The Quality-Control Quandary  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2009

The Quality-Control Quandary   

As newspapers shed copy editors and post more and more unedited stories online, what’s the impact on their content?

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Sunrise approaches on a Friday morning, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Web site is being updated early – from Mandy St. Amand's bathroom.

St. Amand, the Post-Dispatch continuous news editor, has balanced her laptop on the toilet lid and, while drying her hair and prepping for the office, is reworking homepage headlines.

Not surprisingly, no copy editor is handy at 5:30 a.m., so St. Amand's work goes online unchecked by a colleague. She estimates that between 40 and 50 Post-Dispatch staffers can post directly to the site, often remotely and without a second read – a growing, troubling trend in these days of never-ending news cycles and ever-dwindling editing corps.

A similar if less dramatic effect follows on the print side, where buyouts and layoffs over several years have cut the number of Post-Dispatch copy editors from more than 40 to about 21. The inevitable result, not only at the Post-Dispatch but at newsrooms nationwide, is that fewer editors scrutinize copy, and they often spend less time per item than they would have just a few years ago.

Together, these developments raise unprecedented questions about the value – and the future – of editing itself. Already at many news organizations, journalists and readers alike have noticed flabbier writing, flatter headlines, more typos. How far can you cut editing without crippling credibility? How do you balance immediacy and accuracy? How much does fine-tuning matter to the work-in-progress online ethos?

"When you think about the assembly line that was a newsroom, it's changed," says Post-Dispatch Editor Arnie Robbins. "In the world we live in now, readers expect immediacy, and we have to deliver. But we also have to be careful."

At ground level, these concerns fuel another trend: developing ways to maintain reasonable quality control now that the end-of-the-line copy desk can no longer process everything. Interviews and visits by AJR make clear that newsrooms are lurching toward new ways, from "buddy editing" (where you ask the nearest person to read behind you) to "back editing" (where copy is edited after posting) to "previewing" (where copy goes to a holding directory for an editor to check before live posting).

For now, though, progress is slow, and the risks seem scary.

Bill McClellan, a Post-Dispatch columnist since 1983, has one of the news organization's most familiar bylines. But he recently experienced a "brain cramp" and called Missouri a blue state, even though it has gone Democratic only twice in the past eight presidential races. The error zipped past editors and ended up in print.

McClellan won't blame the copy desk, which he says is "astoundingly good," and regularly calls to check things like song lyrics he's tangled. "Nine times out of 10 the copy desk catches things," he says, "and the red-blue error was the tenth."

But, he adds, "You never do more with less. You do less with less. You have fewer copy editors, more mistakes get through."

Reporter Adam Jadhav remembers writing that a woman had lost her right arm in a car crash. Six paragraphs later, he called it her left arm. Like McClellan, Jadhav takes full responsibility for his errors. Still, he says, "I'd like to think that a reasonably worked copy desk could catch them."

"Obviously in the future there are probably going to be fewer and fewer reads," Editor Robbins says. "There is concern there, and there is some risk there. However, I think it is manageable."

Can good editing endure amid all the changes?

Mandy St. Amand, by now operating from the newsroom rather than the bathroom, thinks about the question. "I really wish I had a wise-sounding, beard-stroking answer," she says. "But I don't."

Post-Dispatch Managing Editor Pam Maples is leading a newsroom tour, pointing out physical and operational alterations aimed toward Journalism 2.0.

In the center, a glass office has been dismantled, creating space for a 9:30 a.m. stand-up news huddle – earlier, faster-paced and more Web-oriented than before. A homepage editor presides. For the first agenda item, she turns to a dry-erase board where the phrase "top mods" appears in all caps. What should fill the modules atop the Web site?

The newsroom now has two early-morning reporters, often hustling on traffic and weather stories. Their goal is to start the process of moving at least 20 items a day through the top Web positions. The nine editors also discuss tomorrow's printed paper, but they project urgency to get moving online.

"Anything that happens, our assumption is it goes online," Maples says. "It puts a demand on editors and how they manage their people and how they think. Deadline is always."

Maples and Robbins have graciously let AJR into their newsroom at a bad time: the week after the paper laid off 14 people in the newsroom, including several editors. Four other rounds of layoffs or buyouts have taken place since 2005. A news staff of about 340 five years ago is about 210 today, Robbins calculates. Some 40 pages of space per week have been lost in the newspaper, which is introducing a narrower page width that could cost another 5 percent of newshole.

