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To the New York Times: it’s a bad idea to screw around with The Copy Desk

Photo: The New York Times (1960)

The New York Times is trying to decrease the number of editors at the paper, including cutting the copy editing desk by about half. With the world awash in fake and dubious news, this is no time to cut back on the last line of defense on quality and factual accuracy. But more to the point: in a war of words with a copy editor, you’re going to lose.

The copy editors’ pointed lament

“The Copy Desk” sent a letter to New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn (ironically, at a newspaper, everyone in management is an “editor”). It’s 1,100 words, and it’s nasty. Here’s the whole thing. I’ve highlighted some of the parts I found most compelling.

An Open Letter to Dean and Joe

Dear Dean and Joe,

We have begun the humiliating process of justifying our continued presence at The New York Times. We take some solace in the fact that we have been assured repeatedly that copy editors are highly respected here.

If that is true, we have a simple request. Cutting us down to 50 to 55 editors from more than 100, and expecting the same level of quality in the report, is dumbfoundingly unrealistic. Work with us on a new number.

After we were compared to dogs urinating on fire hydrants when we edited stories, in an internal report that called for the elimination of “low-value editing” and made it all but clear which stages of editing this referred to — so much so that it became a running joke among the copy desks for months (“How’s the low-value editing going in your section today?”) — along with the report’s implication that copy editing was merely finding “easily identifiable errors, such as spelling and grammar mistakes”;

After some of us were recruited for “editing tests” to streamline the process, or, as it turned out, figure out how to make our own jobs obsolete;

After enduring a newsroom-wide copy-editing overhaul last year that consolidated the desks, transformed the scope of our duties and confused a whole lot of reporters and section editors (but ultimately made us think we would at least keep our jobs);

After learning that this new setup would be undone just months after it was put in place, with the whiplash announcement that our jobs would simply be eliminated;

After we were told that to remain employed, we would have to apply for new “strong editor” positions meant to be a hybrid of the two types of editors at The Times, backfielders and copy editors, and realized only copy editors had to be reevaluated categorically;

After we were told that this “restructuring” would also reduce our numbers by more than half;

After completing a first round of interviews, some held by interviewers who clearly had not even read our résumés and cover letters, and competing against the very colleagues we are leaning on in these times;

After we heard that The Times would soon go on a hiring spree, just as it gets ready to shed jobs, and thought to ourselves that it is particularly ruthless to talk about all the others you intend to court as you break up with someone;

After all of this and more — we are finding it difficult to feel respected.

In fact, we feel more respected by our readers than we do by you. We are living in a strange time when routine copy-editing duties such as fact checking, reviewing sources, correcting misleading or inaccurate information, clarifying language and, yes, fixing spelling and grammar mistakes in news covfefe are suddenly matters of public discourse. As those in power declare war against the news media, as deliberately false or lackadaisical reportage finds its way into social media feeds, readers are flocking to our defense. They are sending us pizza. And they are signing up for Times subscriptions in record numbers because they understand that we go to great lengths to ensure quality and, most important, truth.

This should be a triumphant moment for all Times employees. Everyone from the ground floor up should be thrilled and proud to come to work, and walk into the building feeling valuable and needed.

And that is why it feels like such a profound waste that morale is low throughout the newsroom, and that many of us, from editors to reporters to photo editors to support staff, are angry, embittered and scared of losing our jobs.

You may have heard that the elimination of the copy desk is widely seen as a disaster in the making (including by many managers directly involved in the process), that the editing experiments were an open failure, and that there is dissension even in the highest ranks and across job titles regarding the new editing structure.

But you have decided to press forward anyway, and this decision betrays a stunning lack of knowledge of what we do at The Times. Come see what we do. See the process, what comes in and what actually goes online or to print. See what we do before you decide you can live without it.

We copy editors understand that our roles will have to change, that we must find ways to edit more efficiently, and that The Times must evolve into a nimbler, more visual, more digitally focused news outlet. We will learn and we will adapt. In fact, through many workflow changes, through the adoption of new technologies and platforms, we have already proved we can. We only ask that you not treat us like a diseased population that must be rounded up en masse, inspected and expelled.

After all, we are, as one senior reporter put it, the immune system of this newspaper, the group that protects the institution from profoundly embarrassing errors, not to mention potentially actionable ones.

We are one of the crucial layers of review that you seem so determined to erase, as the sudden removal of the public editor role shows. We are stewards of The Times, committed to preserving its voice and authority.

You often speak about the importance of engaging readers, of valuing, investing in and giving a voice to readers.

Dean and Joe: We are your readers, and you have turned your backs on us.

We abhor your decision to wipe out the copy desk. But as we continue this difficult transition, we ask that you sharply increase the available positions for the 109 copy editors, as well as an unknown number of other staff members, who have effectively lost their jobs as a result of your actions.

