Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Strong vs. the Stupid

Here at the American Copy Editors Society convention in Minneapolis -- one of the journalism conventions that wasn't canceled this year, unlike those that cater to our owners and publishers -- attendance as of today is 250. Attendance last April -- in Denver, also not in the middle of a megalopolis -- was just over 300. That's right, in the worst economy in decades we have 80 percent of the atttendance we had last year.

In the midst of all this madness, copy editors are spending their own money -- their own time -- because they want to do their jobs better. Because they want to learn and practice their craft. And because they want to continue to contribute to the role journalism plays in America. Sessions today have covered Twitter and online ethics; sessions to come will cover blogging and search engine optimization; and there are sessions that are, as we say, platform-agnostic. And yes, there are some sessions that center on that old warhorse, the print newspaper.

And this takes place amid the Bloody April at Baltimore, which brought the ax down on a former president of our group, John Early McIntyre, as well as any number of copy editors; and that same ax is being wielded throughout Sam Zell's empire, as Charles Apple here makes clear, because we, the journalists trying to better our craft, are seen by Tribune Co. as the equivalent of photoengravers and stereotypers, redundant production pieces to be eliminated.

If you have followed this blog, you may remember that -- unlike the journalists who were offended that Zell told a photographer to fuck off, and that his aide, a radio guy, wrote hippy-dippy rock-and-roll memos to we sophisticated newspaper types -- TTPB asked that attention be paid to Zell's points -- that newspapers can be arrogant and detached, that newspapers assume that readers should know what the newspaper is doing without being told, that newspapers do not focus on their communities. And the power of imaginations was set loose in many redesigns. Not everyone liked them, but they were honest tries to reinvent the newspaper.

And the recession hit, and Zell filed for bankruptcy, and now his attitude has changed. Bad investment; gut it; at the same time, hold onto it a while longer, because it'll be worth more at the end of the year than it is now. All those redesigns, all that rethinking about what works best in Orlando or Fort Lauderdale or Newport News; throw them out and use templated pages from Chicago. You don't count, and neither does the reader.

Sam Zell, you could give another fuck about what TTPB thinks, so that's not the point. You don't stand revealed to the world today, though, as just a businessman who made a mistake. Businessmen make mistakes, and you have admitted you made one by buying Tribune Co. in a package so heavily leveraged that the end of the lever could not be seen. Mistakes happen. But by telling your newspapers to connect with their communities, by telling your journalists to embrace new ideas, and then within a year trashing what they have done and inserting lowest-common-dollar journalism, you simply show yourself to be a hypocrite. You are not a young man, and your place in history is assured.

I feel bad for those who lost their jobs, many longtime colleagues among them; but I feel worse for people who still need to work for Tribune Co.; and the people I feel the worst for, honestly, are those among the top editors and publishers who know better, and who 10 months ago put their shoulders to the grindstone to make journalism and their news organizations better, and who need today to try to do their jobs ethically and support their families and plan their own careers while living in what is clearly a rat's nest in which they can only salute, shut up and do what they are told. I'm sorry, Mr. Publisher, Ms. Editor, you didn't get to go to your conventions, but I am even sorrier that you are not here, seeing your fellow journalists working to better themselves -- at the same time that your company gives a giant finger to them. There are many people of, alas, little business competence in the history of our business, but few whose names simply stand for Bad -- the Frank Munseys who appear from time to time. It is some of our ill fate to have worked with a new member of that group.


Juan Antonio Giner said...

Well, David, these are not stupid but just incompetent managers.

Real amateurs.


New rich.

Brilliat ignorants.

As Rupert Murdoch writes in the introduction to our 2009 INNOVATIONS IN NEWSPAPERS, the managers are the problem, not the journalists.

Anonymous said...

I thought what the American Newpapers Editors decided not to do (hold their annual convention) showed cowardice and looked defeatist to members of print, publishing and journalism world. I am glad to see the Copy Editors are going to have their convention.

Danny L. McDaniel
Lafayette, Indiana

rknil said...

Actually, A"CE"S has shown cowardice for far longer than ANE has. The organization has yet to cite any examples of any specific step it has taken to advance the cause of copy editors in the newsroom. It seems to believe its mere presence (and collection of dues from the hapless and the clueless, most of whom are too frightened and gutless to push for any change in their newsrooms) somehow "improves" the plight of copy editors. How very wrong, ignorant, and insulting this attitude is.

I also wish to raise a glass (not tonight, but as part of a future event) to the better-late-than-never axing of John McIntyre. He knows not one thing about working within the contemporary environment of what a newsroom should be. People who spout etymology lessons may sound smart, but they are not of much use at a time of smaller staffs and larger workloads.

It's a big, big Internet. A laid-off caricature like John can claim he's not going to allow personal attacks and then allow them, but he'll see the consequences of those actions.

