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Quality at risk as copy desks downsize

By eijnews

By Pashtana Usufzy
The Working Press

In hectic newsrooms across the country, copy editors continue to be the last line of defense before grammatical, stylistic and factual errors end up in the public’s eye.
The troops, however, are shrinking.
Reporters are being asked to edit their own stories in addition to other duties, said Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society and an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago.
“Some companies have consolidated their editors into editing hubs; others have completely eliminated their copy desks,” Schmedding said in an email, describing situations like that of the Denver Post, which did the latter.
Budget shortfalls that have decimated managerial roles and reporting positions are also clearing out some copy desks, according to newsroom leaders around the country.
“Copy desk cuts have hit other areas of the newsroom,” Schmedding said. “Quality is suffering at that basic reporter-editor level because of the copy editing duties those employees have absorbed.”
Atlanta-based Cox Media Group is consolidating copy desks affecting four Cox newspapers: Dayton Daily News, the Palm Beach Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman. The new combined desks are working out of Dayton, Ohio, and West Palm Beach, Fla.

Rachel Stella works on the copy desk in The Working Press newsroom. Many copy editors are losing their jobs due to cuts in newsroom budgets.
Yasmeen Smalley/The Working Press

John Bridges, managing editor of the Austin American-Statesman, argues that consolidating copy editing functions have not affected quality at his newspaper chain.
“It’s not very different from what’s going on now,” Bridges said. “It’s just whether you have to go across the aisle or get on the phone.”
Though its copy desk is dismantled, the American-Statesman created a bridge desk to act as a liaison between the remote sites and the paper’s Austin newsroom. The smaller desk is made up of former copy editors who give stories an additional read, especially those going on the section fronts.
Schmedding said the trend of consolidating copy desks for publications in different locations can damage local appeal.
“What works in a headline in Chicago does not work in a headline in Wichita,” Schmedding said. “Having copy editors in North Carolina making those decisions can make the paper feel less like a part of its community.”
Copy editors who don’t know the city or its culture are bound to miss things while working stories, warns Merrill Perlman, an editing consultant and former director of The New York Times copy desk.
“You’re essentially putting a student driver on a superhighway,” she said.
Copy editors should be as connected to the publication city as possible.
“Editing has value,” Perlman said. “It has value that hits the bottom line.”

Copy editing Cuts
The Contra Costa Times laid off five copy editors and relocated six in the spring.
The Denver Post is working to eliminate all copy editors, moving away from multiple edits of content to a system in which content is published after reporters send it to their editors.
The Salt Lake Tribune laid off five copy editors in early May.
The Chicago Tribune has taken on the duty of proofreading the Hartford Courant, a Connecticut publication.
The State Journal-Register in Illinois announced this year that it would eliminate its copy desk. GateHouse Media, the parent company, worked to form a centralized, outside copy editing desk.

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