February 15, 2005

Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 8: The Last Line of Defense

There is a "foul air" in newspaper newsrooms and it is emanating from the copy desk.

In order to determine if attention to spelling and grammar have any affect on a newspaper's quality, and thus its success in the marketplace, Philip Meyer helped design a survey that measured the attitude of copy editors at 169 U.S. newspapers.

The result, detailed in this chapter of Meyer's new book, "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age," confirmed statistically what rim rats long knew intuitively - Mr. Dangerfield, a drum roll please: Copy editors get no respect.

As Meyer puts it: "The last line of defense for quality in newspaper journalism is not a happy place." He elaborates (all emphasis throughout is mine):

"They felt less respected by their newspapers' reporters, they saw fewer opportunities for professional development, they liked their bosses less, and there were less likely to feel reward for their work."

So what if these editors aren't feeling the newsroom love? Does it matter to readers? Does it affect sales of the paper? Does it help Meyer prove out his thesis (quality journalism = credibility & influence = readership = profit)? [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 1: The Influence Model]

Well, yes and no.

Yes, because Meyer finds a correlation between the way copy editors feel about their work and success in the marketplace. Newspapers where respect for the rim is higher "hung on to an additional 1.5 percentage points of home county penetration" for the three-year period Meyer examined. That "half percentage point a year adds up mighty fast," says Meyer.

What doesn't matter, though, to readership or much else, is how well copy editors do their jobs - at least the part of their jobs that involves ensuring accurate and grammatical copy ends up in the newspaper.

Meyer dove into the databases of 20 newspapers and searched eight years of stories for common spelling and grammatical errors, such as "miniscule for minuscule" and "general consensus for consensus."

The result? Plenty of errors, about 4 percent on average. The San Jose Mercury News published the cleanest copy (1.14 percent errors), the Boulder Daily Camera the dirtiest (11.08 percent).

Big papers were generally more correct than smaller ones, a condition Meyer attributes to staff size: More editors, more time per story, fewer gremlins.

But, regardless of where the copy fell on Meyer's accuracy scale it didn't affect any of the other indicators he examines for sign of connectivity between quality and success. He writes:

"If editing accuracy is an indicator of general newspaper quality, then it should predict all sorts of things, including reporting accuracy, credibility, circulation penetration and robustness. It doesn't. Whatever readers want in a newspaper, spelling accuracy appears not to be a primary concern."

In his last chapter [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 7: Do Editors Matter?],
Meyer suggests newspaper editors must face "the possibility that they were powerless." It seems copy editors should consider the possibility that what they do is meaningless.

Already disrespected and defensive, copy editors are sure to consider such a statement inflammatory, but, given how radically different a copy editor's job is today than it was in pre-pagination days (especially at smaller newspapers) it seem reasonable to raise the question: What role should a copy editor play in a modern newsroom?

I believe if newspaper journalism is, to paraphrase the subtitle of Meyer's book, going to survive in the information age then newsrooms must be rebuilt from the ground up. [Read: Explode the Newsroom: Six Ways to Rebuild the System]. The current structure is too rigid and baggage-laden to respond with the nimbleness needed to operate in today's news media environment.

Should there even be a copy desk? The traditional rim is now overburdened with duties ranging from gate-keeping the copy to wrangling the pagination system. Let's separate the manufacturing jobs from the journalism jobs.

Why bother chasing typos and proofing pages? Getting the content right counts, [Read: Reading the Vanishing Newspaper, 5: Accuracy in Reporting], but type lice don't bother readers or move the circulation needle, says Meyer, so why put much energy into eliminating them? Doesn't it just reinforce the perfection-minded culture in newsrooms - much effort on little things, little effort on big things?

How can newsrooms make better use of their copy editors? Should they work more directly with reporters, be more involved earlier on, have more duties related to writing and content and fewer connected to process and production?

I don't have the answers -- and I'm not even suggesting these are the right questions to ask -- but I think newspapers must begin some fundamental self-examinations of what they are, what they do and who they do it with in order to address Meyer's underlying query: How can we save journalism?

In the meantime, I leave you with the Copy Editor's Lament, a product of the restless mind of George Martin, rim rat extraordinaire at the old San Francisco Examiner.

Posted by Tim Porter at February 15, 2005 12:13 PM

I have to admit similar heresies have crossed my mind.

Another heresy is that a large amount of our grammar/spelling/style nitpicking could be outsourced to India, freeing up more editors to do more actual editing.

Posted by: tom mangan on February 15, 2005 09:55 PM

Outsourcing is a good idea.

In fact, I'd suggest going a step further: outsource investigative reporting to readers and consumers.

Think of all the people across the world who own a cellphone with a camera. Think of all the people who filmed the tsunami last year, and whose movies and photos appeared on CNN later.

