I can understand the reasons for it, but I think cutting newsroom copy editors is a bad idea.

Yes, newspapers need to cut costs to keep going – or, more properly, to keep profits at levels that make investors and owners happy. Yes, they need to preserve reporters, because they need to fill the newspaper, which still brings in most of the revenue.

The economics are basic: it costs money to have those copy editors’ bums in local newsroom chairs. A centralized desk, serving a number of newspapers, has benefits: fewer people are needed and the centralized staff probably isn’t subject to the same union contracts that cover the home office.

(According to one report, the Toronto Star will replace copy editors that it was paying as much as $85k a year with centralized deskers who top out at $45k. Sorry, but I’ve lost the link; if I track it down, I’ll add it to the post.)

You can see the sense: if I have to cut the newsroom, better to outsource copy editing and page production than to start hacking away at feet-on-the-street reporters.

But the people doing the page production are the newspaper’s last line of defense against the type of sloppiness – grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, tangled syntax and the like – that eat away at credibility. I don’t have anything empirical, but I do have anecdote: Since our local Postmedia daily outsourced its page production, typos and grammatical errors have increased. You won’t find an error on every page, or even in every section, but the number is growing. It’s off-putting in a high-level, professional publication and, I’m sure, annoying to those still in the newsroom.

(Online is worse: I recently read a website report from the same daily that had four grafs and four grammatical errors.)

I think there’s long-term pain – beyond the loss of jobs – for newspapers if they can’t find a way to maintain the quality we’ve come to expect. It’s no secret that good, strong writing comes from writers (who also report), editors, copy editors, fact-checkers and proofreaders. Newspapers have traditionally collapsed a lot of that editing power into the individuals on the desk, making those people vital to quality. So far, here in Vancouver, cutting that editing power and outsourcing it to strangers has created problems. They’re minor, but they are problems.

Maybe I’m making too much of this. Maybe most newspaper readers react to the occasional glitch, typo or howler with shrug. Or maybe I’ve reached the age of crankiness and am only a step away from being the guy who mails editors envelopes stuffed with clippings with the missteps circled in red.

On the other hand, maybe those slips that make their way into print, and the slips that less-than-attentive (and possibly overworked) central deskers introduce, a little at a time, nibbling at the credibility and authority that newspapers desperately need.

Update: Just after finishing this, I came across Lopping off Limbs by John Gordon Miller, which makes much stronger case for copy editors.

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