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.
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 that 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.