Let’s get local

Note: This post also appears at the Web site of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

Copy editors are always concerned — about style, grammar, accuracy, headlines and a host of other issues. Now they have a new concern that’s more ominous than a comma splice or misspelled word. The changing media landscape threatens their livelihood and role in the newsroom, with some news executives questioning the need for copy editing at all.

The uneasy questions about the future of editing came to the fore recently with comments by two media leaders:

  • In Europe, David Montgomery of the Mecom newspaper group said copy editing (or sub-editing, as it’s known outside the United States) could be done away with altogether. “Sub-editing is a twilight world, checking things you don’t really need to check,” he said recently.
  • In the United States, Joseph Lodovic, the president of MediaNews Group, floated the idea that newspapers save money by consolidating copy desks. “I think copy editing can be done centrally for several newspapers,” he said in a Bloomberg News article.

The response from copy editors has been quick and eloquent. They have argued that editing is as essential as ever, especially on the local level. Their work, after all, speaks to one of the cornerstones of journalism: the discipline of verification.

“By living where we work, we notice things,” wrote Lisa McLendon, the deputy copy desk chief at the Wichita Eagle, in a response on the American Copy Editors Society’s Web site. “We know which stores have opened and which restaurants have closed. We know what interests our friends and neighbors. We think about local issues as residents, not just as journalists.” (John McIntyre and Doug Fisher, among others, have also written persuasively about this issue on their blogs.)

I would extend McLendon’s idea and ask news executives this: If newspapers and Web sites are getting increasingly local in their coverage to survive, shouldn’t we also have copy editors become increasingly local? Instead of consolidating copy desks, why not have copy editors work more closely with reporters, not only in the main newsroom but also in newspaper bureaus?

That’s exactly what The News & Observer, the regional paper in Raleigh, N.C., did in the 1990s. As part of a push into nearby Durham and Chapel Hill, the N&O sent copy editors to the bureaus. I was one of them, working in the then-threadbare Chapel Hill office with an assignment editor and a half-dozen reporters. The advantages were significant:

  • I was able to work side by side with reporters whose prior interaction with copy editors consisted of phone calls from the Raleigh newsroom. I handled all of the stories that came out of the bureau, writing the headlines and rewriting them as needed between editions.
  • I became the face of copy editing to reporters and the assigning editor. They congratulated me on a job well done, and on occasion, questioned why I edited a story a certain way or wrote a headline the way I did. They called me with a late update or correction to the stories rather than trying to track down an anonymous editor in Raleigh. Most importantly, they knew who was editing their work and writing the headlines for their stories. My physical presence in the bureau built relationships that created a collaborative environment. “I find that I am much more confident about the process when I know who will be copy editing and when I know that that person is familiar with my beat and my work,” said Jane Stancill, a reporter who covers higher education at the N&O.
  • I became an expert in local copy, knowing the names and places that popped up in stories such as the country road that had a funny name. This helped me detect and correct fact errors in stories that may have been overlooked by an editor unfamiliar with the area. I also understood the context of stories better and was able to make sense of incremental developments in long-running stories.
  • I was a fill-in assignment editor in the evenings, letting the Raleigh office know of breaking stories. This came in handy, for example, when a school board member abruptly resigned in a resume-padding scandal. I was able to notify editors in Raleigh in time to get the story on the front page for the edition that went to Chapel Hill readers.

My time as the copy editor in the Chapel Hill office was among the most rewarding of my career, and reporters liked the arrangement as well. “The closer collaboration is definitely the way to go,” Stancill said. “In my view, it can only improve the work of both the reporter and the copy editor.”

The real beneficiaries, of course, were the readers. Effective collaboration, wherever it takes place, between writer and editor creates a better story and a more informed readership. As stated by the Committee of Concerned Journalists, “journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens.” Diminishing the role of the copy desk and divorcing editing from reporting are betrayals of that loyalty.

