Monday, May 10, 2010

Why Robert Knilands Is Partly Right

Robert Knilands -- variously known as Rknil, Wenalway, and as a bete-noire and pain in the ass to the point where he has been banned from a number of discussion boards -- is too quick with ad hominem condemnations.

He hijacks various topics and keeps beating them against the wall with what clearly are posted rants.

He gets unduly personal and bitter. He not only holds people's work in contempt, which is churlish but fair, he holds them personally in contempt because of their work when he does not know them at all.

He continually presents the American Copy Editors Society for attack because it is not what he thinks it should be -- a phalanx to somehow force news organizations to change their ways -- instead of what it is -- a training and support organization that was not created to hold a cudgel to bosses' heads.

He comes across as an angry man whose idea of debate is, "Let me tell you how stupid you are, except you're too stupid to even realize it."

And yet.

Knilands' main point -- that when copy editors also became page designers, the craft of copy editing was pushed to the side -- is partly hyperbole, because at most papers copy editors were always page designers of a sort. Most small papers had people who edited copy and drew page dummies for the composing room. Occasionally you laid out a photo package or the like. It was part of the job. Only at the larger papers -- which from my knowledge Knilands never worked at -- were there ranks of copy editors who just edited copy. And only as graphics capabilities improved in the 1980s did some of these desk jockeys become designers instead of simply news editors or copy editors.

And yet.

My esteemed former colleague Charles Knittle, now in charge of copy editing for national and foreign copy at the New York Times, addressed the salient point at the ACES conference in Philadelphia, as noted on Doug Fisher's "Common Sense Journalism":

"•Knittle: Copy editors were unnecessarily smug when pagination rolled into newsrooms in the 1990s. Hundreds of printers and backshop makeup people were laid off. A few copy editors were hired. But what the editors actually were learning was a "machine skill," the same kind of skill those printers and makeup people had, the same kind of skill that is easily displaced."

And copy editors now indeed are being laid off (or, in foreign countries, their jobs are being outsourced) as publishers -- and yes, editors -- increasingly decide that they are "production" workers, the same as linotypists, stereotypers and the like used to be. They are no longer seen as actual editors, but as people who move something into the realm of publication the way the person running the Ludlow set the End of the World giant headlines. They are viewed -- wrongly, of course -- as mechanics who do not produce anything. Knilands might say, and such is justice, and he would have a point.

Yes, we did believe that by taking design and production into our own hands, we were becoming essential. And yes, we have found that when the monetary chips are down -- as they have now been for years -- some publishers and editors will say that a poorly edited story with a mediocre headline and an incomprehensible caption and a graphic that does not match the story is clearly sub-par but at least is something, whereas copy editors do not create and designers draw pretty pages that are irrelevant on the Internet.

So the main point of Knilands' criticism -- that copy editors ceased to be editors and became illustrators, doing work that can be outsourced or junked, while not concentrating on their real task, which is editing -- is one deserving fair consideration.

Yet -- how would he have had us act otherwise? Say "No, we're not going to do that?" The unemployment door awaited. It wasn't a vast conspiracy. Although the essential desire was to save money, most of the people proposing this also believed it would mean that the newsroom would now be in final control of all pages and that this was a Good Thing. Most of us wanted to be part of that. God knows I believe in copy editing, yet I also saw this as a Good Thing.

What's amazing is not that Robert Knilands has a valid point (although Charles Apple, Howard Owens, and others might think so). It's that whether the work is being outsourced to Corpus Christi or Lynchburg or wherever, editors who once proudly said "the newsroom will be in final control" now seem to just roll over and nod when that work passes from the control of their newsroom. (Yes, I know they can see the pages instantly on their computers. Yes, I know they can text or call. It's not the same as walking over to someone's desk in the newsroom.)

Is this simply a reflection of financial times? Or does it reflect that the editors of (now) 20 years ago, who welcomed pagination and design into their newsrooms, had come of age in the era of composing-room control, whereas fewer of today's editors experienced that and thus say, so what's the big deal? Or is it simply that the standards of the Web -- immediacy and convenience (combined with easy disposability) trump all, and the reader's expectation of quality is thus far lower -- are either inevitable, or are actually the same standards held by a number of publishers and editors?

