Why the Copy Desk Matters to a Successful and Profitable Newspaper

Remarks by Bob Giles
Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, Nashville
Friday, November 21, 2003

A useful beginning for a talk in praise of copy editing is to recall stories about stories.

Stories about stories, for example, that resulted in lengthy and expensive libel suits.

In 1988, the Fort Wayne, Indiana, Board of Public Health closed down a local restaurant called Bandido's after an inspection that uncovered evidence of rodent droppings.

The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette published a story that accurately reported the Board's action. The deck with the main head said that inspectors had found rats and roaches.

The following day, the newspaper ran a story correcting the error in the headline and apologizing for the mistake.

Bandidos eventually brought a libel action against the newspaper. The trial court issued summary judgment in favor of the Journal-Gazette. However, the Indiana Appeals Court ruled that there were facts in dispute and the case should go to trial.

The trial jury awarded the restaurant $985,000. In 1996, eight years after the story ran, the state court of appeals reversed the trial court.

The case then went to the Indiana Supreme Court where the newspaper won by a single vote, in a ruling that said Bandido's had failed to prove the newspaper acted with actual malice.

The restaurant turned next to the United States Supreme Court which, in late 1999, refused to hear the case.

Eleven years of legal defense costs. The newspaper's out-of-pocket expenses came to just short of $300,000, in addition to what its libel insurance policy had paid.

Among the costs to be considered was the wear and tear on the staff and the time invested in depositions and other matters.

Craig Klugman, editor of the Journal-Gazette, told me that there were yet other costs. "Consider the effect on the credibility of the newspaper when you have story after story about a headline.

"A jury comes in with nearly a million dollar verdict against the paper. In spite of management's pledge to appeal, the staff doesn't know what to make of it.

"Collectively they know they have just cost their newspaper a lot of money. What does it mean to them? What does it mean to staffing levels? What does it mean to our aggressive attitude toward open meetings and open records and the money we have spent to pursue FOI cases?"

A few days later, Craig called back and said there were some things he wanted to add about the impact of the case on his staff.

The performance reviews of the copy editor and the copy desk chief who let the headline go through were introduced as exhibits in the trial.

In her evaluation, the copy editor has been urged to pay greater attention to headline accuracy.

The copy desk chief had been reminded to work more closely with the copy editor on headline accuracy.

The plaintiff's lawyers turned this evidence into a major point about quality control at the Journal-Gazette.

The reporter eventually left the paper and later told Craig Klugman that the experience was a major reason for her decision to leave.

"She was upset," Craig said, "because the story was accurate but she felt she had lost control of her work in the editing process and ended up having to be deposed by the lawyers."

"When one mistake, a common-place error like that happens," Craig told me, "it is a real drag on the organization."

While the number of libel trials and verdicts against newspapers each has declined in recent years, libel awards still are a major concern for news organizations.

According to the Media Resource Law Center, the average libel award at trial from 2000 to 2002 was $2.9 million. This is less than the average of nearly $5 million in the 1990s, but even the lower numbers make the point that it is expensive to fight a libel suit.

The news media, including both newspapers and broadcast, are winning at trial more often. During the first three years of the new century, news organizations prevailed in nearly 53 percent of the cases. This is substantially higher than in the 1990s, 41.1 percent, or the 1980s, 34.8 percent.

Of the 452 libel cases against news organizations that went to trial from 1980-1999, plaintiffs won and actually got to keep 91 awards, or 20 percent of the cases.

We also can find stories about stories where normal newsroom gate-keeping practices were by-passed.

A tragic reporting and editing failure of our generation is the Cincinnati Enquirer investigation of Chiquita Banana, in which the newspaper reported that company officials made business decisions in Latin America to cover up a bribery scheme involving company and subsidiary employees.

The story was told in an 18-page special report. The eventual disclosure that the lead reporter had broken into the company's email system and stolen propriety information initiated a sequence of events that included a page-one apology by the Enquirer, a $15 million payment by Gannett to Chiquita to avoid a lawsuit, the firing of the reporter, who eventually avoided a prison term by cooperating with prosecutors, and the dismissal of the newspaper's highly respected editor.

