Why the copy desk matters to a successful and profitable newspaper
Abridged keynote speech by Bob Giles, curator, Nieman Foundation A useful beginning for a talk in praise of copy editing is to recall stories about stories - stories about stories that resulted in lengthy and expensive libel suits.
In 1988, the Fort Wayne, Ind., 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. Bandido's eventually brought a libel action against the newspaper. The trial court issued summary judgment in favor of the Journal-Gazette. 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. Eight years after the story appeared, the state court of appeals reversed the trial court. Then in the Indiana Supreme Court the newspaper won, and later the U.S. Supreme Court 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.
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. We can also 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 offcials made business decisions in Latin America to cover up a bribery scheme involving the company and subsidiary employees.
The eventual disclosure that the lead reporter had broken into the company's e-mail 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.
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. Four copy editors who read the column found it unfair, possibly libelous, or both. Two of the copy editors ▀agged 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.
That was a factor in The Boston Globe's coverage of the brutal murder of two Dartmouth college professors. At an early phase in the investigation, The Globe published a front-page story saying investigators believe the killings were "crimes of passion" resulting from "an adulterous love affair" involving the husband. The story quoted unnamed law enforcement offcers in the investigation.
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 frontpage message to readers, the editor made a forthright statement of regret.
I wrote in an op-ed piece published in The Globe 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.
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.
Gelb quotes a maxim from Carr Van Anda, an earlier managing editor at The Times, who said that "a newspaper is made on the desk."
While it is engaging to think about those earlier times, we surely have come some distance from the horseshoeshaped 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 stuffng 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 ▀exibility 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.
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: "More often, the copy desks did not grow. To the contrary, in the economic squeeze of the last decade, their staffng declined as their workload increased."
Web sites have brought new, time-consuming demands to copy desks. Foreman quoted Pam Robinson, president of the American Copy Editors Society, who said that "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."
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.
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 among 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 đ 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 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.
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.
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. 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. According to the Readership Institute at the Media Management Center at Northwestern University, the average newspaper industry expenditure on formal training is 0.7 percent 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.
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 company profits and 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.
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.
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 con▀ict.
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 and specifically 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 and profibility are enhanced, as the late Katharine Graham [of The Washington Post] 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.