Newspapers looking to cut fat from their newsrooms often turn to laying off those who don't produce content—such as copy editors. But, as Natascia Lypny asks, can their credibility afford the cut?
By Natascia Lypny in the King's Journalism Review
Kim Covert remembers the “dead silence,” broken by muffled crying.
She and two dozen other copy editors were clumped around the large central table in Postmedia Network Inc.’s newswire office in Ottawa. The group, which gathered national and international news and copy edited it for use in Postmedia newspapers across the country, gaped at the company’s vice-president of editorial operations, Lou Clancy, as he announced Canadian Press was taking over their jobs. It was cheaper; they were fired.
“We all kind of looked at each other and thought, ‘What the fuck?’ because most of us hadn’t expected any such thing,” says Covert. “My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, my mortgage,’ and my stomach just fell.”
The copy editors took turns filing into a private office where Clancy and their managing editor, Christina Spencer, echoed the announcement, explained severance packages and offered pleasantries.
For the rest of the week, they worked in a “graveyard,” says Covert, where you were either dead or one of the five or so guilty survivors Postmedia had decided to keep on.
“The impression that we got was that there was no plan,” says Covert’s colleague, Douglas Beazley, one of the —at the time — lucky survivors, “that everything was being done in a panic; that it was just people firing off in all directions because they genuinely didn’t know what to do.”
Beazley’s right: newspaper publishers are panicking. Print media is starving for profit, and publishers in Canada and the United States are compensating by thinning their newsrooms by thousands of workers.
Copy editors have been sacrificed more than any other newsroom category. Nearly a third of the copy editors who were working for American daily newspapers in 2007 are no longer employed in those positions today, according to an American Society of News Editors’ survey of 985 publications. In Canada, Postmedia not only shut down its newswire in May, it also severed the copy editing staff at some of its major publications, like the Montreal Gazette and The Ottawa Citizen.
“No media executive wants to be the one to say, ‘We’re reducing content,’ that we’re giving people less,” says Beazley. “So, they’re less likely to cut (reporters) than they are to cut the editorial function. If they see fat, that’s where they’re going to see it, because they think they can get away with it.”
The question is, can they? Copy editors may be the last line of defence, protecting newspapers’ greatest virtue and most important selling point — credibility. But copy editors are little noticed outside the newsroom. Even the Newseum, Washington, D.C.’s 250,000-square-foot journalism museum, doesn’t make a single mention of copy editing.
This is surprising, since copy editing has played a part in newspapers for more than 150 years. In the late 1800s, “copy readers,” acting as assistants to senior editors, performed many of the tasks now associated with copy editing: they checked grammar, spelling, facts and improved the structure of stories. By the turn of the 19th century, though, copy readers had been relegated to copy desks, where their work resembled an assembly line. With the rise of reporters’ fame in the 1930s, copy editors faded into anonymity.
“Copy editors don’t get a whole lot of praise, generally,” says Steve MacLeod, a recently retired Canadian Press copy editor. He accepted a buyout in December 2011 when the newswire’s Halifax bureau downsized. “It’s really a job that nobody notices unless you screw up.”
Craig Silverman notices. As the main man behind the Poynter Institute’s Regret the Error blog, Silverman tracks media errors and accuracy. One of the worst copy editing mistakes he came across in 2012: a January Daily Mail headline reading, “At Last singer Etta James dies at 73 from leukemia.” The British newspaper wasn’t relieved at her death; it meant to reference the singer’s famous ballad. Better copy editing would have helped the Mail avoid embarrassment.
Still, publications continue to chop copy editing positions in an attempt to reduce what publishers see as redundant layers of production and editing. This trimming down of newsrooms has been going on for decades, but it didn’t always involve layoffs. Before steep job cuts began in 2006, copy editors were saddled with additional tasks: first typesetting, followed by pagination, then web production.
With the rise of 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week online news, two words have affected copy editing more than any others: volume and speed.
“Now, there are no deadlines,” says MacLeod. “It’s now. It’s now. It’s now. It’s now.”
MacLeod recalls seven-hour-long night shifts where a team of as few as three people churned out 120 to 150 stories. In his last decade at the Canadian Press, the copy desk was also inundated with “quick hits,” short five- or six-paragraph stories intended for posting straight to the Internet. “We used to call it the sausage factory sometimes.”
Some stories don’t even receive the factory treatment.
Fewer than 50 per cent of publications “always” copy edit their online stories, reported a 2009 study of U.S. newspapers for the Newspaper Research Journal. Just under 60 per cent of publications that don’t copy edit justified skipping this step because it would “delay posting.”
“We’re putting stuff up online, people are reading it and nobody — nobody, nobody, nobody — has done a copy check on it,” says Kyle Shaw, editor for the Halifax-based alternative weekly The Coast. He describes the difference between copy editing for print and online a “glaring imbalance.”
For copy editors, Beazley says this imbalance “led to niggling suspicion amongst the corporate suits in our industry that we were somehow dispensable.”
And then it was Beazley’s turn. On May 28, 2012 — exactly three weeks after his colleagues were laid off — the Postmedia higher ups returned to Ottawa to shutter what remained of his office.
“I think at that point my heart had already been broken,” says Beazley. “Taking the job away from me didn’t really matter that much anymore because there wasn’t much left of the job. It was kind of like putting a very sick dog to sleep.”
He’d spent his days accompanied by two or three other surviving editors and “dust bunnies the size of buffalo.” Their workload had been shrinking as it got passed to the Canadian Press.