Critical to our purpose here is to recall the decision by Enquirer editors to keep the investigation secret from the rest of the newsroom and to edit the special report themselves behind closed doors.

The stories also were vetted by Gannett corporate news executives and lawyers, who did some rewriting of their own and approved the series for publication. At every step, from story conception to the final headline, the Enquirer copy desk was not included.

Then we encounter stories about stories when everyone thought they were just doing their jobs.

A story we all remember is about Richard Jewell, a security guard, who became a suspect in a bombing at the 1996 Olympics, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, eager to score a beat on an international story in its own town, rushed it into a special afternoon Olympic edition.

The news that Jewell was the focus of a federal investigation into the pipe bomb explosion was not attributed. The paper used a technique, with which I frankly am not familiar, described as "the voice of God." The practice is rare and its main characteristic seems to be not even citing unidentified sources.

Ann Woolner, a former Atlanta journalist, wrote a long piece about the Jewell case for Brill's Content, noting the scary nature of the journalism at work in this instance.

"From the journalists' standpoint, everyone was just doing his job," she wrote, "and as a result, an innocent man's name and face were flashed around the world as those of a possible, indeed a probable, terrorist, with every aspect of his career history and many aspects of his personal life given a negative spin."

Roger Kintzel, the publisher of the Journal-Constitution, defended his paper's coverage, telling Woolner, "We reported fairly and accurately, and that's the way we operate."

A second-day opinion piece by the newspaper's leading sports columnist likened Jewell to a notorious Atlanta murderer of an earlier time named Wayne Williams.

According to Woolner's account, when the column reached the copy desk it "caused something of an uproar."

Four copy editors who read the column found it unfair, possibly libelous, or both. Two of the copy editors flagged the column as troublesome, and alerted senior editors of their concerns, but they were rebuffed, they later testified, and the column ran as written.

Finally, we know of stories about stories in which reporters, and sometimes editors, adopt as their own the theories and suspicions of criminal investigators.

This was a factor in The Boston Globe's coverage of the brutal murder of two Dartmouth College professors, Half and Susanne Zantop, in rural New Hampshire.

At an early phase in the investigation, The Globe published a front-page story saying investigators believed the killings were "crimes of passion" resulting from "an adulterous love affair involving Half Zantop."

The story quoted unnamed law enforcement officials involved in the investigation.

These sources declined to give Globe reporters evidence to substantiate the allegation, refusing to identity the woman they said was involved or how they developed their theory about the relationship.

The newspaper and its readers were left to rely on the expectation that the relationship between the reporters and their sources was a trusting one.

Following the arrest, a short while later, of two youths in Indiana, who eventually confessed to the crimes, the Globe concluded that its story was inaccurate and, in a front-page message to readers, Editor Matt Storin made a forthright statement of regret.

I wrote an op-ed piece that The Globe published a few weeks later saying that the risks of relying on unidentified sources are rarely as clearly or tragically demonstrated as they had been in the coverage of the murder of the Dartmouth professors.

The law enforcement officials may have believed the information was correct to the best of their knowledge at the time, as The Globe reported.

The newspaper may have accepted it in good faith. Still, this episode raised serious questions about the delicate practice of relying on unnamed sources that are willing to share only the sketchiest details, without any public accountability when they are wrong.

Moreover, the op-ed piece noted, journalists need to be particularly wary of the motives of crime investigators who are offering information on the condition of anonymity.

"Law enforcement officials investigating a murder are under pressure to solve the crime. Their job is to make an arrest.

"They use information to serve this goal by suggesting they have identified a motive, or by misleading possible suspects, or by giving the impression they are moving toward an arrest, or by simply putting the best public face on the investigation.

"Sometimes, they confide details anonymously to reporters only to serve these goals."

Shortly after my piece ran, a senior editor at The Globe called and argued at length in defense of a practice the paper had used in developing a story that turned out to be wrong.

Two earlier and more prominently reported episodes at The Globe worth mentioning involved fabrications by local columnists Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith.

The newspaper's monitoring system was said to have been designed so that "the editor overseeing each columnist would be responsible for making sure the work was truthful."

