Stripping off the layers

It has been heartening to see reporters supporting their production-desk colleagues as around 50 New York Times copy-editors face being laid off. This news has left editors all over the world smarting, not because it is unusual to hear of redundancies in journalism  – are you kidding? – but because this round of lay-offs has been sold as positive progress. Reducing “layers of editors”. Getting rid of dead wood.

In a letter to staff: “This system is a vestige of an assembly-line structure held over from a newspaper-only newsroom built around multiple print deadlines. It is costly and slows us down.

“Our goal is to significantly shift the balance of editors to reporters at The Times, giving us more on-the-ground journalists developing original work than ever before.”

So they gently strip off those flaky, chipped old layers of pedant using the HR equivalent of Nitromors, and replace with a shiny new glossy coat of vibrant reporter. Getting more reporters means getting better content, they suggest. The people who check those stories? Meh … they just slow things up with their annoying questions about legality, their dictionaries, and red pens, and … bow ties.

While I have no experience working for The New York Times, I was a newspaper sub for over ten years. That so-called “assembly line” has nothing to do with paper or digital newsrooms. It includes stages that ensure that your reporting is correct, unambiguous, not libellous … and any good. And, as subs become rarer than a day without hearing the words “hard Brexit”, you see the errors creep in – even in formerly quality news sources.

Copy-editors – sub-editors – do more than check for typos. We’re drawing pages; checking facts; spelling names correctly; making sure photos match stories and captions; cutting massive stories in half, to fit, on the page; condensing massive stories that have been consigned to a NIB; asking for facts to back stuff up and phoning writers; asking if things are legal; making ambiguous writing make sense; writing headlines, captions, choosing pull quotes … So you’re doing all that AND checking for typos. One person (or even two people) cannot check all that and get it 100% perfect. You need the “assembly line”.

Subs are getting laid off all over the world. The shrinking of newspaper production desks is not news at all. It has been happening for over a decade, and not gradually. The minute it was possible to get news for free, the prognosis for the business model of print journalism was terminal. Rather than rethink, and bring the internet into that business, most newspaper owners didn’t move fast enough, and have faced declining sales year on year. Rather like a sub faced with a page full of adverbs, they have been enthusiastically cutting ever since. Lose readers. Cut staff. Make journalists sub each other’s work – or their own work. Continue to fail to properly monetise your online content. Lose ad revenue. Cut staff. Reduce quality of work. Reduce reader loyalty. Lose more readers. Cut more staff …

It’s nothing like a surprise that lay-offs are happening – but to claim it is modernising and progressive to get rid of the very people who put your newspaper together is offensive corporate bullshit. From a high quality paper whose existence has never been more important in this political climate of … well … you know what this climate is. You couldn’t make this climate up. New York Times subscriptions are up. There is a 62% rise in digital subscriptions since last year, and yet advertising revenues are down. This to me says “look to improving your ad sales division, not to decimating your back bench”.

That rise in subscriptions says “people are desperate for sources they can trust”. It says “invest in that digital content and invest in that trustworthiness”. It does not say “sack half of the people who check your facts”.

When asked what I do, a common response I get when I say “I’m an editor”, is “Oh I’d be a good editor, I’m always spotting mistakes in [insert newspaper of choice].”

You might notice a typo in your newspaper but what did it take to get that story there? Has it been cut from 8000 words to 2000 words? Has the emphasis of the story been changed at editorial insistence at the last minute? How many errors were in it to begin with? How well was it written? How many subs are actually left in that paper after redundancy after redundancy?

Editing is undervalued. Everyone thinks they can do my job. Well, it’s just reading, isn’t it?

Partly it is akin to why I made my own wedding cake. I severely underestimated the skill and effort involved. (Any excuse to mention that cake again, sorry.)

So, us usually silent editors are angry. We are unnecessary layers? No, we are a writer’s last line of defence. We want the words that appear on paper, on the internet, in ebooks – wherever – to be the best possible version of the writer’s intent. You get rid of us and you create even more opportunities to hear readers say: “Oh I’d be a good editor, I’m always spotting mistakes in [insert newspaper of choice].”)

6 thoughts on “Stripping off the layers

  1. I couldn’t agree more, our local paper is now produced somewhere like Birmingham, no doubt with a nicely pared back editing staff (ie none that I can discern), by a company producing multiple local papers from all over the country. You’d think that this form of publishing would require more, not less editors, but the amount of ridiculous typos, inaccuracies (naming the wrong local river) and out-and-out illiteracy (theives – three times, not a typo) indicate the opposite.

  2. It’s ironic though that nobody undervalues the value of an editor more so than actual writers. I frequent a writer’s forum where a large portion of writers (most of these unpublished) think hiring an editor is a waste of money, and who think that if you as a writer cannot edit your book, then you better not write at all. How they rationalise why successful publishers would spend millions on a team of editors on books that are already of good/decent/publishable quality therefore baffles me. How they don’t see the parallel between their own trade and the editing trade is also beyond me – we know as writers it ain’t “just writing” and our skills are worth paying for, and yet cannot see the same for editing. Just… what?

    1. I’ve seen this attitude many times, Iris. “I can write well, why do I need an editor?” A bit like cutting your own hair. I can do it. I can use a pair of scissors, and my hair is definitely shorter, but no matter how I angle the mirror I just can’t see the back properly. A good hairdresser will take years off you. And a good editor will see many things that you might never notice in your writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s