These challenges are not unique to St. Louis, but the Post-Dispatch seems a symbolic place to examine their impact on editing. It is a 241,000-circulation, middle-American, blue-collar institution, founded in 1878 by Joseph Pulitzer, the editing giant famous for preaching "accuracy, accuracy, accuracy."

Even today, four years after the Pulitzer family sold the paper to Lee Enterprises (see "Lee Who?" June/July 2005), a visitor is reverently shown a vacant but still furnished office, last occupied by a Pulitzer family member, where portraits of multiple generations of the family peer down. As you enter the paper's downtown lobby, the founder's words thunder from the front wall: "Always remain devoted to the public welfare."

The ghost of Joseph Pulitzer, it seems, haunts the Post-Dispatch, and perhaps newspaper journalism itself. Can "accuracy, accuracy, accuracy" survive "cuts, cuts, cuts"?

Post-Dispatch staffers warm to the challenge.

"We have a brand," says Deputy Metro Editor Alan Achkar. "People expect from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a level of quality and accuracy. If we don't have good, responsible journalism that people can bank on, we don't have anything."

But maintaining quality takes more and more effort.

"For the Internet, speed is king," Achkar says. "You often worry that we're just slapping stuff online without properly vetting it... It's added work. Sometimes you feel that no one wants to acknowledge that putting out a newspaper – even a thinner one – is a monumental task."

Top editors acknowledge that, by policy, cutbacks have fallen disproportionately on editors. Saving reporting jobs is the priority.

"People on the street, you try to protect as much as possible," Robbins says. "That's not to minimize the importance of editing and design at all. But ultimately you have to make tough decisions. Reporters on the street do separate us from other places."

So, the assigning editors and copy editors who are left adapt.

These days, says Frank Reust, a Post-Dispatch copy editor for 10 years, editors find themselves hovering somewhere between "comfortably rushed" and "always having to railroad stuff."

That means more rapid copy editing and sometimes, especially for wire stories, fewer reads. For online copy, says designer and Web producer Joan McKenna, "we are forgiven for mistakes. Speed is much more important than anything else."

The fallout so far seems noticeable but not calamitous. More than one reporter mentioned increased reaction from readers pointing out errors, mostly small. For example, a sportswriter's post confusing the names of two St. Louis Rams coaching prospects was flagged in the comments section and fixed within minutes.

Editors also express some larger concerns.

For instance, Reust sees less creative time applied to the "accuracy and tone" of headlines. He also worries that writers and editors brainstorm less. "The general time devoted to good writing is almost nonexistent now," he says.

Jean Buchanan, the paper's assistant managing editor for projects, sees that too. Writers sometimes can't get an editor's attention when they need it, and less time goes into those vital ingredients of enterprise and investigations, "rooting around for potential stories, requesting information that might lead to a story, meeting with small groups of reporters talking about what they are seeing."

Reid Laymance, the assistant managing editor for sports, spends more time on hands-on editing and less on planning. His editors have less time to develop "extras" like charts or breakout boxes. Down a copy editor since he took over last spring, "we're not as much editors as we used to be," he says. "Our guys have become processors. Getting the game in by 8 o'clock, making sure the headline fits, that's all we have time for."

Director of Photography Larry Coyne offers a good news/bad news example. With today's digital cameras, it isn't uncommon for photographers to shoot a thousand exposures on an assignment, many times more than they previously would have. Online galleries allow far more photos to run. But Coyne has three-and-a-half photo editors today instead of the five-and-a-half of about three years ago, so collaboration and editing can suffer. "There is more emphasis on quantity and getting them out," he says, "and less on feedback with photographers."

In fairness, it must be emphasized that not one of these editors comes across as whiny or bitter. They seem candid about their plight but determined to succeed. "Every time there's a reduction in staff," copy editor Reust says, "there is a period where you feel the load is just too much to handle. Then two months down the road you're thinking, 'We can handle things.'"

Patrick Gauen, the self-described "cops and courts editor" and a veteran police reporter, looks back over his 24 years at the paper and says, "A lot of what is changing – the platform stuff – really doesn't matter to me. It gets to the public one way or the other... I feel like I still have the time I need. Our adequacy of editing is still good."

He lives by something he once heard: "There are so many balls in the air at once and some of them are going to drop. You try to understand which ones are breakable and try not to let those go."

