Thursday, July 15, 2010

Copy Editing: A Hub-bub from Gannett

Gannett Co. announced this week that it would over the next two years consolidate all its page design at five locations. Thus the Palm Springs Desert Sun, the Indianapolis Star, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, would no longer be laid out at their home newsrooms, but in Phoenix or Louisville or Asbury Park.

Charles Apple -- the newspaper design guru who has brought his widely read blog to the American Copy Editors Society site, and bless him for it -- has some thoughts here. Here's a link to Gannett's statement. Since, of course, the principle of blogging is that there are never enough thoughts, here are some more.


Legions of Gannett-haters, including many former and current Gannett employees, will laugh at this, but let's take their statement at face value first, as presented by VP/News Kate Marymount.

She says the goal of "the creation of News Design Centers that handle the design and production of newspapers" is "offering efficiencies but – just as importantly – sophisticated newspaper design." Certainly an impetus is to have one editorial system -- CCI -- in all of Gannett's newsrooms. Thus, a story written in Wausau can appear in Marion without having to be sent, picked up, recoded, published in print, published in mobile, whatever.

"Employees of the Design Centers will be trained in sophisticated newspaper design. And, most importantly, it allows our Information Centers to focus on – and protect -- the creation of unique local content."

Information Centers, of course, is what we used to call newsrooms. I think what this is saying is: If we take one Full-Time Equivalent out of Marshfield and make it a one-third FTE in Louisville, we have two-thirds of an FTE to do reporting in Marshfield. Also, if the job of the editor in Marshfield is simply to develop a local news budget rather than having to oversee and staff production, perhaps he or she will have more time to do that. (More on that later.)

"What work will remain locally? Creation of content and copy editing. To draw on the expertise and local knowledge at the local sites, copy editing will remain there. Copy that moves to the Design Centers is expected to be production-ready and include suggested headlines. ... We recognize that journalists everywhere handle multiple tasks every day, and that copy editors also paginate, create digital content, write SEO headlines, etc. We will work with each site to clarify what work is done locally and at Design Centers." Suddenly Gannett gets religion on copy editing? Hmm. But let's move on.

"The goal of this project is to elevate the quality of design at sites where the recession caused a loss of focus on design. And to sustain good design at sites that have been able to keep that a strong focus." OK, again, let's take them at their word, in part because the Gannett paper I read every day has suddenly undergone a design cleanup and its front page now looks like a thoughtful, well-designed entry point instead of a circus. (That's not a slam at my many friends there; it's what they were told to do, and now they're being told to do something better.) But let's also take them at their word because every editor cares about how his or her paper looks.

"Will all of our newspapers begin to look alike? No. Flatly, no. That is not the intent at all. The individuality of a newspaper is important. We will preserve that. ... Will our deadlines have to be earlier? No. The Design Centers will be staffed based on your current deadlines." Taking them at their word, this can't mean the aim is simply draconian cuts. The way to accomplish those is to make every newspaper look the same so that no story ever needs to be reformatted, as Tribune has largely done. And by assigning newspapers to hubs based on geography (and accompanying time zone) instead of, say, having Asbury Park lay out one West Coast paper for every East Coast paper, you're not going to have a designer do Morristown in the first half of his shift and Visalia in the second.

So taking them at their word, they want to:
1. Save some positions by not having to have a full-time layout person at every 14-page paper in the Midwest.
2. Have their papers look better by having designers who work together and under the direction of a design person, instead of somebody on his own in Iowa answering to an editor who doesn't know a thing about layout.
3. Have everyone on the same system.


OK, they want to cut payroll. Name a newspaper company that doesn't. Nothing about that makes Gannett stand out from the New York Times Co.

OK, they want to cut payroll on non-content-creation positions. Again, name a newspaper company that doesn't. That doesn't make Gannett a saint or a good employer. It just doesn't make them the devil either.

So what are some cynical observations?

1. Gannett has giant buildings in Louisville and Asbury Park (I've been in both) and Phoenix. I don't know about Nashville or Des Moines. I assume, since those buildings came from the Binghams and Lasses and Pulliams and Cowleses, that they own them and that there's probably not much they can do with them. So might as well fill them up. If continued downsizing means one can move out of an old-style newsroom building somewhere else and pay less for office space, as has happened with Singleton's Bay-area papers...

2. I don't know much about CCI, but I've been told that their layout system is not accessible from non-layout workstations (unlike the system my paper uses). I assume this means fewer licenses, and you don't need someone in Mountain Home who knows how to troubleshoot it.

3. If you've got a designer in Hattiesburg, you've got to have a backup. If your designers are all in Nashville, you just shift someone around. (As newsrooms shrink, though, this actually makes sense.)

4. The statement about "making the papers look alike" probably refers back to the attempt to make Florida Today exactly resemble USA Today, to see if people would buy it. They didn't. But designers working in a hub are going to copy from one another, and look for shortcuts to make their jobs easier, so the papers will come to resemble each other more over time. Plus, Gannett has never been shy about corporate design edicts -- remember the days when all the non-metros had to have a 7-column front page?

