Sunday sampler

Sunday is the day newspapers showcase their best work. Here are some from North Carolina papers that are worth reading:

From the Asheville Citizen-Times: A piece about the Henderson County Sheriff spending county money probably in a way taxpayers would prefer he didn’t. It wasn’t a ton of money, but it’s the thought that counts. Henderson — With caramel mochas in Charlotte, a meal at the famed Cheers pub in Boston and bar food at Fat Head’s Saloon in Pittsburgh, Rick Davis made himself comfortable on the road — enjoying perks put on a county credit card.

From the News & Observer: The paper uses the compelling story of a 16-year-old who was the driver in an automobile accident that killed his passenger to take another look at the state’s parole system.

From the Fayetteville Observer: There were 29 homicides in Fayetteville last year, compared with 18 the year before. A typical end of the year story, significant to me because Greensboro also had a jump.

From the Charlotte Observer: The big banks gave the most money to Mitt Romney. Probably no big surprise, but a good analysis showing where the money is coming from and going. And interesting that the banks seem to be punishing Obama.

From the Winston-Salem Journal: Hard to believe but this isn’t against the law. A firm owned by a member of the board that oversees the state’s Golden LEAF Foundation has received more than $129,000 so far for two projects funded largely by the foundation for work in Surry, Wilkes and Yadkin counties, according to local and foundation records.

From the Wilmington Star-News: “If you’re homeless in Wilmington, they’ll throw you in jail.” That’s the attitude of Super Dave, Animal and Lurch, three homeless guys through whom the Star-News discusses the problem of homelessness in New Hanover County.

Putting public interest second

Yesterday, I was puzzled that more newspapers didn’t see the late-night early morning session of the General Assembly as front-page news. (I know it happened past most deadlines, but the AP had a story available.)

More newspapers got on board this morning, thanks to strong statements by the governor and NCAE yesterday. Stories about the furtive session made the front pages of Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston, Fayetteville, Burlington, Asheville, Salisbury and Greenville, among others. Editorials in Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro and Wilmington condemned the action.

Good politics and good government are not contradictory. You just need legislators who put the public interest first.


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.