Personally, I wish that Robert Knilands didn't act like such a jerk. Perhaps his points would have been taken more seriously. On the other hand, he might note, he got attention, and perhaps would not have had he been more civil. So, again perhaps, Knilands simply stands as a representative of the Internet media age, one that cannot fully meld its longings for the standards of old with its desire to be included in the new, and thus, as did Obi-wan, wishes this were a more civilized age as it tries to deal with the empire instead of the republic, and often ends up light-sabering its own foot as a result.


Perry Gaskill said...

This is going to sound harsh, but I just spent an hour wading through Kniland's and came away with the following two conclusions: 1) It's hard to decide if Kniland is either a poster boy for bloviating gas bags, or if he's a candidate for Prozac, and 2) I want my hour back.

rknil said...


If this was supposed to irritate me, it didn't. It's driven some traffic to the forum apparently, even if it does contain the dregs like Perry Gaskill here, who can't even punctuate the possessive of my name or come up with a clever insult. Tsk.

It did come as a surprise, though. I'm finishing up some late work on this end, so I can't read your article with the concentration level I'd like. I have to ask after the first skim, though: Is there some point here I'm missing? You and your group are wrong and have been for years. You could just fall on the sword without pulling me into it. I mean, newspapers could be at their literal Day of Reckoning, and some people would still be shouting about how "their way would have worked."

Bottom line: Newspapers haven't been killed by the Internet or by the economy, although those things have been damaging. Newspapers have been killed from within. As soon as designers were allowed to almost literally stand on soapboxes and shout: "NO ONE will read this!" the end was near.

And to Perry: Next time, start with the section called "The commentary posts." A few pieces are dated, and some links have died, but then you won't feel like you wasted your hour -- at least not until later when you are trying to plow through that Weekly Reader of yours.

Davisull said...


My intent was not to irritate you. (And it's not to engage in an endless debate, so this will be my only response.) It was firstly to state that your point on editors' being turned from editors into something else was a point that I wish more attention had been given to earlier - events have proven some of it out. But also to state, as in a past post on another blogger, that I wish these debates could be conducted with less condemnatory vitriol, which only makes people defensive about holding their own positions (or feeling personally hurt). On the part of people hearing you, but I would have to assume on your own part as well. If that is the "cost" of a world in which everyone's opinion can be presented with equal facility -- that everyone feels the need to be over the top, to take no prisoners and show contempt for others instead of simply accepting that all god's chillun got faults -- it is a high cost to pay.

rknil said...

"It was firstly to state that your point on editors' being turned from editors into something else was a point that I wish more attention had been given to earlier - events have proven some of it out."

That makes sense, but am I supposed to believe it? You and others have had plenty of time to grasp the point I was making. I bear no responsibility because you and others chose not to grasp it.

Eventually I may come up with a longer response at my forum, if I decide one is merited. But I should point out I was engaging in this debate long before it became an Internet sideshow. Even 15 years ago, I was asking various co-workers why we were obsessing about design and barely even reading copy. The response was the usual mix of condescending pointlessness and the standard empty claim that "NO ONE" would read the articles. My tone takes root from those discussions and some that took place at one of the former ACES boards.

You guys get what you give. Simple as that. Don't blame me if you were too busy wearing blinders to see the train coming. There were and are far too many newsroom people who were entrenched in a bad combination of arrogance and ignorance. They weren't going to be uprooted with a few well-chosen words, and some of them won't ever budge. Newspapers could lose those people today, and the organizations would be better off.

dan said...

concerning robert kniland - i would like to contact him to ask him for some direction for our newspaper - could anyone give me a means to contact him - yes, he is pointed, but i do believe he is on to something and in many ways would understand our newspaper, a very conservative one - - and our direction and what we want to know - tks for any help - dan

rknil said...


I have tried to contact you directly and at, but I have not received a response.

Sorry, but I cannot post my contact info at a blog where the administrator refuses to grasp the obvious -- copy editors allowed their jobs to be destroyed from within -- and instead mischaracterizes various opinions, peskily supported by fact, in order to create straw men.

You can probably get the info yourself. If not, just sign up with your real name at Don't sign up with a fake name, or you'll be rejected as a spambot.