Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Unstable core

I am not persuaded that the Internet reduces our attention spans or that the 140-word bursts on Twitter make our thinking superficial, but you see things that make you wonder.

This morning I came across a retweet from one Tom Gara in Abu Dhabi opining, “Outsourcing copy editors and other non-core jobs is inevitable and a good thing for newspapers.” Mr. Gara was referring to a decision by the management of the Toronto Star to eliminate seventy-eight editing positions and outsource its copy editing to Pagemasters North America.

The asininity of proclaiming that editing is not a core function takes one’s breath away.

No one disputes that newspapers, struggling to stay afloat in stormy waters, have to make difficult decisions. Any business that does not manage to keep its costs within its revenues is going to sink, but that does not mean that just anything can be thrown over the side.

We have heard the “non-core” talk even in relatively prosperous times. Of course you can eliminate the library staff. Reporters can just add routine research to their daily workload. Of course you can sack the editorial assistants. The editors can answer the phones all day; and if the reporters are busy, the editors can keyboard datebook copy.

Now, of course, you can jettison the editors and copy editors in favor of some distant corps of editing units who do not know your staff or your area. You will merely multiply embarrassing errors of fact, publish slack writing, and alienate your most loyal customers. Evidence of the first two phenomena will be evident each day on your pages, evidence of the third in the accelerating decline of your circulation.

Unfortunately, difficult decisions are not necessarily good decisions.

*The editor responsible for the Star’s decision is Michael Cooke, former editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, a newspaper that has not been a byword for excellence in management.


  1. The story at spells his name "Cooke."

  2. I'm not one for class warfare, but do I have it right that the money saved would be less than half the severance package given to the CEO who left in February?

    As for what copy editors can do about it, the answer always seems so flippant that nobody takes it seriously: Start a copy-edited newspaper, The Edited News, and show your value in the marketplace. Given the competition, you should have that niche market to yourself soon.

  3. You mention that the Chicago Sun-Times "has not been a byword for excellence in management." Is there a newspaper that has? Monopolistic enterprises are not often managed excellently.

  4. Technically, I suppose, everything on the editorial side is non-core, for none of it contributes to the bottom line: editorial is a cost center, like printing. And after all, a good deal is already outsourced in bulk to the AP and its competitors.

  5. Ah, outsourcing: a hideous word.Whoever made it up ought to be given a last meal, a last cigarette, stood against a wall and shot. Imagine if symphony orchestras, theatre companies, museums and other arts organizations behaved like this.The second-chair viola would be someone in Singapore - by digital real-time relay. MacBeth could be "outsourced" to some up- and -comer in Indonesia, although the language problems might hinder Willy the Shake's meters. Rather than go to the Walters to see Medieval illuminated manuscripts, one would look at a television showing a picture from a museum in Montpelier. Dance would be hilarious - how does a dancer in Chicago lift a dancer in Taiwan? Opera would be even more spectacular: Bayreuth outsources" Wotan to some tenor in Pakistan. I can see it all now.....

  6. I wouldn't bet that it was Cooke's idea alone. John Cruickshank, the former "editorial vice president" of the Sun-Times, is now publisher in Toronto. He and Cooke did such a nice job of destroying the editorial product in Chicago that he brought Cooke to Toronto.

  7. Aren't readers flocking in droves to online news sources that have no copy editing and drip with average grammar, inconsistent spelling etc?

    There is a small market of high-end news consumers who will pay for something exquisitely produced, ie The Economist, the FT, WSJ, etc. That market is tiny though, and well served, and papers like the Star are doomed if they think they can compete in it.

    The mass market, who will soon be almost entirely web-only, is happy with a bit of sloppyness if the content is compelling in one of many ways (ie fast, entertaining, conveniently delivered, well-curated, exclusive etc). One of the things they do not seem to prioritise is flawless (and very expensive) copy editing.