The Bay Area News Group has just declared open season on itself for plaintiffs’ attorneys.
It has announced that it’s killing its copy desk and getting rid of 11 FTEs thereupon.
Because they don’t directly produce content, copy editors increasingly have been seen as superfluous in digital media, which don’t seem to value clean copy as much as print historically has done. Copy editors have been as vulnerable to other layoffs as other journalists, and in recent years newspaper chains have trended toward regional hubs for copy editors rather than a copy desk for each publication, a move that saves money but kill institutional memory and the accompanying ability to catch dumb mistakes that the locals would recognize.
Now, the Bay Area News Group is going that one better:
We’re launching a series of changes to the assigning and copy editing process in an attempt to manage a planned loss of approximately 11 FTEs. We are choosing
this course, as many papers have across the country, rather than cutting more deeply into the ranks of content producers or neglecting our digital needs.
The bottom line is that we will be eliminating a layer of valuable editing across most of the copy desk — what is known in desk parlance as the rim. The result:
* Staff stories that go inside sections will not be copy-edited. The assigning editor will be the only read. (In sports, late stories that do not go through an assigning editor will continue to be read on the desk, once.) Stories for our East Bay weeklies will not be copy-edited./CONTINUES
* Staff stories for section covers will receive one read on the desk rather than the current two.
* Proofreading will be reduced.
This is going to place a new level of responsibility on reporters and, especially, assigning editors. Many of the ways in which the desk bails us out — often without us noticing — will disappear. That will mean:
* All assigning editors must run Tansa on stories before moving them to the desk, and all proper names will have to be cq’ed. Grammar mistakes that make it through an assigning editor are highly likely to appear in print.
* Reporters and editors will need to be more familiar with AP and BANG style.
* Budgetlines will need to include accurate deadlines and lengths. Desk folk who receive overly long stories will not have time to redo page designs; they will be instructed to cut from the end (on some occasions, early notice to the desk that a story is running long may avoid this fate). When deadlines are blown, the desk may need to grab a web version of the story and move on.
* Editors (or reporters) will need to write a print headline for each story that designers can tweak to fit; it will not be the same as the web headline. Copy editors cannot write headlines for inside stories because they will not be reading them. We will also ask you to write a longer summary headline to give additional guidance to the designer; we will be adding a new field to your story templates to make this adjustment easier.
* Photographers and photo editors will need to exercise a new level of care over photo captions, many of which will now be tweaked by designers to fit rather than written from scratch by a copy editor. They need to be tightly written, use correct grammar and agree factually with the story. We would like proper name spelling to be double-checked in captions as well; comparing to the story should be sufficient.
We will continue to provide a high level of review for our featured work. This is not because the other work is not important; we are making simultaneous efforts to boost the audience for everything we do. But we have to set priorities in an era where readers continue to demand much of us, and economic realities force us to make smart, tough choices.
We are going to start these new responsibilities for editors and reporters beginning Monday, April 25. The first week we’ll have additional staffing on the copy desk to help the adjustment, and there will be a bit of a backstop for you. Beginning May 2, though, the new regimen begins.
These sorts of changes are not easy. The quality of our work — of your work — is what attracts people to our newspapers and websites. We appreciate the efforts of the folks who remain on our productions desks, our reporters, photographers and editors to deliver the Bay Area’s best news report every day.
Now, I do agree with some of what’s in this memo. As both a former reporter and a former city-desk editor, I am 100% in favor of reporters’ being their own best editors and 100% in favor of desk editors’ keeping reporters on the reservation, journalism-ethics-wise. (And Lord knows I am in favor of reporters’ filing their stories on time and at budgeted length, particularly when computer systems give reporters the ability to fit stories down to the tenth of an inch.)
But I also know from experience that reporters are never their own best editors. Everyone (even I) needs an editor, someone who can play the part of the eventual reader and judge a piece on whether it accomplishes, in the right way, what it set out to do.
And I know that city-desk editors, who often assign the very stories they must then try to edit disinterestedly, sometimes grow too close to the story to be able to edit it as disinterestedly as it needs.
So I know that without copy editors, more bad stuff, from misspellings and bad grammar to factual errors that institutional memory would have caught, will make it into print or onto the Web.
I want to focus on just one: libel.
Long story short, one thing public figures have to prove to win a libel case against a media outlet is that the outlet published false, defamatory material either intentionally or with reckless disregard as to the material’s truth or falsity. This memo, as I asserted earlier on Twitter, strikes me as prima facie evidence of reckless disregard.
Now, one of my Twitter interlocutors said that that assertion is ridiculous, that in-house counsel, not the copy desk, should be the bastion against libel allegations.
I’ll let those of you who actually have spent any time in the news bidness chuckle over that for a second. Done? OK, good.
For the rest of you: Damned few media outlets of any kind have, or have ever had, in-house counsel to review news reports to ensure that they are not libelous. It’s simply a luxury most outlets could never afford. Some medium-sized to large outlets kept counsel on retainer to review reports on an as-needed basis, usually for complex investigative pieces, but even that, in this era, increasingly is going the way of the dodo.
And then, for those of you not in or of the news bidness, ponder this: In my experience — an experience that colleagues at other papers said they shared — it’s generally not the larger, heavily lawyered investigative pieces that actually bring suits or threats of suits. It’s almost always the everyday stuff. The routine political stuff. Cops briefs, even.
The stuff that lawyers never saw before publication, but copy editors did. Until now.
What would I have done? I’d have gone to the publisher and said that at some point, it makes less practical and journalistic sense to keep cutting than to shut down the operation entirely. And when you’re talking about completely killing the only independent set of eyes to see a story before it goes to the public, you’re probably at that point.
And that’s ridiculous because, while I don’t know anything about the finances of the Bay Area News Group in particular, I know that a lot of news operations are making cuts like these not because they’re losing money, but because they’re not making ENOUGH money. Today’s announcement by Gannett that it will finance its proposed $833 million purchase of Tribune Co. entirely with debt helps explain why, but it also illustrates just how badly the news-media bidness can be and often is run.
And then there’s the real bottom line: Do readers care?
For the average clickbait listicle, no, they probably don’t. But for journalism that actually attempts to inform the public as a public service, they do. I know this because, during my 25 years in the bidness, they told us so, often.
Now, it becomes easier to win a libel lawsuit. And the more wins there are, the more suits there will be, and so the less public confidence there will be in news outlets, and so the less money those outlets will make, so the more they’ll have to cut, in a vicious circle that has grim ramifications for self-government in a democratic republic.