Undistracted by work, the copy editors’ attention was drawn to movers packing up the office computer equipment and furniture. The company was shipping it to Postmedia Editorial Services, a centralized editorial and production newsroom in Hamilton, which had taken over much of the copy editing work done in Ottawa and at other Postmedia outlets.
The Postmedia executives gave Beazley a choice: continue his job in Hamilton for the same salary or join his former coworkers job hunting.
Covert, like most of those laid off, had also been told she could apply for a job at Postmedia Editorial Services, doing the same work she’d been doing in Ottawa, but at lower pay. She declined, vented at home and pounded out entries for her new blog, welcometomylayoff: Looking for work in a downsizing world.
As jobless copy editors wrangle with their mortgages, the companies that fired them are facing their own financial crisis.
Newspapers are struggling to shift from a print revenue model (supported by subscriptions and advertising) to an online one (advertising with the occasional paywall) in salivating pursuit of their readers’ interests.
So far, the transition hasn’t been profitable, and it’s unlikely to get any richer soon.
For every $7 publishers have lost in print advertising, they make just $1 in online revenue, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. To make matters worse, most publishers are still puzzling out how to get readers to pay for online content.
Postmedia Chief Executive Officer Paul Godfrey says his company, which is more than $500 million in debt, doesn’t need to match print and online revenue. Still, he’d like to see 40 to 45 cents of digital revenue for every dollar print brings in. In the meantime, Godfrey is looking for places to cut — and it starts with copy editors.
“Copy editors, like everybody else: their role has changed,” he says. “You don’t need as many copy editors for print as you used to.” He adds that having copy editors scrutinizing the same non-local stories at every Postmedia outlet is redundant.
Enter Postmedia Editorial Services, a Postmedia subsidiary, where eight or so of the Ottawa-based copy editors relocated. It handles editing and pagination — page layout and design — for nine of the conglomerate’s newspapers, not to mention dozens in the United States. It also trims and lays out national and international newswire copy for Postmedia outlets.
Alex Beer, editor-in-chief of Postmedia Editorial Services, says his company has transported copy editing “back to the good ole days” when copy editors were expected to edit copy, and nothing else.
The company assigns each newspaper a team of Hamilton-based copy editors, as well as its own quality control editor who conducts a final check on all pages before they are sent back to the newsroom.
Godfrey says the quality of copy editing at Postmedia Editorial Services is “absolutely” the same as it would have been in local newsrooms.
The problem is: who’s left to edit local copy before it’s sent on to Hamilton?
Having laid off their copy editors, some publications relegate the task to reporters or other editors. This strategy ignores that copy editing is a specialized skill requiring training, says Merrill Perlman, who worked as copy editor and copy chief at the New York Times for 25 years before taking a buyout in 2008.
She compares lobbing copy editing to a reporter who’s never done it before with asking a minivan owner to drive an 18-wheeler on an icy road. “It’s not so much the laying off of the copy editors — although that galls me because it’s short-sighted — but it’s also the lack of acknowledging that there’s a gap that needs to be filled and investing in a little bit a training to get that gap filled.”
It won’t, says Beazley, for the same reason copy editors are cut in the first place — publications believe readers won’t notice.
Except they do.
A 2011 experiment for the Newspaper Research Journal comparing error-free and error-ridden articles found people took longer to read stories with mistakes and remembered less information from them. They also perceived the credibility of those pieces to be lower than those without errors.
A researcher for the American Copy Editors Society conducted a similar study the same year. It found frequent news consumers were critical of what they read: they picked up on mistakes, bad grammar and vocabulary, consistency errors, poor structure and confusing writing. They knew when a story had been edited and when it hadn’t; they preferred those that had.
“When people make the calculation in newsrooms and they say, ‘Let’s keep the content producers and get rid of the content quality folks,’ the piece that they don’t calculate is the impact that it can actually have on readers’ perception of their product,” says Regret the Error’s Silverman, “and that’s where it comes home to roost.”
There is someone who’s enjoyed Beazley’s layoff.
For his five-year-old son, spoiled with his father’s attention, it’s always playtime.
“He just wants to read a book — oh, now he wants to do a puzzle. He’s obsessed with jigsaw puzzles.”
Beazley turned down Postmedia’s offer to work in Hamilton, partly for family reasons, partly because the job description didn’t entice him.
So Beazley satiated his hunger for books. He reread the Odyssey, plowed through detective novels and tackled Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.
“I was going to do some landscaping,” he says. “I didn’t do that. I was going to start running again. I didn’t do that. The next time I get laid off I’ll be much more productive.”
On Oct. 1, Beazley started a new job with an online publication.
Since July, Covert has been working as the e-publications editor at the Canadian Bar Association, where the rhythm is “completely different” from a newsroom. She says she’s having trouble adjusting.
“I figured I had to do something new,” says Covert, who applied to dozens of jobs, few of which were media-related. “I was sick and tired of worrying about my job, about worrying whether I’d have one, and sick and tired of worrying about the newspaper industry, because I think they’re losing more than they can ever get back.”
Newspapers are losing. They’re losing their advertisers; they’re losing their subscribers; they’re losing their competitiveness. Amidst those losses, copy editors rank low on publishers’ list of concerns.
But Perlman says that in laying off copy editors, and foregoing a substitution for their role in newsrooms, newspapers are letting their readers be the first arbiters of their credibility and their quality.
“If you cede (copy editing) to your readers, you just have to recognize what the risks are and the risks may be greater than you want to pay. The risks may be your reputation, and news publications have very little except their reputation.”