Outsourcing the copy desk

Do you know that Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes doesn’t use periods in his first name? Do you know that CTG Executive Director Mitchel Sommers’ first name is spelled correctly? Or that Greensboro City Council member Nancy Vaughan’s last name is spelled correctly? (Or is the correct style “city councilwoman?”) Is it Four Seasons Town Centre or Four Seasons’ Town Centre or Four Seasons Town Center? Is it Carolina Theatre or Theater? Of course you know that GC refers to Greensboro College, not Guilford College.

And don’t even get started on which Grand(e) Theater you might be talking about.

I bring this up as I think about the High Point Enterprise, which is apparently the latest newspaper to eliminate its copy desk. It joins the News & Observer, the Charlotte Observer and the Winston-Salem Journal in basically outsourcing its copy editing functions. That means that the people who make sure the copy is error-free, who write the headlines, who design the pages, who say “this doesn’t make sense” and who are essentially the last line of defense “aren’t from around here.” The people who live in the community and know the difference between B.J. Barnes and BJ Barnes double-checking a story are being replaced by people who don’t.

The idea is that combining copy desks improves efficiency and reduces costs. Without a doubt, it does the latter. These days, whenever a newspaper can save a buck, it should. But the jury is still out on whether it improves efficiency. (Someone has started a website chronicling the copy editing errors in the N&O.) I don’t intend to deride the current copy editors. I have no doubt they work hard, fix errors, raise good questions and are dedicated to the craft. I’m just not sure that the loss of the local institutional memory outweighs the cost savings. Do newspaper readers notice? My experience is that they notice the diminished news coverage when reporters are let go. I don’t know if they notice grammatical mistakes, for instance. (Yes, I know that retired English teachers do; my experience is that others do, too.)

To answer that question and a few others, I have emailed Rick Thames, editor of the Observer, and John Drescher, editor of the N&O, and asked for their evaluations of their combined copy desk. If I hear back, I’ll let you know. (For the record, I think that the combination of their political staffs and the combination of their sports staffs have been a success.) See below.

I argued against combining copy desks whenever it came up in Greensboro because I never heard anyone make the case that it improved the journalism delivered to readers. And I’ve worked for four publishers and each got annoyed — highly annoyed — whenever we published corrections. I can’t imagine this system will help their blood pressure.

Update: John Drescher responded for himself and Rick:

The N&O and Charlotte Observer merged our copy editing and design work under the leadership of one person (Hope Paasch) in 2010. This year we consolidated copy editors and designers in one place (in Charlotte). They produce The N&O, The Observer, the Rock Hill Herald and our community papers.

This was a major undertaking. About half of the employees at the McClatchy Publishing Center are new, so we have a steep learning curve. Overall, the center is working well. We’ve come a long way in just a few months. We expect the improvement to continue as our new employees learn the various publications and get established in their roles. 

At the beginning, we had some bumps and heard from some readers about missing sports scores and that sort of thing. We have worked out most of those problems.

The papers serve different markets and will maintain separate identities. Readers of The N&O and Observer have benefitted from the papers sharing content. For example, N&O readers have benefitted from The Observer’s NASCAR and NFL coverage. Observer readers have benefitted from The N&O’s coverage of ACC sports. Those are just two examples.

8 thoughts on “Outsourcing the copy desk

  1. The Herald-Sun in Durham has done the same thing. They also are owned by Paxton, and copy editing duties now are in Kentucky.

  2. You raise good issues. A similar consolidation resulted in an online edition of another news outlet identifying a photo of (former Forsyth County District Attorney) Vince Rabil as his brother, (Darryl Hunt attorney) Mark Rabil. There’s a danger to accuracy and a resulting erosion of institutional credibility, that’s built over years.

  3. I think page production/design/pagination/whatever-you-want-to-call-it should be regionalized or outsourced. It’s a print manufacturing process.

    Where I think some newspaper companies have made a mistake is including copy editing in that mix, for all the reasons you cite.

    We need to pull apart the page design and copy editing functions that were long ago merged together. That merger naturally led to less attention to words and writing, for the most part in worsening degree the smaller the newsroom.

    Outsourcing copy editing instead of just page production also assumes that it’s still all about the print edition. Copy editors should be part of a day-long process that is about improving writing and accuracy for reporting that happens in real time and web first. It shouldn’t be a team of people making sure it’s all polished up around a print deadline.

      • Copyediting is not all alike. How many editors need to review George Will’s column? If all copyediting is done locally, 10 papers running the column each have an editor looking it over. AP story on Kim Jong Un? Japan earthquake aftermath? Consolidation efforts are intended (at least, they are supposed to be intended) to reduce this kind of duplication of effort, not necessarily to have fewer people looking for Sheriff Barnes’ initials and whether or not they include periods.

    • Design, at least as it was practiced at The N&O, was not just part a print manufacturing process. Designers were – and were required to be – an integral part of the journalistic process. Putting together a well designed page is difficult, if not impossible, without an understanding of the content and an ability to clearly relay that understanding to the readers. N&O designers were visual journalists who made untold contributions to the accuracy and accessibility of the newspaper. Outsourcing design is what turns it into an assembly line job.

      Teresa Kriegsman
      (former) Design Editor
      The News & Observer

  4. I’m curious where the efficiency, or, for that matter, savings come from? I’m assuming there are fewer people performing the functions. That would be obvious savings. What is the benefit of the centralized location? Fewer supervisors needed? I believe the most essential work of a copy editor is accuracy. Readers notice that and it’s just essential that we get facts and names and places right. I do not believe readers notice style and always have thought it was placed too high on the list of areas on which we need to spend time.

    Scott Nunn
    Copy editor/page designer
    Wilmington StarNews

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