Forward into the glorious future!
by Jonathan Kaufman
From the latest New York Times report outlining “the newsroom’s strategy and aspirations.” As with any report, there is always the danger that someone might read it.
We devote a large amount of resources to stories that relatively few people read. Except in some mission-driven areas or in areas where evidence suggests that the articles have disproportionate value to subscribers, there is little justification for this. It wastes time — of reporters, backfielders, copy editors, photo editors and others — and dilutes our report.
The 2020 group believes strongly in the value of copy-editing. There is a high price for easily identifiable errors, such as spelling and grammar mistakes. An increase in such errors would send the wrong message to readers — that our product is sloppy and lacks high value. When we publish sloppy stories, readers complain to us in significant numbers. At the same time, The Times spends too much time on low-value line-editing, such as the moving, unmoving and removing of paragraphs, and too little on conceptual editing and story sharpening, including on questions like what form a story should take. A shift toward front-end editing will need to involve changes in multiple parts of the newsroom, including the copy desk, the backfield and the masthead.
The Times currently devotes too many resources to low-value editing — and, by extension, too many to editing overall. Our journalism and our readers would be better served if we instead placed an even higher priority on newsgathering in all of its forms.
Reporters said they wanted more helpful interaction with their editors at the outset; less editing in the middle; and more attention to presentation and promotion. There was much frustration about stories being held because of print considerations. And several editors and reporters said they would like to see a copy editing process that was more responsive to the complexity of the story and the urgency of the news.
“Hire editors and reporters who don’t need to have their hands held. Honestly, how can we still afford to have five editors arguing for hours over a routine day story? The print mentality still rules the newsroom, from the top down. But it is important to maintain the commitment to copy editing, as it is essential to the quality of the journalism and the reputation of the news site.”
“There is too much editing on the copy desks, where editors are adhering to a style that is increasingly becoming far too rigid for the Times.”
“Too often, on breaking, competitive stories, the time from the reporter filing, to the slot publishing, is far too long. I get the impression that the backfield and copy desk are overloaded and have trouble prioritizing.”
“Most of the time, you time and edit stories to print requirements, no matter what the official doctrine says. I’ve had things hold for weeks while waiting for a print slot.”
There was quite a bit of ambivalence about changing the tone or sensibility of writing. Some were eager to try new voice and forms but weren’t quite sure how. Others said they were stymied by the backfield or copy desk when they tried. Others still felt we should be very cautious about making any such changes.
“We frequently hear from the top editors at the paper that they want more voice and less institutional-ese in our stories. But typically when you try to make the prose more playful or engaging in a news story, or just generally inject a bit more personality, the copy desk is quick to ferret it out, and it can be exhausting to push back on every single word or phrase. If we’re going to loosen our style up a bit, the copy desk is going to be the key swing demographic.”