The controversy that ensued led to finger pointing in many directions, but seemed to call attention to a common shortcoming in many situations of this kind: copy editors were not empowered with the authority to challenge the copy of the star columnists, nor did their supervisors encourage and support copy editors who attempted to do so.

Often, there is an intimidation factor at work in these instances in which the power, and sometimes, the voice of the columnist prevails. Ultimately, the victim is the reader.

Arthur Gelb, a former managing editor of The New York Times who has chronicled his 40-year life at the newspaper in a new book, City Room, recalls a speech by Adolph Ochs at the Columbia School of Journalism in 1925 in which Ochs described the copy editor as "a news digester" who had the duty "to go through the process of elimination, saving the newspaper space and the reader time."

"Writers are there galore," Ochs said, but good copy editors - men who could put a story "in printable form with its values disclosed and brought within the understanding of the reader" - were in short supply.

At The Times, as at many newspapers, the debate over the relative values of reporters and copy editors has simmered for generations.

It is common to hear a newspaper described as "a reporter's paper" or "an editor's paper."

These rather plain descriptives are a clear indication of where power and influence are perceived to reside in the newsroom.

Gelb quotes a maxim from Carr Van Anda, an earlier managing editor at The Times who studied at Ohio University prior to the establishment of a journalism program and for whom the E.W. Scripps School's highest award of distinction is named.

Van Anda said that "a newspaper is made on the desk."

Gelb later cites the views of a telegraph editor named Wilson Fairbanks, whom he characterized as " a gentleman of the old school, an unreconstructed Victorian, wiry, proud and upright" as defending the copy editor's mandate to ascertain that a story was "decisively aligned with the principles" of The New York Times.

While it is engaging to think about those earlier times, we surely have come some distance from the horse-shoe shaped copy desk, with editors sitting around the rim working with soft, black pencils, rearranging stories with the help of scissors and a paste pot, then stuffing stories, sometimes a page at a time, into a pneumatic tube and shooting them off to the composing room.

The computer has added speed and flexibility to editing, and pagination has brought the back shop into the newsroom while giving editors greater control of page production and inviting creative enterprise in the design of the newspaper.

In the 19th century, as the various histories of journalism have so well documented, the invention of the rotary press first provided the economic power that enabled the distribution of printed pages to large audiences and made journalism profitable.

Newspapers whose readership had been limited to elite audiences of rich or politically connected readers were transformed into the "penny press" reaching large audiences of common folk.

Development of printing technology and what we now think of as editorial judgment evolved side by side. As the cost of production decreased, the demand for news and opinion to fill the newly inexpensive pages led to the creation of news staffs that would gather and present information in this new, profitable format.

By the middle of the 20th century, the long era of newspaper production with hot lead type that depended on the hands and muscles of linotype operators, compositors, proofreaders stereotypers and pressmen was giving way to telecommunications.

The computer drove the invention of new typesetting and newspaper production technologies that by the 1980s had eliminated thousands of jobs in newspaper back shops.

Computer-driven production introduced the possibilities of small scale enterprises, from community newspapers to the flexibility for targeted special sections that could be delivered with metropolitan dailies.

Significantly reducing major production costs drove untold millions of dollars to newspaper company profits columns. The potential for new, revenue-producing sections created addition millions in revenue.

The disappearance of newspaper production jobs was not without difficulty and controversy.

The desire of newspapers companies to introduce new technologies and the determination of newspaper unions to protect jobs led to costly strikes in New York and other major markets. Some famous mastheads disappeared in the wake of these walkouts.

In putting a progressive face on the need to change, newspaper companies agreed to expensive buyout and early retirement packages for production workers and pledged to invest some of the savings in newsroom resources.

The expectation was that new jobs would be created to compensate for the back shop duties being shifted to news and copy desks and photo departments.

Gene Foreman, former managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and now a teacher of editing at Penn State, looked at the results in a piece for the ASNE Bulletin in 1999.

"As those workers retired or took buyouts," Foreman concluded, "the remaining production tasks - entering composition codes, assembling pages on the computer screen - were taken over by copy editors. At a few newspapers, farsighted editors and publishers increased staffing on the copy desks to compensate.

"More often, the copy desks did not grow. To the contrary, in the economic squeeze of the last decade, their staffing declined as their workload increased."