Now that I have moved from newsroom to classroom, my bureau experience informs my teaching. In my editing classes at UNC-Chapel Hill, local stories make up a substantial portion of the assignments. In one course, students edit stories written by their fellow students who are covering the town of Carrboro, N.C. Their work is published on a news Web site called The Carrboro Commons. These students will become the “hyperlocal” copy editors of the future — if news executives give them the chance.



  1. I’m glad you posted this here, Andy. I read it on the committee site; you need to tell them about comments.

    Good piece. We did the same thing back when we had large bureaus. One problem we ran into was that some copy editors didn’t want to be tied down to one geographic area. They wanted to have different positions and different responsibilities and said they got bored by worrying over, say, High Point every single day. It actually became a significant obstacle for us.

    You guys get any of that?

  2. John,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I didn’t experience the sort of trapped feeling that you mention, but I can understand how that can happen in any job.

    The downside to this arrangement at the N&O was scheduling — having copy editors in bureaus meant fewer in the main newsroom. That can make life difficult when the editors in the “home office” are sick or on vacation.

  3. There have been some attempts at this — and rolled back, most notably at the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press in the Twin Cities. It has been explored in a couple of studies (one of which refers to the other). To keep the length in check, I am going to break this into two comments.

    From the first study:

    * Kathleen A. Hansen, Mark Neuzil and Jean Ward studied newsroom teams at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press by surveying journalists on the two staffs for their assessments of teams’ effects on news routines and newspaper quality.” They determined the effects on news process and news quality were predominantly negative. Some of the issues cited by staffers were the need for more resources, especially copy editors and photographers; difficulty in working in teams with colleagues who worked different shifts; newspapers’ instituting redesigns simultaneously with restructuring the newsrooms; decision making becoming slower and more complex; staffers feeling that they had less authority and lack of newsroom discipline. Staffers also expressed concern about accuracy, the trend to softer news stories and the focus on design. The study is more persuasive in showing that morale suffered when the newsroom switched to teams than it is in showing that quality suffered. In fact, the researchers acknowledge that readers (whom they did not survey) and staffers have differing perspectives on newspaper excellence.

    * Editors who said they did not use a team system gave four primary reasons, three seemingly closely related.

    Smaller papers, especially, said their size (usually less than 50,000 circulation) was the major reason. Common themes included too few people, too large an area to cover and too much staff turnover.

    The rest of the non-team papers’ responses could be divided roughly in thirds. There were those who like/trust/believe in the traditional beat system. They have nothing against teams so much as they have a great deal they like about their current structure. They are satisfied with the chain of command in place, and they believe the beat system is effective and efficient.

    At the other end of the spectrum is a group of editors that dislike the team concept and/or structure, and they dislike it for specific reasons. Common themes include lack of accountability, failure to adequately cover general assignment or breaking news, lower staff production and inefficiency in managing staff members.

    Finally, there is a group somewhere in between these two. These papers seem to have nothing specific against teams; they just haven’t given them much consideration. Most said no one had suggested such a switch, or that they weren’t too informed about the system or that they felt teams were a fad.

    Only two papers reported having had a team structure and returning to the traditional beat system. Both said the team system had “not worked out” for them. And, only a few editors (11) said they planned to move to a team system, most in the next six to 12 months.

  4. Part 2 is more from the Neuzil, Ward et al. study of the Twin Cities papers.

    * One might also argue that newsroom topic teams are not true teams. John Russial notes that “skills among newspaper team members tend to be more similar than complementary, and individual performance remains a key element in reporter assessment.” Goal achievement is one critical function of the team system, and in a business where the product is information, measuring output can be problematic. What value can be assigned to a news story? A headline?

    * (Referring to the Star Tribune) The rhetoric of the publisher and editor throughout the transition made it clear that there was no guarantee that the future of the company lay with the traditional newspaper, but with information products and services that delivered high-value content to readers where and how they wanted to receive them. The effects of these types of pronouncements on newsroom morale were not good. In addition, the newspaper has been embarrassed by several high-profile incidents in which glaring mechanical, production and substantive errors have led to lawsuits or berating from public officials, as well as prominent published apologies. This demoralized the staff, which worried that the quality of the news product was suffering.