5. If you're trying to get your newsrooms to think more platform-agnostic, the existence in your newsroom of the group that's Getting the Paper Out ties the newsroom to Getting the Paper Out. It's your paper. If getting the paper out is someone else's job, you may spend more time putting things online or on mobile. The page-design function is no longer a newsroom hub. The editor doesn't wander over and say, "Whatcha doin?" The editor's job is the coverage, not obsessing over A1. It's divorcing the newsroom from the print paper, because otherwise tradition will dictate that that print paper will still be the Real Thing.

6. Assume the number of pages produced will inevitably shrink. It will still be a long time, if ever, before it shrinks to nothing. But perhaps you go down to five days or three. Or you keep going at seven days but you've only got two sections instead of four. If you've got 70 page-design desks, you've got to keep them staffed regardless. With hubs, you can spread the work around and shrink the staff gradually while still keeping people occupied.

So to me, the unspoken thing in this memo is: This is a plan to prepare for shrinking print production while not actually admitting it, and to get local newsrooms to focus less on "the next day's paper" and more on simply preparing things regardless of how they are presented.


The major surprise in this memo is the separating of the copy editing and design functions, at least for local copy. Recent bang-together moves such as Tribune, Scripps and Media General have all moved both functions to hubs. Gannett makes it very clear in this memo: Copy editing will remain in each newsroom.

Well, as a copy editor who has written about the need for copy editors to be seen as part of the local news-gathering and reporting force, I can't help but be happy. I know Gannett has changed its copy editor jobs in many places to include things such as video, so I don't know exactly what they feel the job is. But they clearly believe that a copy editor in Cherry Hill has to see the copy about Cherry Hill, that a copy desk in Louisville is not going to do the job right. As Apple says: "So at least the critical copy-editing functions will remain in the hands of folks who become familiar with local names and landmarks and customs. This is a smart move on Gannett’s part."

So bully for them, although without the design job I suspect that the one copy editor left in each newsroom may have his or her hands over-filled. The fact that copy editors are supposed to send "suggested heds" instead of actually filling in the head orders is a problem, because designers will be able to make ill-advised changes. (Apple notes this as well.) But a proofreading system could do away with that.

But this again shows to me that the endgame is the withering of print. Gannett has apparently decided that copy editing has a future in the digital world -- you still need that set of local eyes. So keep it in house. But newspaper design? Buggy whips. Move it out the door.

As someone who loves a good newspaper page, that makes me sad. On the other hand, as a copy editor, it's the same choice I'd make -- if I had to make the choice. Design is more exportable than text editing. (Graphics, such as maps and charts, are another thing entirely.) But I still don't know, for example, how stand-alone photo packages will be handled, or if the obscure wire story of interest only in a certain region will be picked up.

Note: I wrote this before seeing Steve Yelvington's and Brian White's comments on Apple's blog. Yelvington sees this as an overdue move to let print go further into its long fade to black and applauds it, while for me it's a sad thing that the newspaper business has come to this. That said, both of us drew the same conclusion. My friend Brian notes that local copy editing has stayed in Asheville and Greenville anyway while wire editing went to Louisville. Will wire editing all be in these hubs? Gannett's note is silent on that point. My own guess, a total guess? USA Today eventually will take over all wire content for the local papers.


Brian White said...


I wouldn't be surprised if they go the USA today route for wire copy. The hub papers we edit here in Louisville already use a USA Today-produced nation/world page, and in the C-J sports section, we use a USA Today baseball page. It's sent to us as a PDF, so we have to call when there are mistakes.

Anonymous said...

If Charles Apple is a "newspaper design guru," why can't he get a job in the industry? It's like saying Megan Lavey is an Apple expert because she blogs about owning an iPod.

Davisull said...

My admiration for Charles is high, but simply speaking as a copy editor, being a guru does not depend upon having employment. A guru, in the Western usage (and apparently in a secular sense in India as well), is a teacher who offers what he considers a path to enlightenment and typically seeks to attract followers. Therefore calling Charles a guru would be appropriate regardless of what one might think of teaching or whether he draws a paycheck.

rknil said...

The better question is why couldn't Apple stay in the industry? There's never really been an answer to that one.

I think this could be a great move, if for no other reason than it might throw hundreds of page designers out of work.

There has been no greater waste of resources across the board than the continued obsession with page design, which has done next to nothing to maintain readers. Designers claimed their work would bring readers running. I guess they were right, if they meant the readers would run away.

Anonymous said...

Thanks but as a much more accomplished journalist and designer than Charles, he does not speak for me or my contemporaries. He is a high profile blogger and not my mouthpiece.

Guru is your opinion, to be clear.

Anonymous said...

Filling in a couple blanks:

(1) Re local copy editing, it would've been more accurate for the Gannett memo to say it will stay as local as it currently is. Truth told, four of the chain's six NJ papers (excluding the two in South Jersey) have already merged their copy and design desks, and word is that the Cherry Hill and Vineland papers will eventually join them to create a statewide universal desk.

(2) I saw the CCI system demo'd a few years ago. IIRC, while writing/editing and pagination are in separate sub-applications, once a story is on a page, you can see its layout from within the editing application by hitting a button. If Gannett devises a workflow that makes any sense at all, the story would be paginated first, then headlined & trimmed to fit in the editing system.

rknil said...

Actually, "guru" is a word that is way overused, primarily by newspaper people who have no clue what it really means.

At one paper that was clearly trying to find a way to minimize editing and maximize obsession with design, I was led to believe nearly everyone was some sort of guru. Very few, if any, of them lived up to the title.