Foreman quoted Pam Robinson, president of the American Copy Editors Society, as saying that technology itself is not the problem:

"I doubt if anyone in ACES would like to go back to the days of hot type because the technology has given us more control over the whole process," she said. "What we hear from our members, from managers to rim editors, is that the technology has, in some places, brought more work - more emphasis on production at the expense of editing."

In a 1988 study, our colleague John Russial of the University of Oregon measured the work practices of sub-editors at 12 newspapers, ranging in circulation from 18,000 to 500,000. He discovered that 10 to 20 minutes was spent doing electronic makeup for each page.

Although the average time of 15 minutes seems small, Russial observed, for a paper producing 50 pages per day, it amounts to more than a full shift for an editor.

"If it continues to take up those extra minutes and additional editors are not hired, quality will almost surely suffer," he wrote.

Twelve years later, Russial revisited the issue to see if things had changed and, in a paper delivered at the 2000 Association for Education in Journalism Convention, he reported that workloads, largely the result of shifting of production tasks into newsrooms, are perceived as higher after pagination, and the length of experience with pagination does not appear to diminish the impact.

Web sites have brought new, time-consuming demands to copy desks.

As Pam Robinson noted in her interview with Gene Foreman, "to save money, copy editors at some papers are coding stories for the Web site or library files in addition to coding them for producing the newspaper."

She said that copy editors and senior editors should be looking honestly at what the copy desk is now doing at their papers. She suggested they "figure out how much is not editing, and then decide how important they consider the traditional role of the copy desk, which is to protect the newspaper's good name."

Giving editors more control over the final pages than they had in the days before computerized typesetting, composition and pagination, in theory, would reduce the number of typos, misspellings and awkward syntax.

Spell check has surely reduced the number of typos, but one still finds errors in papers that suggest newspapers are not putting as many resources into quality control as are needed.

As John Russial observes, the greater attention demanded by production tasks means less time to give care to editing and headline writing.

"For various reasons, many newspapers have not been putting as much resources into quality control, and we are beginning to see the cost of it," said Carl Sessions Stepp, who teaches journalism at the University of Maryland and visits dozens of newsrooms each year as a consultant. "No one should be surprised that we are getting more little errors in the paper. We are getting big ones, too."

The meaning of these trends has not been lost on the journalists who work on the desk.

Journalist of the '90s, a 1998 survey for ASNE, began by recalling that a similar study a decade earlier had characterized copy editors as "The Disillusioned Gatekeepers."

"Not much had changed," the 1998 report concluded. "Although copy editors are remarkably similar to the rest of the newsroom in their personal traits, their attitudes stand out in contrast. They are more pessimistic about their futures and the futures of their papers."

They are more ambitious but say their chances of advancing are "poor," and are convinced that politics rather than merit determines how people get ahead in the newsroom.

In a study on burnout published in 1993, copy editors were found to be the group in the newsroom most likely to face burnout, particularly the younger members of the desk who were asked to perform several functions, including editing, layout and design. Emotional exhaustion and depersonalization - two key indicators of burnout - were found to be more prevalent among copy editors than among reporters.

In several studies, copy editors have expressed a strong desire for more training and a frustration that training is not a high priority, that few on the desk are able to have a formal training experience and that more training dollars are spent on editors and reporters covering specialized beats.

A recent study by the Council of Presidents of National Journalism Organizations identified 191 organizations that now provide training and education for journalists.

To a considerable extent, this broad landscape is misleading. The training and education programs many of these organizations offer are modest, and collectively, they fall far short of the meeting the need.

Most of the money for their programs comes from foundations, or from their own fund-raising efforts, rather than from the news organizations their educational programs ultimately serve.

This workshop is a perfect example. It is funded by one foundation through a school of journalism, and hosted by another foundation in partnership with two journalism training institutes.

Can you imagine another industry that so depends on charity to pay for the education of its workforce?

Companies like General Motors and General Electric believe it is in the best interests of their companies, and their shareholders, to invest in the knowledge base of their employees.

They understand that brainpower is an imperative in creating new products and sustaining market share in their industries.

These companies are fully committed to investing in training and education across the breadth of the workforce. Lifelong learning is part of the culture.

