McGuire on Media

Innovation is required if newspapers are going to revamp copy editing

I think Craig Silverman of Regret the Error fame had it right when he called for significant innovation to address quality control. Silverman has developed a franchise around amusing us with corrections, but his weekly column forces anyone who cares about factual accuracy to pay close attention. His calls for change in how we guarantee journalistic accuracy need to be taken seriously.

How newspapers edit copy and ensure quality has been a big issue for several months, but it thrust itself into my consciousness in a big way last week.

First, my old friend, curmudgeonly columnist turned morning radio host in Minneapolis, Pat Reusse, wanted to interview me about the Star Tribune’s plan to cut copy editors. I told Patrick I know little about what’s happening in Minneapolis, but I have been forced to think a lot about the issue in general.

Another friend of mine, an editor of a major regional newspaper has asked me for my thoughts on this “hot issue,” because the editor views it as an “opportunity” for staff reduction. Almost at the same time, Andy Alexander, the Washington Post Ombudsman wrote this revealing column on errors in the Post.

Without writing about any newspaper specifically, I want to make some comments about reducing copy editors as a cost-cutting strategy. I am not a traditionalist on this subject.  I don’t have a knee-jerk reaction to cutting copy editors based on the “way we’ve always done it.” That historical assembly-line approach had some serious problems.

The sharpest organizational development expert I ever encountered was Corty Camaan. (Corty died last September, a fact I did not know until I just researched his name. The world lost a wonderfully gentle and talented man.)  Corty first observed to me circa 1994 or 1995 that the copy editing system in newspapers was mighty suspect. With Corty egging me on, I developed a personal philosophy that there was something more than a bit troubling about a system in which people were assigned to find errors in another person’s work. And then to make matters worse you moved the copy on to another editor with what seemed to be an implicit instruction for that editor to find some sort of problem, too.  I once described the system as inherently corrupt and, while I was going for impact, I still don’t think that charge was too overdone. 

My new colleague here at the Cronkite School, Len Downie, tells me that a story at the Washington Post in the old days got 12 separate reads. I think the most a story ever got at the Star Tribune in my day was six reads.  Either number though is a little nuts. It is pretty obvious why that sort of system raised publishers’ eyebrows when they started hunting for places to dramatically cut the newsroom.

I am totally on board with streamlining that system. However, I think just whacking a bunch of copy editing positions out of the system and expecting spell check to pick up the slack is a terribly ill-advised path.  Copy editing is a subtle, nuanced art that goes way beyond spotting typos. That is proofreading, not copy editing. Most spell check systems can catch some typos, but not all.

Copy editing corrects context errors, provides expertise on local points of history and location and supplies subject matter expertise that often saves a piece of copy. Copy editors also supply a little thing called judgment. Every writer pushes a point too far, uses language that is ill-advised or makes assertions that can’t be supported. A copy editors job is to catch those.

For my money if any paper in the country is going to innovate to solve the editing problem these steps should be considered on the way to reinvention:

  1. Do not assume that copy editors must go. Copy editors are multi-skilled problem solvers.  They have been getting the paper out at night for years, and they know more about how that paper gets to the streets than anyone. Ridding your paper of all those knowledgeable minds strikes me as folly. Copy editors can report, they can package material and they are committed to flow. You need to keep a lot of them even if you revamp the system.
  2. I don’t see how such a move can be made without sitting in on the night operation for at least two weeks.  For many editors that night operation is a complete mystery. You need to understand it thoroughly before you toss the current system on its ear. That should be a general rule for cutting jobs: Know what the job entails and don’t operate on what you think the job entails.
  3. Peer editing is going to be a must.  Reporters are going to have to rely on each other for editing. Reporters are going to have to offer that context, expertise and judgment to each other. And, that is going to be easier said than done.  Many reporters are often quite easy on their peers.
  4. That means Training with a capital T is going to be required.  In 2002 when I retired from the Star Tribune, training budgets were being sliced and diced.  I hear they are a fond memory in some places now. That disdain for training has to stop now if a newspaper is going to successfully eliminate several reads in the copy editing system. Reporters and others are simply not prepared for the sophisticated enterprise called copy editing.  
  5. Teams need to make a comeback. I understand that teams have suffered as a concept since dramatic downsizing began. If you are going to have a snowball’s chance of maintaining quality in your newspaper you need to have subject expertise and context. A true team of reporters and editors could supply that.  
  6. Finally, if this effort is to be undertaken do not believe for a minute that copy editing does not matter or that your readers are going to give you a pass and a loving pat on the butt.  Andy Alexander in that Post ombudsman column nailed it when he wrote this: “retired English teachers and armchair grammarians delight in playing “Gotcha!” with The Post. They are regular (and often good-natured) correspondents, pointing out everything from misplaced modifiers to homonym errors. In recent months, they’ve been joined by less genial readers who complain that increased copy editing errors have become annoying and are damaging The Post’s credibility. ” Jay Leno and David Letterman make a living mocking bad copy editing. It’s been my experience that readers will always impugn your basic credibility when you commit copy errors. And, they’ll often see conspiracy of some sort behind many errors.

