Friday, July 29, 2011

Off-site copy desks: A bad idea that keeps spreading

It seems like the newspaper industry is run by a lot of people who are as dumb as former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott. The controversial owner once fired a bunch of scouts, declaring that there was no need to pay people "just to watch games."

No, it only matters if you really care about winning. A few bucks saved and many more errors likely.

Newspaper executives appear to be wondering why they should pay so many people "just to read stories." The "thinking" appears to be that you don't need many copy editors. And if you must pay for copy editors, it doesn't matter where they are working or that their workload doubles or triples.

No, it only matters if you really care about a quality product. A few bucks saved and many more errors likely.

In just a couple of weeks, the two biggest newspapers in the Triangle -- the Raleigh News & Observer and the Durham Herald-Sun (one of my former employers) -- will have no copy editors or designers on site. At least McClatchy is shifting the N&O's production across the state to the Charlotte Observer. The Paxton Media Group is moving Durham's production to the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer in Kentucky.

This sad trend just keeps gaining momentum as the bean counters see that money spent on copy editors and designers can be reduced significantly by consolidating operations. Tribune apparently is very happy with the results of its model used at the Daily Press in Newport News, Va.

I was a layoff victim of that plan, which uses many "modules" produced in Chicago. While much of the copy editing and designing is done in Chicago, at least there is some copy editing and designing of local pages (or portions of pages) done in Newport News. Tribune liked this model so much that it's putting it into place at the Hartford Courant.

The N&O and Herald-Sun aren't even the first big North Carolina newspapers to decide that saving money is more important than quality. Media General Inc. laid off the entire Winston-Salem Journal copy desk last year, shifting those duties to out-of-state consolidated desks.

The copy-desk duties for two eastern North Carolina newspapers in the Freedom Communications Inc. chain -- the Kinston Free Press (one of my former papers) and the New Bern Sun-Journal -- are performed at a consolidated desk at the Jacksonville Daily News (another of my former papers.)

Even though the distance between these newspapers is short, there are still mistakes made because a copy editor sitting in Jacksonville may not understand that intricacies or what a story means for Kinston or New Bern.

Sometimes the mistakes are very simple and can make the newspaper look really stupid. An example came at the Danville Register & Bee, which is produced at a Media General consolidated desk in Lynchburg.

A 5-year-old boy drowned in the Dan River, but a subhead read: "Boat flips over in James River, trapping 5-year-old boy underwater." The problem, of course, is that the James doesn't run through Danville. The James does run through Lynchburg, where a copy editor mistakenly typed the wrong river name.

The sad news from Durham came this week, leading to more copy editors being laid off. A news copy editor was kept on, but as a sportswriter. McClatchy gave N&O copy editors the option of taking jobs in Charlotte. Few Raleigh desk people took that option, but at least the choice was offered. Paxton gave Herald-Sun copy editors no such opportunity.

Many hard-working copy editors and designers have been shown the door, and a substantial amount of institutional knowledge went with them.

You can't tell me that someone in Owensboro, Ky., knows anything about the issues that are important to Durham readers. A mistake that would be easy to catch for a copy editor who lives in the Durham area might not look wrong at all to a copy editor in Owensboro.

My sympathy is with the fine people being laid off as well as the survivors who are being forced to deal with crazy decisions and even crazier deadlines.

If newspaper executives think that errors still will be caught, they're right. Many will be caught ... by people reading their local paper and wondering how that sort of mistake wasn't caught. And they'll probably wonder why they are paying for a print edition of substantially less quality than the one they received years ago.

As sad as I am about the Carolina football situation, what's happening in the newspaper industry makes me even sadder. The UNC football program will no doubt bounce back eventually. I'm not so sure about the newspaper industry. (Which reminds me: the Herald-Sun might want to update the picture on this page.)

UPDATE: About two weeks after this was posted (as you can see from the link), The Herald-Sun finally updated its UNC page with Everett Withers' picture replacing the picture of Butch Davis.


  1. Nice piece, R.L. This new drop in the economy no doubt will hasten even more cutbacks. It's really rough to watch, let alone to experience.

    Should we be glad copy desks aren't in India -- yet?

    Have you read Alex Jones's new book, Losing the News? He likens current situation to devastation from a natural disaster, like a tornado. Suggests that digital revolution isn't really something to hate, but it's sure tearing up the journalistic landscape.

    Not hard to imagine further condensing of papers -- or products -- to just two or three main orgs in greater NC Piedmont: One converged McClatchy version and another probably run by Paxton and/or Media General.

    Scary to consider the entire state depending on about three dozen overworked copy editors.

    Landmark wanted out of Greensboro but couldn't find a buyer. Freedom already is in hands of capital investment groups that certainly aren't interested in maintaining the chain. Threshie family is out, which is good, given the typical family bickering over profit-taking.

    Burlington says it's making a profit, which is great, but it can't be much. It probably will get rolled into larger operation. With its old press, it's destined to become a news bureau.

    And then watch over time as the laid off copy editors and reporters in these markets -- like you -- sharpen up their digital expertise in their spare time, filling in with some sort of 'local' sites. Over a decade, with newer advances, they will begin to morph into better operations. Eventually some earnings.

    Gonna be an odd and possibly ugly five to 10 years, though, until new systems kick in.

    Best wishes,
    Glenn Scott