Death of copy editing, or death of specialization?

Jeff Jarvis has posted an "utter bullshit" spreadsheet (for discussion only, not to be taken literally) outlining how a newsroom might reorganize to save money and focus on its strengths. One of the notable line items was reducing the number of copy editors (subs, for you Brits) from 15 to three. "Make writers edit," he declared.

It is a timely idea in a profession that just loves a three-point "trend." In London, the free sheet City AM is whacking its entire "subediting team." Down under, Australia's Fairfax Media is cutting 40 of 190 subeditors across the group. I'd mention a U.S. example as the third point, but I can't decide which of last week's layoff announcements to cite.

There will be consequences.

The dirty little secret of newspaper journalists is that a lot of them can't write very well. That's by no means universally true, but it's true enough. I was a copy editor for years at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, where slot chief Vickie Kinney kicked my butt until I learned to be pretty good at it, and at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. I didn't just write headlines and hook paragraphs. I transformed some real trash into publishable writing, saved my paper and some writers from professional embarrassment, and introduced relatively few errors on my own.

Newspapers historically have been able to support a great deal of specialization. At the Globe we had reporters who literally never set foot in the newsroom. Police reporters were one-third journalist and two-thirds cop. Some had grown up in Ben Hecht's world of "The Front Page," where a reporter burned shoe leather and occasionally called the switchboard: "Sweetheart, give me rewrite!" When computers came along (Teleram Portabubbles, for you technohistory buffs), those reporters suddenly were expected to not only report, but also write, and even type. What showed up in the newsroom's editing system was outright scary, unpublishable.

But as rewrite disappeared, reporters also took on the responsibility of writing. About the same time, editors began taking on responsibilities of the composing room -- a department that doesn't even exist at most newspapers today, but one that was at the heart of newspaper production for generations. Fewer people, fewer hands, less specialization, more responsibility.

And it continues.

If you're studying journalism, you'd better learn to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time, without making any mistakes, because there's not going to be anyone there to save you from your own shortcomings.

Whether you or I like these changes isn't particularly meaningful. The forces acting on the business of journalism are going to rewrite job descriptions, and the luxury of specialization will continue to disappear. Sweetheart, rewrite don't work here any more.

Some copy editors are going to lose their jobs. But so will some reporters.

Because without copy editors, the reporters who are weakest at writing, at attention to detail, at stepping out of their own heads and critically examining their work, are going to be subjected to the harshest editors of all: a readership that today is empowered to talk back.


Steve - Your post is so true. Every reporter needs an editor. The best reporters know that a good copy editor makes them better writers. Having worked at small, mid and metro newspapers, I can tell you reporters who can't write very well exist everywhere. When I first started working at a major metro, I thought all of the raw copy would be flawless. After all, these reporters were working at a metro daily. But there were plenty of reporters who really needed the old rewrite desk. Some reporters, of course, were very good writers But pity the poor reader if copy editors disappear.

I began my newspaper career as a one man band at a weekly newspaper. At my first daily I had the distinct pleasure to work for a copy editor who taught me everything I know about being a reporter. I wasn't bad as a writer before I met her, but her copy editing skills made me a reporter. Besides teaching me how to use a dictionary -- religiously -- she never let me be lazy. When I went too far, she pulled me back. When I didn't go far enough, she pushed me to go further. And she explained it all to me while she was doing it. Sometimes her explanations were terse: "Come on, you can do better." Sometimes they were provacative: "What is this sh*t." But they were always meant to make me better and, as a result, to make the paper better. I learned and believed the mantra: Every good reporter has a great editor. A few years later I got to act as mentor for some other younger reporters. I spent some time doing the copy editing thing and was praised for my ability to help others be better reporters. I tried to live up to the maxim: Every good reporter has a great editor. I hope some of those I helped went on to help others. The question for the future is: Who will be the great editors in this brave new world? Without them will there be as many good or great reporters? How do we replace their eyes, their ears, their vast stores or experiential and institutional knowledge if the financial end of the equation has no place for them to exist? I applaud the critical thinking now under way to make realistic (survivable) newsrooms. I understand the push to reduce or eliminate copy editors -- if you have to choose between a content producer and a content editor, you don't have much choice at this point. But I think journalism and, especially, journalists will suffer without them. A good content producer needs a great editor.

Great post and excellent comments. Evans asks, "Who will be the great editors in this brave new world?" Steve offers one candidate: a readership that talks back. I agree, but one other group will -- or should -- play an essential role: journalism teachers. I know it's easy to slam journalism schools, since the only way to really learn journalism is to do it. But the best j-schools are already based on that premise. A good j-prof is an editor and a mentor first, someone who knows that real education comes from a labor-intensive relationship between teacher and student. A blowhard who tells war stories for a few hours a week is not a teacher. If j-schools know what they're doing, they will remake themselves into a repository of great editors adept at multimedia storytelling and thereby become an essential part of the new media world.

Those of working in a bureau are used to having other reporters edit our copy. You can save money by eliminating copy editors, but you would be foolish to eliminate editing by someone other than the writer.

Hey, here's a thought: If writers can learn to edit, why were copy editors invented in the first place? Anyone who believes that newspapers were given to wasting money on something that wasn't needed for all those years is, well, misguided. Or something.

And one other thing: Part of the problem is that some people think copy editors are spell-checkers. They don't see all the embarrassing stuff that is kept out of newspapers. Two examples in my paper: A mention of Pearl Harbor being bombed on Dec. 7, 1951, and a mention of an exhibit devoted to President Alexander Hamilton. Incredibly, the reporter argued with me on the latter.

Philosophically speaking, we could perhaps apply these arguments on both sides to nearly every industry and sector - it's a travesty. Everyone is competing to become the lowest common denominator - and the viewers, readers, and news junkies partaking in all this content realize that it is becoming somewhat of a joke. AI derivative software writing news stories, foreign news bureaus with one person working in them, imagine covering the Chinese news with a reporter (aka news bureau in Shanghai)well, one news reporter can't even get half way across town in a day - and China is a huge country - so it's not really news anymore - not sure what it is?