General assignment reporter David Hunn echoes that balanced sentiment. "The most serious stories I write" get attentive editing, he says, but the rush to post online is "kind of like the Wild West... If anything is clear to me right now, it's that we are feeling our way as we go – and as a whole doing a pretty good job of it."

Editors being editors, though, they tend to see themselves in a code orange world, their equivalent of an earthquake zone or hurricane corridor, bracing for the Big One.

"What will wake us up," says Enterprise Editor Todd Stone, "is going to be the first big lawsuit where somebody really gets creamed. It's going to happen. And I'd bet you about 10 bucks it will be because of a lack of editing vigilance."

At the Washington Post, another paper that has lost editors, A-section copy desk chief Bill Walsh has the same worry.

"I keep fearing a disaster of some kind. I think it is only a matter of time," says Walsh, a nationally known blogger and author. "Doing more with less is always going to mean a compromise in quality. Three sets of eyes are always better than two."

Last year, the Post's ombudsman at the time, Deborah Howell, made a public pitch for editing. Reporting that the Post had lost 40 percent of its copy editors since 2005, Howell wrote that they are "the last stop before disaster."

On Walsh's combined national-foreign copy desk, seven editors now work where 12 once did. Where a typical piece of copy formerly got careful reading from an assigning editor, copy editor, slot editor and an editor looking at page proofs, today there tends to be one less layer, with the slot editor just taking a "glance," Walsh says.

Front-page and other sensitive stories still get extra edits, but Walsh acknowledges, "We're probably spending on average less time with stories, although that is not universally the case. I can't say we are doing as good a job with a rim read and a half-assed slot read as we were with more people looking at every story."

To help compensate, Walsh adds, the Post has succeeded in improving flow so copy reaches his desk earlier. It is also stressing that assigning desks must polish stories as much as possible before moving them.

Forty miles up I-95, the Baltimore Sun offers its version of the same tale.

The Sun, too, features its founder's words on the lobby wall, A.S. Abell's 1837 exhortation to serve "the common good."

But like other newsrooms, the Sun has fewer editors' eyes trained on that common good. John E. McIntyre, the director of the copy desk since 1995, counted about 54 copy editors several years ago, 48 about a year ago and 34 as of January, for news, features and sports.

However, McIntyre points out a "grim advantage" for the Sun and other papers. For print, at least, there is less copy to edit. The paper, he says, has lost about a third of its staff in the past few years and almost that much newshole.

"The size of the paper has been cut back to the point at which we have just about enough copy editors to manage it," he says. "It's the only reason we are not slapping basically unread copy into print."

Still, McIntyre sees worrisome signs, like "minor errors in fact and slack writing," fewer minutes for making headlines shine and, of course, less attention to online postings.

"That scares the bejeezus out of me," says McIntyre, who writes a blog about language called You Don't Say (http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog). "I would rather have people on the staff catch my errors than readers."

Like editors elsewhere, McIntyre pledges to maintain quality. "The Sun has a reputation for the accuracy and clarity of what it publishes, and we are going to find a way to uphold the paper's standards."

McIntyre, a charter member and former president of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), believes in documenting to management the vital contributions editors make.

A man given to unusually natty dress for a newsroom, who sips tea from a real cup during an interview, he offers an earthy defense of the editor's role. It is, he says, "to save the paper's ass."

He keeps a file of great prepublication catches by editors. Not long ago, he says, a veteran reporter and an assigning editor let through a piece of libelous work. "Were it not for the copy editor," McIntyre declares, "the biggest decision on the afternoon after publication would have been how many zeroes to put on the settlement check."

ACES and its current president, Chris Wienandt, have boosted efforts to promote and defend editing.

"Everyone is trying to cut costs, and editors and copy editors are relatively invisible jobs," says Wienandt, the business copy chief of the Dallas Morning News. "There is still this perception that we are proofreading drones.

"But the work of the copy editor involves the most-read work in the paper – the headlines. Editors are guardians of credibility, and without credibility we really haven't got a leg to stand on. Imagine a manufacturing company that didn't have a quality-control department. They would be in hot water pretty quick if things started going out defective."

Wienandt and other ACES board members have collaborated on several editorials on the organization's Web site (www.copydesk.org), scolding those like Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell, who complained that layers of editing delay publication.

If stories are posted too quickly, the ACES editorial countered, they are "more likely to contain errors..be unethical, or present an actual legal problem... If credibility evaporates, so will sales."