These people were, in effect, freelancing for CNN. I think you get the message: non-journalists can work as news-gatherers for news organizations.

Today, I could grab my cellphone, attach a microphone to it, interview a bunch of people in my home town about an international issue, and send the unedited video and audio to a TV station, who would then pay me for it.

Potential for abuse? Faked news footage? Of course. But that's what fact-checking is for.


Posted by: A.R.Yngve on February 16, 2005 04:35 AM


I agree ... and I don't. It's clear from the research that's been done that the manufacturing part of putting out a newspaper is severely hampering the ability to edit, especially at many smaller and midsize operations. But I don't think Meyer, and by extension your comments that build on that, has it exactly right. His comments about circulation have to be taken into account against the 1999 Urban & Associates study for ASNE where more than a third of the people said they regularly spotted common grammatical and similar errors in their papers and that it went directly to credibility. It would seem that credibility might be more of a driver of circulation/penetration, so there is an interceding variable here -- one that can be affected by more than just the copy desk work. In other words, maybe the "type lice" do count, but we're not quite sure how to quantify this stream of factors that goes into credibility and how that exactly translates into newspaper circulation/penetration. I've rounded up some of the research on my blog: http://commonsensej.blogspot.com/2005/02/does-copy-editing-matter.html

As for the outsourcing, again yes and no. Word editing often cannot be divorced from the concepts and structure. Proofing can, but can the two really be divorced in the production of a daily paper (unlike a book that goes to galleys, etc.)? You already have some cases where companies have gone to central copy desks serving several papers and -- anecdotally only from readers I speak with -- the results are mixed at best, with complaints often heard about how "the paper" now is misplaying local stories.

Posted by: Doug Fisher on February 17, 2005 07:58 AM

Misspelling, bad grammar, unfinished sentences, words left out. They DRIVE ME NUTS. Especially when I see them in my esteemed NYTimes. I read the paper to learn and that includes good grammar and great writing skills.

Posted by: deborah rabin on February 17, 2005 02:53 PM

Urban's good 1999 study found a link between reader credibility and their perception of spelling and grammar errors. Mine didn't. Here is a possible explanation.

The 1999 study was a single-shot survey of readers who were asked about seeing errors and their trust in the paper. In that situation, one response can influence the other -- if only because respondents like to be consistent. A more rigorous test would be to measure errors and credibility with different instruments and different samples. That's how I did it, using the Knight Foundation survey of home county populations for the assessment of newspaper credibility and content analysis of the newspapers for a measure of spelling and grammar error.

When it was done that way, the Urban finding on spelling and grammar was not supported. (However, her conclusions on the effect of factual error on credibility were confirmed when I applied a similar triangulation with a survey of sources named in news stories.)

It is possible that a larger and better sample of newspapers would have a different outcome. However, as I say elsewhere in the book, we are more interested in effects that are robust enough to show up no matter how they are measured.

Phil Meyer

Posted by: Philip Meyer on February 17, 2005 05:31 PM

I haven't read the book, so I'm only commenting on what's here.

I am concerned by the apparent dismissal of copy editors as proofreaders and paginators. We do more than chase type lice and production work. It is unfortunate the people that seem to share this view, which reinforces our discontent.

I expect any copy editor worth the name can tell you how we also help with accuracy, fairness, taste, etc. And not just about little matters, either. We prevent libel and catch plagiarism, etc.

About Chapter 5, "Accuracy in Reporting," Porter says, "The newspapers with the highest accuracy ratings were generally held to be the most credible both by their news sources and their readers, and these papers also the highest rates of circulation penetration in their core markets."

So don't tell me we're meaningless.

I would like to invite Tim to come work a shift with me any time.

-Maurreen Skowran
The News & Observer
Raleigh, N.C.

Posted by: Maurreen Skowran on February 20, 2005 10:31 PM

Well, Maurreen, I worked many shifts on copydesks, including the slot. I didn't say copy editors were meaningless. I said, citing Meyer, that small errors don't have an impact on readership other than on the name, for example, of the person the story quotes.

Copy editors are very valuable and I would like to see their editing capabilities used to a greater, not lesser, extent. I'm asking is there best use proofing pages. That work can be done by a less skilled person. I'd rather have a copy editor working on the mediocre writing that is the standard for most newspapers. I wrote: "How can newsrooms make better use of their copy editors? Should they work more directly with reporters, be more involved earlier on, have more duties related to writing and content and fewer connected to process and production?"



Posted by: Tim on February 21, 2005 05:01 AM

OK, Tim, point taken. My apologies if I read too fast. Maybe I should've had an editor. :)

I don't agree with all of this, but you do raise some good questions.

One part of a long-term solution could be for individual copy editors to keep the faith until they can run newsrooms.

- Maurreen

Posted by: Maurreen Skowran on February 21, 2005 11:53 AM
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