An old tale about the value of editing

When the ACES: The Society for Editing recently revamped its website (I’m the current website editor), we jettisoned a couple of platforms that we hadn’t been using in a while.

One was a separate site where board members used to blog about topics of interest to the editing community. (We basically folded everything together and then cleared out deadwood.)

The action of doing that forced me to read some things I’d written for ACES several years ago. I was reminded of one of those posts, from 2009, on Friday when I was reading  a Poynter story about New York Times copy editing cuts (New York Times editing cuts mean doing more with less. Will credibility suffer?).

It seems a lot of us in the editing business have been making the quality point for a number of years. Anecdotally, I notice more errors on many news websites, and it does make me doubt that organizatio’s commitment some. Of course, since I’m in the business, you’d expect me to say that. But research shows regular readers care, too.

Here’s what I wrote about editing and quality on July 22, 2009. (Reposted from the American Copy Editors Society — then, now

The cost of cutting the copy desk

For several years now, I’ve been hearing the warnings that one reason copy editing positions at news publications will be (and now are) taking a big hit is that the profession can’t quantify itself.

Or, to put it in today’s business parlance, we can’t monetize copy editing.

My argument has always been that copy editing is the quality control of the news business. A furniture maker won’t continue to sell chairs if no one is making sure the glue really sticks and the screws are tight. Same with newspapers — will people continue buying them if the names aren’t spelled correctly, the facts are wrong or the story on page 1A doesn’t really jump to 6A?

Unfortunately, that argument is lost on many in the Internet age, where speed trumps quality. Recently, however, I’ve read some articles that put some weight behind the quality-control argument.<!–more–>

The first was a July 5 column by Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander that got a lot of notice in journalism blogs and on Twitter. The title: “Fewer Copy Editors, More Errors.” 

The short version: Growing numbers of readers are contacting the Washington Post ombudsman to complain about typos and errors, which Alexander wrote “seem to have increased in recent months.”

Alexander defends the Post’s copy editors as among the best in the business, but notes “they’ve been badly depleted by staff cuts as the money-losing paper struggles to control costs.”

Among the most important messages I took from the column is that, yes, readers do notice the work of copy editors, even if they don’t know that’s what they are noticing.

It’s the quality control argument again. You risk losing readers when you cut quality control.

Add to that article this bit of research on newsroom cuts in general from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri: “Newsroom cuts are the most costly on revenues.”

The RJI article, “What Happens When Newspapers Cut Back on Marketing Investments? An Empirical Analysis,” notes that their research shows a 1 percent cut in newsroom expenditures led to a bigger drop in revenue and profits than an equal cut in sales force or distribution expenditures.

“When cutting costs, newsroom cuts are by far the most damaging to revenues – and the longer the reductions occur, the greater the acceleration of damage,” the authors wrote.

That seems to make sense, when news is the product. If fewer people pick up the paper because there is less news (fewer reporters) and what’s left isn’t as high in quality or is error-filled (fewer copy editors), won’t  loss of ads follow?

It’s just one thing for managers to think about as they look out at their much smaller newsrooms and wonder why circulation is dropping. The answer isn’t just about the free news on the Internet.

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