(For the dim bulbs who choose to view the previous statement as a threat, I suggest electroshock therapy and a form of brain cell stimulation.)

Anyway, I'm taking celebratory drink suggestions. Perhaps a wine from John's birth year would do the trick.

Davisull said...


And the contemporary newsroom in which you are working, and from which you have such knowledge, is...?

rknil said...

Weak response, Davey. Nice straw man, though. But you show the same cowardice I'm referring to with that response.

Try to make points. You know, facts. Refute what I'm saying.

Wait, you can't. Never mind.

Davisull said...

Robert, my understanding from responses on other blogs is that to engage in debate with you is only to open oneself up to putdowns. Nevertheless:

1) I expect that in retrospect, you and I would agree that the shuffling of design duties onto copy editors in many ways weakened copy editors' position in newsrooms, by their having to take on duties that were previously seen as "mechanical" (actually making up pages) and thus being lumped in with the "production" side of the newspaper rather than the "originating," journalistic side. Also, it meant that copy editors suddenly had to have higher level design skills, which many did not have or want to have; and it made design appear more important than editing, because copy could be published unedited, but a page could not be published unlaidout.

At the time, however, most of us did not see it this way. A number of copy editors liked designing pages, and while there were probably many more who did not, it at that time could mean more positions on the copy desk. It also seemed like the inevitable wave of the future. Plus, copy editors often did not have much choice. It was at many places, this is your job, or you can leave.

If you were ahead on the curve on identifying this as an issue, kudos, as they say, to you. If you believe that the level of emphasis on design has weakened newspapers, who was that prominent guy who died recently who said Ed Arnold was one of the three worst things to happen to papers? You would not be alone. I don't think I would agree with you, but you would not be alone.

2) This, of course, is just one of many misjudgments in the newspaper industry, such as assuming there would be an Internet pot of gold.

3) While you may wish that ACES had been founded with a different purpose, it was created as an organization to help copy editors do their jobs better and help them advocate for themselves in their own newsrooms. ACES cannot tell editors, publishers, etc., what to do, any more than IRE can tell editors and publishers that they must do investigative journalism or do it in such a way.

My paper had a seemingly unassailable tradition of copy editing, and then Knight Ridder named an editor who had a far more limited view of copy editing. His view was contained due to the opposition of much of his cabinet. ACES was not created to ride in to the office of KR's vice president for news and demand that that person tell the editor to cease and desist. First off, if that was what he thought of copy editors, why would he care? Second, what copy editors primarily were looking to ACES for was 1) training, which is sorely lacking in newsrooms for copy editors, and 2) a sense that one was not alone in the problems one faced.

ACES could offer them ways to empower themselves, but some would use them and many would not, and many would think that simply being able to do their jobs better would result in more appreciation. Such is proving to not be the case in many places in these times.

4) Generally, ACES' conferences have been well received. Each year, there are some who find them wanting, often severely so. Were they the majority, ACES would change its approach. Clearly John's sessions on crepescular light and such did not hit a bull's-eye with you. They also were among ACES' most popular sessions. ACES has offered sessions on how to make points politically and managerially in your own newsrooms. These have been appreciated as well, but tend to be less well attended.

Many copy editors simply wish to do their jobs better and more enjoyably, and hope to be left alone in the waves of newsroom politics. That may not be what you believe is the smart play.

Thank you for your comments, and I would ask that you not call me "Davey," a nickname I always have disliked.

rknil said...

Oh, I didn't realize you had responded.

Your first point pretty much hits the nail on the head, although I should point out that there was far more to the design/copy editing equation than you mention.

After that, you steam off the track. Your points about ACES accomplish the opposite of what you hope. They only highlight the glaring weaknesses of an organization that was continually clueless and could not see the forest for the trees.

Your comments about the attendance at the sessions are particularly laughable. To be blunt: So the hell what? A bunch of short-sighted buffoons packed the place for a pointless speech. And your point is?

Finally, one thing you and others fail to realize: Your silly attempts at putdowns are epic fail. I don't lose any sleep now that I'm rid of the annoyances that came with the newsrooms. I realized the adrenaline rush and the other "benefits" did not offset the miserable treatment newsrooms thought copy editors deserved. I was tired of trying to patch horrible copy from lazy, nearly illiterate writers who had no business being in newsrooms. I was weary of listening to the idiotic ramblings of page designers who had no clue about journalism.

Hope this helps set you straight.

So, in the future, try to keep your comments limited to how ACES has failed miserably. And how copy editors are losing positions and are likely being treated even more miserably than before. And how fossils like John McIntyre have left their newsrooms in disgrace, with their tails dragging between their legs. Their years of acting like pompous asses have amounted to nothing. All they have left now are their tired, concocted tales of the "good, old days."

You guys sit in your porch swings and drink your lemonade. That's about all you have left to offer.

"How about some more lemonade, Scratchy? Sure, Itchy!"