I don’t want to end this entry without addressing the role journalism education has to play in addressing this problem.  I talked to Dean Christopher Callahan this afternoon about editing. He pointed with pride to the fact that when we redesigned the curriculum a couple of years ago here at the Cronkite School we required editing for all students. There are other schools who do this, but not all. The problem for all of us in a changing journalistic environment is that there are so many new demands that some of the old skills get cut because we can offer only so many journalism classes.

For now J-schools like ours are teaching editing to every journalist we produce.  Both Dean Callahan and I believe that should continue to be the case, but the pressures are increasing.

Copy editing is not an after thought and it can’t be treated like one. Guaranteeing the high quality of our journalism is a heavy responsibility. It needs to be treated with reverence and respect.

My final two cents worth: Innovative rethinking of an outdated process is laudable and worthy of a lot of effort. On the other hand, laying off skilled craftsman and hoping a computer can ensure quality is going to be one more thing for newspapers to regret.


  1. Posted January 20, 2010 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Tim, as a fellow Ypsi Press alumnus (1977-79), thank you for your support of what we do. There are still too many editors whose view is that a newspaper is essentially its reporters, and something happens and a paper comes out or a Web site gets updated, but how that happens or what those people actually do to verify, sharpen and present the reporters’ stories isn’t particularly important.

    I am curious as to how many “reads” you think a typical story should get — not a major project and not “Deaths Elsewhere,” but your usual, B-front, 20-inch local story.

    Also — and no one mentions this, because all we ever really talk about are “stories” — how many people should vet the headlines and captions? No one? How, indeed, do they get written? Again, it’s no problem to write a 236-2 on “Man charged in alleged assault.” But start throwing in decks, pulled quotes, multiple captions… those are part of the “story,” too.

  2. Kathy Wenner
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Spot on! As a former copy editor who took a buyout at The Washington Post last year under threat of layoffs, I’ve lived this.
    The only point I’d challenge is that of my beloved former executive editor, Len Downie. I’m not sure where he got his number, but when I was at the paper in 2008, a study was done that arrived at a falsely inflated number of reads per copy, because the software used recorded the number of times a slug had been “touched,” which included everyone who moved it into a different “basket” in the pagination system, without having to open the story and read it.
    Nonetheless, it is a sad fact that The Post can no longer afford the staff that was able to put out a very nearly flawless Foreign report every night, for example.
    Thank you, Tim McGuire. I hope this gets wide circulation.

  3. Posted January 21, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    You’ve nailed it in your observation that copy editors’ primary value is context, history and judgment — and I would put judgment first in that triptych.

    The grammar grannies who call and write about our stylistic slips aren’t the critical audience. It’s those who come to distrust media because we don’t know the history of events, ignore context, or are rightly offended by poor judgment (the famous ‘roasted nuts’ headline comes to mind).

    Journalism outlets (I would extend your argument for the importance of quality editing beyond newspapers to Web and mobile) that cut these quality-control agents are ultimately cutting away audience trust, and therefore the audience itself.

  4. Posted January 21, 2010 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Well put.

    The need for cuts in general is understood. But thoughtless whacking is just that.

    And when making cuts, managers should consider whether their newspapers are best distinguished by quality, breadth or some other aspect.

  5. Perry Gaskill
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    One of the elements which seems to be missing from the current discussion on copy editing is that a longer-term trend is for online news content to move toward semantically tagged meta-data. One of the better examples of how such systems are evolving is Thomson Reuters’ OpenCalais project.

    And anyone who spends time playing with OpenCalais is probably going to notice a couple of things right off. The first is that, although the system can automatically tag with a fairly high degree of accuracy, it’s not perfect. The second is that in order for the system to work well, it’s probably going to need to be fed localized taxonomies. British English, for example, differs from American English, and it matters.

    One example of why it matters is that studies of newspaper readership have shown that, although younger readers may be interested in news, they often lack the backstory to put an event in context. Current systems using subjective single keywords to fetch related stories are a crude stopgap.

    So it seems to me that if you look at copy editing as part of a move towards a Semantic Web, it’s not hard to draw the conclusion that the core copydesk skills are still valuable but how they’re applied is going to need to change a bit.

  6. Posted January 21, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Love your stuff, but have you considered changing your style a bit to allow for easier web reading? Shorter paragraphs, space between bullet points, etc.?

