As far as arithmetic goes, it’s a pretty simple equation. “Fewer Copy Editors, More Errors,” declared the headline over the July 5 column by Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander. It reminded me of another ombud column from almost two years ago in the Orlando Sentinel, which carried the headline “Errors expose need for editing.”
Both columns explained that recent layoffs and buyouts on the copy desk had resulted in a spike in the number of errors appearing in the paper. Alexander wrote that “Between early 2005 and mid-2008, the number of full-time copy editors dropped from about 75 to 43 through buyouts or voluntary departures.”
The number of copy editors has dropped even lower since then, but for some reason “Post managers won’t provide precise figures beyond saying that six took a recent buyout offer.” So much for an ombudsman being able to get answers from his paper.
In the case of the Sentinel, the 2007 article by its public editor Manning Pynn, who retired last year, detailed an increase in factual errors. He didn’t hesitate to lay blame:
When the Sentinel tightened its financial belt back in June, it lost a wealth of seasoned veterans, many of them editors. Those journalists not only wrote headlines and captions. They also scrutinized the work of reporters — correcting spelling, straightening out syntax, double-checking facts — before publication.
With fewer people to do that now, less of that important work gets done, and the result is more published errors.
Again, this is a simple equation. Among other duties—too many other duties, if you ask me—copy editors are charged with eliminating grammatical, spelling, and factual errors. So, yes, fewer copy editors should result in more errors. But there are other factors at play during this moment in journalism, and they’re further complicating the math.
At the same time papers are thinning the ranks of copy editors, they are also increasing the amount of content being produced. Copy editors used to focus on a print edition. Now they have to deal with breaking news for the Web site, blogs, and other online content. Fewer copy editors are doing more work than ever before. On top of that, fewer reporters—they’re far from immune to layoffs and buyouts—are expected to produce more writing and reporting.
This is where the math gets fuzzy. Or perhaps frightening.
In the new newsroom equation, fewer copy editors and fewer reporters are required to produce more work at the same level of quality. And they’re supposed to be able to do this without a publication introducing wholesale changes in terms of how stories are reported, written, and edited. (I looked at the need for a new editorial process in a previous column.)
The Post appears to be lucky on two fronts. First, management realizes that it needs to change its editing process. Alexander reports the paper will combine its copy desks into a single “universal desk” to “streamline the editing process for readers to get information in print, online and on mobile devices.” It has also been able to rehire some copy editors on contract and increase the shifts of part-timers. (That they had to do this shows that the Fewer Copy Editors + Fewer Reporters + More Work equation does not equal a favorable solution when it comes to quality.)
Still, Alexander noted, even with the move to a new process, “Numerous copy editors told me they anticipate more errors will slip through as the kinks are worked out.” The idea of “streamlining” something also doesn’t usually dovetail with increasing quality. And that’s the core issue here.
As the Post headline noted, fewer copy editors will result in a lower quality editorial product. Understaffing can also lead to burnout, which further impacts product quality. (Not to mention quality of life.) As the quality drops, competitors and critics will seize upon errors and other missteps. Customers will notice the degraded quality of the product and go elsewhere.
The reality today is that when it comes to quality journalism at newspapers, the numbers increasingly don’t add up.
Correction of the Week