In 1993, at the start of an extraordinary period of economic prosperity, the Freedom Forum published a seminal study called No Train, No Gain.

It documented the universal need for training among journalists that existed 10 years ago. No Train, No Gain reported then that one journalist in 10 got regular training.

Today the number is three in 10. Such a comparison enables news industry leaders to claim that their journalists are the best educated and trained in history.

Perhaps so, but the broad context tells a somewhat different story. No Train, No Gain documented three problems that can be linked to a shortage of professional training: newspaper quality, morale and employee retention.

Nearly half of the 650 journalists in the survey acknowledged they are sometimes ill-equipped to develop stories fully.

Many said they felt that limited training opportunities were unfairly awarded. And some, who valued training and weren't getting it, were so frustrated they said they may leave the business.

To establish a fresh benchmark on training and to see what had been achieved since the publication of No Train, No Gain, the Council of Presidents of National Journalism Organizations initiated a study, completed last year, with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The study, entitled Newsroom Training: Where's the Investment?, drew these conclusions:

The nation's journalists say a lack of training is their major source of job dissatisfaction.

More than two-thirds of working journalists say they receive no regular skills training.

News companies have not increased their training budgets in the past decade, and during the recent economic slump, money for training was among the first items to be slashed from newsroom budgets.

News executives acknowledge they should provide more training for their journalists, but say time and insufficient budgets are the main reasons they don't.

Newspaper companies are rich and profitable. They are well able to afford substantial investments in training and education.

Corporate executives might acknowledge that a well-trained, well-educated newsroom workforce is essential in sustaining their economic viability.

Most would agree with the late Katherine Graham's observation that "journalistic excellence and profitability go hand in hand."

A culture that values training and education does more than improve the quality of news content. It contributes to higher levels of satisfaction on the job and to lower turnover - to not to mention the prospect of increased trust among readers and viewers.

So here's the paradox: a rich industry that has not made the sustained, long-term investment in developing its best and brightest and keeping them on the payroll, in the interest of good journalism and good profits.

This rich industry is not likely to do so, unless, perhaps, it can be persuaded that there is a direct link between training and education, and higher profits.

Many of the editors whose training budgets are being squeezed work for publicly traded newspaper companies with annual returns that range from 17 to 25 percent.

Even during the recent, and perhaps still current, downturn in the U.S. economy, which has caused a slippage in classified and retail advertising, newspapers have remained a robust business.

The operating margin of daily newspapers during 2001 was about 17 percent. That was down from 22.5 percent for the year 2000, but a healthy return by any standard. This year, media companies are returning to pre-recession levels and are reporting strong gains, year-over-year.

By almost any measures of profitability, these numbers are impressive.

Compared to other industry sectors, however, the share of operating budgets news organizations commit to training, education and professional development is at the low end of the scale.

Investment in formal training, as opposed to informal on-the-job training or noon-hour brown bag discussions, can be tracked as a percentage of payroll.

According to the Readership Institute at the Media Management Center at Northwestern University, the average newspaper industry expenditure on formal training is 0.7 per cent of payroll.

The national average for companies that have been tracked on this scale is 2 percent, or nearly three times what newspapers spend on training.

The National Association of Manufacturers recommends that companies spend 3 percent of payroll on training.

Workforce magazine has a general guideline of 3 to 6 percent for "true learning organizations," in whose company news organizations would be included.

The American Society for Training and Development, in a study of 367 non-journalism firms, found that, on average, these companies managed to increase training by 10 percent between 2000 and 2001, in spite of the economic recession.

The underlying message is that highly successful companies in other fields have built a culture that recognizes the value of training.

Training as a contributor to knowledge and competence that helps firms make more money.

Training as one of the indicators in measurements of best companies to work for.

Training as a foundation of overall corporate success.

The report by the Council of Presidents of National Journalism Organizations showed that 8 of 10 news executives interviewed said that training in their newsrooms was limited by a lack of money.

Many of these editors said that $500 was the most they could afford to spend per year on training per journalist on their staff.

These numbers and these comparisons deepen the contradiction of a $100 billion business - which ranks high in profits and which enjoys a Constitutional protection as a public trust - but does not make training, education, professional development part of its journalistic culture in a more meaningful way.

