Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Post and Copy Editing: A Followup

Scott Butterworth and Bill Walsh of the Washington Post held a session at the ACES conference yesterday to speak about their new copy editing system. Scott passed out a handout which included this very blog as an "other views" item. I've never been a footnote before, and it's kind of cool. Thanks, Scott!

It's clear that a major aim of this is to get stories moved earlier in the day so that they can make the Web during the time when people actually read the Web, and also to avoid the late production bottleneck. Those are worthy aims. Another major aim is to save money, but these days there's nothing we can do about that.

Scott was asked directly if he thought the model was replicable at other newspapers. He said he thought it was, possibly, maybe probably, but that it would have to depend upon the circumstances of that newspaper. He took severe issue with Jack Shafer's overall characterization of the program, saying the "two-touch" idea was probably only going to happen with lesser stories and that A1 and major stories would still have five or six editors working on them. Shafer, he felt, had led much of the comment on this story (including, presumably, mine) down the wrong path.

Still, some of the program is smoke and mirrors -- for example, when the "assistant editors," who are largely former rim editors, are done with their normal work, they are to jump in to help copy edit. Some of it is directly related to the circumstances of the Post -- one aim is to give talented copy editors a new career path as assigning editors. At many newspapers, such as my own, making that leap does not appear to be as difficult as it is at the Post.

Part of this is just different cultures. Scott, for example, noted that copy editors who really wanted to delve into heavy lifting on stories would be able to move into the assistant editor role, whereas those who, as I think he put it, wanted to concentrate on grammar and headlines would still be able to move into the slot. Our paper has never had quite this dichotomy and I suspect many others do not. I don't know that much about how the Post does business, but what I picked up was that their expectation of copy editors was less about content and more about fact-checking and grammar than ours is. Our paper, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News tend toward one model of what copy editors should do; the Post and the Boston Globe tend toward another. Let a hundred flowers blossom.

So is the model replicable? Perhaps, if a paper looks at the job in the same way as the Post. But there are still, to me, four strong reservations:

1. There is not a rim editor looking at the story who is independent of the assigning process and thus whose primary role is to look at it as a reader, and not as another internal editor.
2. The system is based on exceptional people doing exceptional work. That is certainly true of Scott Butterworth, Bill Walsh, and many of their colleagues. Not everyone is exceptional, even at the Post. Part of the role of a copy desk is to smooth out the different gaps that everyone brings to the process.
3. Bill noted that in his view, if I have it right, proofing was going to function more as what had been the slot's role in smoothing out wording and headlines. This is fine as long as you have a first edition that you can treat (along with its readers) as a throwaway.
4. This all seems to me totally story-driven, with less thought given to captions, pulled quotes and even headlines, although they are covered. It's a system set up to reflect a view based on reading a story budget and not the way readers come to the paper, which is display-type first. Editing the story is just one of the functions we do. A lot of the job of those rim editors is to make the headlines, readins, readouts, etc., work well and sing. And there never were multiple eyes on that.

1 comment:

Scott Butterworth said...

Hi, David,

I was glad to see you at ACES, and to get your questions at our session. I'm sorry we didn't talk one-on-one in between sessions.

It's way too harsh to say that our first edition will be a throwaway. Ouch! Will some stories improve between editions? Sure, just as they did under the rim/slot model. Will most slugs need this kind of after-the-fact repair? No. Historically, we've gone into only a quarter to a third of our slugs between the first and second editions, with most of those for updates, not repairs. I don't see what we're doing significantly changing that trend.

Also, I didn't point out in Denver but will here that this new editing model comes on the heels of a redesign of the A section. In it, we are producing many more of the entry points you touch on in #4. Copy editors create some of that text, but not all: The night editor writes some, and so do the assistant and assignment editors. Again, the trick is getting them done as early as possible, so we can get those multiple eyes on them.

Scott Butterworth