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.