's experienced on a daily basis back in the states. 'Now, when reporters go home at 5 in the afternoon, the page is done. Everything is done,' she says, adding that news editors follow suit, often leaving by 6 p.m. at the latest."

"The entire paper -- with the exception of breaking news and night meetings -- is put to bed by 7 p.m."

Well, the Swedes must be more efficient. I work at a morning newspaper like Ystads Allehanda -- which had 24,000 circulation in 1997, according to an old E&P directory -- and not many of our reporters go home at 5 o'clock. OK, 6:30 to 7. But except for sports and the late wire news, most of our local stories are fully edited, except for display type, by 8. Those that aren't usually are either events that happened after 4 p.m., or stories involving the roundup of a lot of sources; and then there are the stories that the reporter just couldn't get done, for one reason or another, which I'm sure afflicts reporters in Sweden as well. The Ystads Allehanda system sounds like a good system for where you have made all your major decisions by 1 p.m. and can go home pretty confident that little will change. Perhaps very little happens in Ystad after 3 p.m. Perhaps very little happens in Sweden after 3 p.m.

But even so -- who's editing that copy at 4 or 5 in the afternoon? Are those copy editors still out on the street? Is this another misguided publisher who believed that the only reason copy editors exist is because they work at night and trim stories? What puts the lie to her statement of "I started wondering..." is that the story says that she had eliminated copy editing "within the first week of her stint." In other words, she did not analyze the workflow and practices of her new newspaper; she knew what she was going to do when she walked through the door. Usually this is someone who did not like copy editors from Day One. One hopes her previous jobs had given her the right experience, but usually when you arrive at a new place you at least pretend to study how it works before imposing what you were going to do anyway. And indeed the Canadian Newspaper Association's report on this same visit notes:

"Conference participants heard from Margaretha Engstrom, publisher of the Swedish daily Ystads Allehanda and proponent of 'layout-driven editorial,' where rather than submit their stories to a copy desk, reporters put text and photos directly onto a template version of the newspaper they can access online. The method effectively eliminates most of the work carried out by copy editors."

So Engstrom is hawking this as her signature achievement, perhaps her possible road to the top of the international Bonnier chain for which she works. SNA is bringing her to a conference in Tampa on Feb. 5 specifically to address how you can, as the come-on notes, "Find out how Engstrom improved the quality of her paper, eliminated most of the copy editor positions and put more reporters on the street." Without irony, this follows the topic on Jan. 13: "Making Your Core Product Better/More Attractive for the Reader. There's a reason why most papers in Norway/Sweden still enjoy 80% readership levels — they constantly improve their print product. From the coolest design trends to tabloid formats, Scandinavian newspapers rock!" I am only wondering if Ystads Allehanda still enjoys 80 percent readership levels. But as the Canadian story notes of newspaper success in Scandinavia: “'Part of that is sheer luck,'” said John Hinds, conference participant and CEO of the Canadian Newspaper Association and the Canadian Community Newspapers Association. “'They’re linguistically small communities, and they’re geographically isolated. They’ve traditionally had very poor television… so there’s a culture of reading newspapers.'" Eight million Swedes can't be wrong, but they probably couldn't have been a market large enough to create eBay.

Under crisis, people are always looking for The Answer. Beware the person who says, I have it. But copy editors need to figure out a way to respond to the concerns of the Suburban Newspapers of America's membership, who will simply see dollar signs.


Doug said...

One of the scarier things I've read in a while, but expect more of it. After all, the Web runs on templates.

Copy editors are simply not going to win the argument of quality vs. dollars. Hundreds of years of human history argue against it -- we tend to follow the price (be it explicit or a social cost) till it becomes a crisis.

Think the current economic malaise. The "cost" of regulation (i.e. quality) was too great till all hell hit.

The environment was the same -- until the Love Canals of the world, no one was forcing companies to internalize the costs. And look at how they still rail against things being too costly.

Unfortunately, I think copy editors need to steel themselves to a continual thinning of the herd. If they are not willing to do some reporting -- and I have some students for whom the thought of dealing with an unknown person freaks them out -- they probably need to seek another career.

Michael j said...

Ya know, the Internet bubble of the early '90s may have burst, but what Tony Ridder and others failed to recognize is that the Internet wasn't going away. We could have planned for it and been in so much better shape today.

Brian Cubbison said...

Tim Porter has an interesting description of the future of copy editing, where editors, reporters and photographers work together in a network that has nothing to do with the production process of going to press.

It might offer a little more hope, but might be nerve-racking all the same for some people.

Anonymous said...

Scary and chilling. I'd post at all the places I post such noteworthy articles, but I'm afraid some of my bosses would read it and get the wrong idea!