  7. Posted January 21, 2010 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    The original memo at The Washington Post about 12 “touches” seemed to be mostly about how many assigning editors and assistants felt they had to see a story. It had little to do with the copy editors. Most of the moves at that time seem well-intentioned to strengthen the copy editing by moving advance stories off deadline. Buyouts and cutbacks did hit copy editors hard, however, as they do at many newspapers.

    Upper managers in newsrooms tend to come from the assigning desks. I suspect it’s because leading a group of reporters creates a well-defined supervisor. The problem solver who gets the paper out at night might be managing the whole newsroom on deadline but doesn’t have “direct reports” and isn’t seen as a manager of people. Top editors shouldn’t have to spend a night on the copy desk; it should be part of their growth as journalists and managers.

    I appreciate Tim McGuire’s knowledgeable and unsentimental look at the issues. Copy editors have a righteous cause, but they could challenge some of their own assumptions, too. They are the sharp-eyed inspectors on the assembly line, but that creates a kind of tunnel vision. The quality control guru W. Edwards Deming believed that everyone was responsible for quality control. But just as reporters are too willing to assume that somebody down the line will clean up the copy, copy editors are too often content to fix the same mistakes time and again.

    Just as copy editors absorbed tasks that were once those of the composing room, the copy editor’s job is coming unbundled. Where does the copy editor provide the most value if technology changes drastically? Copy editors write headlines mostly because of the long-ago technology of fitting columns of type onto broadsheet pages. What is the copy editor’s role when a reporter is tweeting, chatting or responding to a comment in a blog, or a photographer is posting a photo gallery? Aggregating, curating and SEO — critical thinking and linking — are closer to copy editing than many tasks they’ve had to do in recent years.

    Copy editors still have a valuable role, but the assembly line is no longer the model … except where it is. Too many publishers assume the staffing for the fast-paced back-and-forth online can be made to put out the traditional one-chance-to-get-it-right newspaper. One is a linear process and the other is a network. The work flow is much different.

    Much of this discussion is probably too late for some newsrooms. When the cuts came, they were made with a blunt instrument. Even the web team got the boot in some places. Still, I challenge copy editors to prove their value. It might seem flippant, but there’s a point behind this: Start your own newspaper. Call it The Edited News. Show why it’s marketable.

  8. J.L. Miller
    Posted January 22, 2010 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    “A copy editors job is to catch those.”
    “Copy editing is not an after thought …”
    “On the other hand, laying off skilled craftsman …”
    Just goes to show you that everyone needs an editor.

  9. Gene Krzyzynski
    Posted January 22, 2010 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    Exhibit A among real-time evidence on the importance of not cutting corners on copy editing comes from the January issue of the news industry’s very own bible, Editor & Publisher.

    “Buffalo, Buffett-style,” its Page One article on the Warren Buffett-owned Buffalo News, mentions the paper’s longtime publisher seven times, and twice more in the captions. All nine times, the surname used is Lipsi. His name, though, is Stan Lipsey.

    Case closed.

  10. Posted January 24, 2010 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    First, I’ll start by pointing out again how the American Copy Editors Society has failed to defend the profession. That organization needs to disband and refund dues — today.

    That being said, there are some good points here.

    * “But just as reporters are too willing to assume that somebody down the line will clean up the copy, copy editors are too often content to fix the same mistakes time and again.” Very good. But try to correct some of the flaws built in to the system. I did, and it was like beating my head against the wall. Resistance is strong in too many problem people in newsrooms, and they REALLY do not want to listen to “the desk.” (At this point, the numbskulls will reply: “It must have been THE WAY you were doing it.” They are ignorant and will stay ignorant for the rest of their days.)

    * “The problem solver who gets the paper out at night might be managing the whole newsroom on deadline but doesn’t have “direct reports” and isn’t seen as a manager of people.” Another great point. I don’t see that changing, either. The best reward I was ever offered for deadline performance came in college when someone bought alcohol. Nothing came close to that. In fact, one newspaper’s production department took the credit for 100 consecutive days of making deadline. That group had little to nothing to do with the accomplishment. No one cared.

    * “(A) study was done that arrived at a falsely inflated number of reads per copy, because the software used recorded the number of times a slug had been “touched,” which included everyone who moved it into a different “basket” in the pagination system, without having to open the story and read it.” Been there, seen that. It’s even more fun when people are trying to track corrections. There is no greater joy than having “handled” an article merely by moving it to the correct queue, and yet having to explain that and sign a name to a report about a mistake — especially when it’s the same type of mistake that’s been ignored repeatedly. (See above.)

    This could go on for some time, but the bottom line here is too many major flaws were ignored for far too long, and now copy desks are paying the price. The culprits, of course, were bad hiring, bad management, bad philosophies, and pointless organizations like ACES that should have been standing up for copy editors but instead chose to fiddle while Rome burned.