Much has been said and much has been written in the past two years about the nature of newspaper company profits and the need to strike a better balance between the bottom line and good journalism.

The point about newspaper profits is not that margins of 20 percent and higher are exorbitant - although some would argue that they are - but that the long-term health of newspaper companies requires them to invest greater amounts in such newsgathering resources as newshole, staff and training.

Investments in training are investments in survival and should be part of a strategy that will help determine whether the local newspaper franchise will remain the dominant provider of news in the community and whether the profits newspaper companies have enjoyed will continue into the coming decades.

Training comes in many forms, of course. Journalists identify four distinct areas of training they want and need: training in journalistic skills, education in ethics, values and legal issues, professional development, and education about the content of the news.

The type of training most often available in news rooms is in journalistic skills - reporting, writing, editing, photography, graphics, computer assisted reporting - as well as discussions about ethics, values and legal issues.

Such training sessions typically occur in-house, even though the journalists responding to the Council of Presidents' survey voiced a strong preference for training opportunities that would take them away from the newsroom for extended periods.

The other two forms of training - professional development and education in news content - are less often available, with clear consequences for the credibility of news organizations and for management and leadership in the newsroom.

Professional development is a field of training that prepares journalists for larger responsibilities in the newsroom. How to be a leader and a manager. How to direct the work of others. How to coach and mentor. In other words, the skills of effective editorship.

Education in news content defines much of what happens to a journalist who is selected for a mid-career fellowship program, such as the Knight Fellowships at Stanford and Michigan or the Nieman Fellowships at Harvard or the Science Fellows at MIT.

The intellectual enrichment gained during the fellowship year informs the authoritative knowledge the fellows bring to their work when they return to their newsrooms.

Knowledge of how the world works is the special province of copy editors. They are expected to prevent the grievous sins that I described at the start of this talk. But they also are empowered to prevent the far less sensational crimes of journalism.

Avid readers in our communities take note when headlines are off the mark or when facts are not intelligently respected and create misimpressions of what really happened. In its 1998 study on newspaper credibility, ASNE found that headlines were a major source of reader concern about credibility.

Dr. Gary Becker, a 1992 Nobel laureate in economics from the University of Chicago, observes that "any modern economy is marked by the amount of money it spends on human capital, rather than physical capital. Today, it's brainpower that counts."

Carroll D. Stevens, director of the Knight Foundation Fellowships for Journalist in Law at the Yale Law School, says that "almost more than any other profession, journalism depends on intellectually versatile practitioners - people skilled in the immediate tasks of the craft, to be sure, but also fluent in the purposes and function of civil society.

"Such nimbleness of mind and technique can only be achieved - with quality journalism as its result - through a process of continuous learning."

Dr. Becker and Carroll Stevens remind us that we live in complicated times.

As journalists, we face daily demands to explain, clarify and interpret for our readers and viewers. We report on and edit issues that are complex and, more often than not, contain elements of science, technology, medicine, economics and engineering, as well as human emotion and political or ideological conflict.

Jack Fuller, president of the Chicago Tribune Co., in his widely acclaimed book, News Values, argues that journalists must become "more comfortable with technology, to have a rigorous education in a specialized discipline and to understand that they are expected to produce work in complex fields that holds up against the examination of practitioners in these fields.

"We cannot accept the kind of ignorance of basic statistical methods that so often leads to preposterous reporting of scientific claims," he wrote.

During my years at the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center, I directed a three-year study of fairness in the news media.

One of the important findings in our work was that the public respects the professional and technical skills journalists bring to their craft, but fears that journalists don't know enough.

Specifically, the public thinks journalists don't have an authoritative understanding of the complicated world they try to explain to the public.

If the robust nature of the U.S. economy is powered by the idea that people and organizations have an almost unlimited power to improve themselves through education.

If journalistic excellence and profitability go hand in hand, as the late Katherine Graham has said. If investment in human capital is the soundest strategy in a modern economy, as Nobel laureate Gary Becker argues.

If both excellence and profitability are enhanced by an intelligent, highly educated, alert, resourceful news staff, as the evidence indicates - it remains a mystery to me why news organizations don't put a higher premium on training and education.