We worry that if we do not speak out, you will feel emboldened to make similarly sweeping staff reductions elsewhere in the company without debate. We worry that the errors and serious breaches of Times standards that copy editors catch each day will go unnoticed — until we are embarrassed into making corrections. We worry, in short, that the newsroom has forgotten why these layers of editing were created in the first place. But we still believe in The Times.

We ask that you believe in us.


The Copy Desk

Yes, the first half of this — all the “After”s, written in the style of a colonial broadside — is written in the passive voice. Whenever you read passive voice you should ask “why did they write it that way?” In this case, the reason is, because writing these items in the active voice would amount to an even more aggressive set of accusations. Here’s a sample of how it would read:

Your internal report compared us to dogs urinating on fire hydrants and referred to what we do as “low-value editing.” You recruited us for “editing tests” to help you figure out to make our jobs obsolete. In a push to combine editing jobs, you reevaluated copy editors categorically, but not other editors. And your interviewers evaluating our jobs had clearly not even read our résumés and cover letters.

That tips over into war. The copy editors have used passive voice used to remain barely civil when they are furious, and given their skills, I don’t believe that was an unconscious decision.

This is long on emotion and narrative, because The Copy Desk doesn’t have statistics to fall back on. But it drives home its point with vivid terms like “dumbfoundingly unrealistic,” “dogs urinating on fire hydrants,” “hiring spree,” “spelling and grammar mistakes in news covfefe” (!), and “a diseased population that must be rounded up en masse, inspected and expelled.”

The Times management fires back

There’s a lot less poetry in the Times’ response, but it makes some good points:

Dear Grant,

Your letter reflects the passion for The Times and the journalism we produce that has distinguished us for decades. Many people who care deeply about the newsroom and its editing traditions have made their concerns clear in the course of this restructuring, and we take those concerns seriously.

We are in fact eliminating a free standing copy desk. We are not, as we have said repeatedly, eliminating copy editing. A majority of people currently employed by the copy desk will find new editing jobs. All of our desks will continue to ensure a high level of editing, spanning backfielding, copy editing, photo editing and digital and print production, for all the journalism we produce.

The Times has far more editors relative to reporters or to the number of stories we publish than any of our traditional print peers or our newer digital rivals. After this restructuring, we will continue to invest far more in editing than any of our competitors do. That is because we value meticulous editing.

At the same time, we feel a compelling need to reduce separate layers of editing, to have reporters and front-line editors play a bigger role in all aspects of story production and promotion, to create a more natively visual news report, and to speed up production. We have also made clear that in a environment of limited resources, we intend to invest more in recruiting top talent to keep us ahead on the biggest stories of our time and the best ways to tell those stories to a growing readership.

There will be reductions among editors and some other departures from around the newsroom in coming weeks and months. That is a difficult process for us all. We do intend to monitor this transition closely and ensure that we not only maintain but in many areas improve the editing that is critical to The Times’ reputation for excellence.

Dean and Joe

This sounded fair until the last paragraph, which devolves into mealy management-speak (“This is a difficult process for all of us.”)

Change is hard

The rest of the traditional media business is imploding. The New York Times is coping well, but must make changes to succeed. The key to a change like this is consistency and internal communication. It’s clear from these letters that the Times botched that part.

Don’t fuck with a copy editor. They’re usually quiet, polite, and well-behaved. But before you’ve even raised your broadsword, they’ve poked you in 12 places with their stiletto. You’re not going to win that battle.

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  1. I love copy editors and had my bacon saved by them repeatedly. I would, though, note that the fact this letter runs 1.097 words and clearly got multiple splashes on the hydrant at multiple stages may unwittingly confirm exactly the point Baquet and Kahn are making about the need to shift personnel into more effective, higher-impact editing-editing that includes ensuring brevity and focus. As always, I remain a major fan of WB and tell all my friends to read you!

    1. Like this, Mr. Howe?

      “I love copy editors; they repeatedly [consider ‘frequently’] save my bacon. I will note that this letter runs 1,097 words and may unwittingly confirm the point Baquet and Kahn made about the need for more effective, high-impact editing – editing that includes brevity and focus. I remain a loyal fan of WOBS and encourage all my friends to read your blog!” ~jr.ed.

      I think the point is less about brevity and more about the value CEs offer in a fast-paced and litigiously vulnerable industry. Over the past few years they have been tossed about the newsroom like paper airplanes while management tried any number of ideas to streamline. They were justified in their anger and I enjoyed the letter. One small point – the letter was just that; it was not a news article for the paper, so I’m not sure why brevity would be required?

      Josh, I was just about to ask your opinion yesterday about this flurry at the Times and – voilá! It’s like you’re reading my mind.