If you were concerned by reports last week suggesting that copy editing positions had declined nearly twice as fast as reporting or management positions, you should have been. The numbers aren’t as scary as they look, but they’re still worth attention — not least because they help editors frame the importance of what they do in real-world terms.
Those reports — a detail-rich examination from King’s Journalism Review, summarized at Poynter’s Media Wire blog — drew on the 2012 ASNE newsroom census to conclude that the editing side of the newsroom had fared worst in the past decade of recession- and Internet-related job cuts. The ASNE’s annual reports have provided a reliable look at news employment since the 1990s, and the overall picture is grim. Newsroom employment in 2012 had fallen 28 percent from its peak in 2001 and 26.3 percent from a later peak in 2007 (the year a trend of slight but steady declines in overall employment was reversed).
The proportion of copy editors in the mix is harder to pin down, because that category has changed twice: in 2007, when online producers were added to “copy/layout editors,” and in 2012, when a separate category was created for “producers/designers,” which sounds like it draws more on editing than anything else. One way of addressing that change would be to restore numbers from the new category to the two old categories that showed the largest declines from 2011: copy editors (down 29 percent) and photographers (down 16.9 percent).
Counting copy editors alone, the long-term declines are 47.9 percent from 2001 and 49.1 percent from 2007. But splitting the new category proportionately, with about 65 percent going back into the copy editor category, those declines are 28.9 percent (from 2001) and 30.5 percent (from 2007). If we just close our eyes and restore all the producer/designers to a category of editors/producers/designers, the decline from 2007 is 20.5 percent. Reporting jobs in 2012, by contrast, had fallen 29.3 percent from 2001 and 25.5 percent from 2007.
Discounting the 2012 figure, copy editing jobs have generally tracked overall newsroom employment pretty closely. When overall losses have been high, as in 2009-10 (11.3 percent each year), desk losses have been higher: 12.3 and 14 percent. It seems appropriate to conclude that the 2012 decline is more like the overall pattern: not good, but not as bad as the worst years.
No one should mistake any of those conclusions for good news, and there’s every reason to be concerned about some things the ASNE survey doesn’t address: how much more work goes into each of those editing jobs, for example, or how many sets of eyes see the average cop-and-crime story before publication now, as opposed to a decade ago. But such findings do underscore some ways to continue making the case for keeping editors, rather than discarding them.
First, editors help themselves by keeping up with changes in newsroom ecology. An editing job today is not what it was 15 years ago; changes in the survey categories reflect that, but editors should be the first, not the last, to know that their job description is a moving target. When they’re positioned to make a case for writing that job description, they’re helping their cause.
Second, the case for editing is not just a plea to maintain a perpetual venue for harping about split verbs and other myths. Editing is central to the process of professional journalism; we’re attentive to threats to the roles of reporters and visual journalists so they will be attentive to similar threats to the value of what we contribute as editors. A large body of research supports the idea that investing in newsroom quality produces quality news, but a rising tide can’t lift all boats if it never rises in the first place.
Aside from that, though, editing does make distinctive contributions to the professional product. The great grammatical catches that you keep in a file for annual review have one set of effects. The work you put into reorganizing a hashed lede has another. There’s not just a general perception of value created by quality, though that’s important; there are specific kinds of value created by what editors do.
Those are some of the things we’ll be talking about under the “research” heading at the St. Louis conference. I hope you’ll join in if you’re interested.