ACES also attacked the idea of outsourcing editing. "You simply can't duplicate the collective wisdom of a locally based copy desk," another editorial argued. To diminish local editing would jeopardize quality and undermine "the key selling point to an industry that more than ever needs selling points."

What then is the future of editing?

Will Sullivan, the Post-Dispatch's 28-year-old interactive director, appreciates the concerns of veteran colleagues but also welcomes a future of new thinking and tools.

He envisions that editing will become "more of a barn- raising..an everyone-is-an-editor model," where "the concept of news is a wiki" and a story becomes "a kind of rolling document" moving through a continuous editing process.

Better training can spread editing skills to writers and producers, he says. New tools, from automated step-savers like spell-check to simplified photo-editing software, can add speed and quality. Merging staffs can promote efficiency, for example, by assigning the same section editor to manage features on the Web and in print.

During this time of transition, several practices seem increasingly common:

  • bringing copy editors in earlier to help with online copy and to expedite flow
  • using floating, "quick-hit" editors to handle stories as they break
  • expecting writers and assigning desks to move copy earlier
  • enforcing the perhaps neglected principle that writers should be better self-editors
  • encouraging "buddy editing," where a writer or poster doesn't wait for the copy desk but asks a colleague for a second read
  • using "preview" directories as a holding point for material about to go live online, so an editor can look over it first
  • creating protocols for Web editing, such as posting a note whenever something new goes onto the Web, to trigger an editor's check
  • systematizing "back editing," so that even after being posted, all copy gets edited as soon as possible

Repeatedly, Post-Dispatch editors and reporters underline the importance of constant coaching and communicating to help solve problems early rather than dump them on editors late.

"The shift in responsibility has moved to the front end with the reporter and the originating editor more than ever," says Adam Goodman, deputy managing editor for metro and business news. "You can't rely on somebody catching things down the road as much as we used to... It needs to be camera-ready when the reporter sends it."

Deputy Managing Editor for News Steve Parker tracks every published correction. ("It's kind of like being a prison guard," he jokes.) From 2002 to 2005, the annual number sat in the 800s. Then it began drifting downward, to 771 in 2006, 636 in 2007, and 546 last year.

Partly, Parker acknowledges, the drop reflects a declining newshole and volume of copy. But in 2006, the paper also developed a set of "verification guidelines" to reduce errors and spread accountability. They range from the basics ("Ask the subject to spell his/her name... Just before ending the interview, recheck the spelling") to avoiding hoaxes ("Remember that IDs can be faked") to double-checking graphics ("A finished copy..must be provided to the reporter or originating editor before it is published").

In addition, Managing Editor Maples says, it becomes essential to recognize when you truly must take your time.

She cites high-profile breaking stories where the newsroom delayed or withheld postings while discussing thorny issues. When area police made a surprise discovery of two missing teenage boys, one of whom had been gone for four-and-a-half years, the Post-Dispatch held an early report because it was based on only one source. A television news operation broke the story, beating the paper by a few minutes. The Post-Dispatch also withheld other information because a reporter's online research was putting it in doubt. It turned out to be incorrect, but other outlets used it.

Last year, a Post-Dispatch stringer witnessed a shooting at a Kirkwood, Missouri, city council meeting. The stringer saw two people get shot, by someone whose voice she recognized, before she took cover under a chair. Reached on her cell phone, she identified both victims and the shooter. After a quick, intense debate involving key editors, the paper's Web site went with the names but not their conditions or other sensitive details.

By contrast, the paper last year apologized for a "journalistic breakdown" over a feel-good Easter story about a woman's past of "victimization..followed by recovery." Multiple details – including the woman's name, marriage, children and various dramatic incidents – were challenged after publication.

To Maples, the broad lesson is that "we have to keep talking about the balance between immediacy and standards... We can't slow down, but it should not be 'publish at all costs.' "

Reporters want the help. "If we have to wait six more minutes," says 24-year veteran reporter Tim O'Neil, "let's get it out correctly. The number of times I might grouse about being edited is outweighed by the times people have saved my tail."

Mandy St. Amand, the continuous news editor, once worked at the Associated Press and still believes, "Get it first, but first get it right."

But she recognizes, too, that changing times will test that venerable credo.

"I think there is a trade-off," she concludes. "The editing overall in terms of polishing has waned, but the sense of urgency and excitement has increased. I guess whether that's a fair trade-off will be decided by the readers."

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@jmail.umd.edu), AJR's senior contributing editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

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