    *Some authority seems to have transferred from the day shift to the night shift under the new system. A slight majority (55.6 percent) of the daysiders say they’ve lost authority, while a similar percentage of nightsiders (57.5) say they have gained it. “I believe the team system might be fine in a business where everybody works Monday-Friday 9 to 5. I do not believe it works in a 7-day operation where major shifts stretch from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. It’s not possible to build team cohesion when team members aren’t even in the building at the same hours daily,” wrote one respondent.

    * About one in four (23.6 percent) said there was less communication under the team system than before it. Only 34.8 percent said communication had increased, and some written responses indicated that the relationship with the visual image workers was better. “On the positive side, it has brought reporters into a closer working relationship with graphics and photo earlier in the process. That is good.” Another wrote, “I know who is going to copy edit my story and can involve them in the process early on.”

    * Conclusion: There maybe some structural characteristics in a topic team system that make it a poor model for newsrooms and other jobs where creativity and certain professional standards are important. The team system as it debuted in the Twin Cities’ newspapers was not empowering the majority of the employees, according to the employees themselves. Those who feel less authority under the team system are on larger teams, have a harder time getting their stories into the paper, are unsure of the chain of command, tend to work the day shift and are reporters rather than editors.

    Participatory management systems have been sold to newsrooms as a way to make people lower in the hierarchy feel they have more control over their work. The theory is that people with more control over their work are happier, more productive, more loyal and more eager to do the job. Although there are some exceptions, a majority of newsroom staffers at the two papers in this study have not experienced those benefits.

    Willis and Willis note that journalists may be different enough from other workers to cause problems for new management systems that have been successful elsewhere: “… the newsroom staff presents possibly the greatest challenge because journalists often operate from different motivational criteria than do the other task-oriented employees or business/sales staff. That is one reason why some newspapers are experiencing trouble in trying to innovate new leadership styles in the newsroom.”

    The study also notes a big caveat:
    * Some of the problems of the team system can be traced to its newness, job shuffling and staff turnover in the newsrooms, plus redesigns of the newspapers. “Lots of shuffling that is making people very unhappy seems to be due to poor planning at the start,” wrote one. It is difficult to tease out some of the production troubles that may be due to the team system and those which are due to the new procedures involved in the redesigns. “I think teams work,” wrote one staffer. “The newsroom reorganization and redesign caused much more work, more confusion and more errors… The problem isn’t in the teams it’s the reorganization and speed-up it caused.”

  5. OK, a third part. But it’s just to note where I am coming from. Andy, I think it’s a worthy question to ask, especially as copy editing appears to be under assault.

    I am a Star Tribune copy editor now, but I wasn’t there for the days of copy editors on teams. Some there at the time have summed it up to me (shortly after I started three-plus years ago as this):

    In some ways it was great, with very much of the pluses your post describes. But then there were two things happening, especially for those working nights on the team putting out the paper: Your shift would be all turnlines and captions. Or you would have a notable increase in workload over what others were working because it was a busy night. Or you’re the copy editor on some subject team and you are about to leave when some story breaks and now suddenly you have to cut 20 lines or rework or even redo everything and then you are working 12-hour days. And then something always happens every night.

    In the end, I guess the question is: Is all of that worth it? Under the aegis of teams, do you have the resources to do that and to look out for the whole newspaper. Becauase in the end, designers and deskers are the ones producing the paper. Someone has to be there at night. And, from the nature of the beast, most reporters aren’t there at night.

    And as much as we’d like to think this isn’t the case, sometimes no one else but the desk is looking at the graphic and the story and the names in the photo caption, and that’s when you find out they all have some part of the story wrong.

    Here is another critical question, in all of my work experience: Instead of finding out how the copy editors can work with the reporters more, how can the reporters work with the copy editors?


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