Describing a Rectangle

When I’m driving somewhere with My Beloved, when (not if) she corrects my navigation, I recall the junior high geometry class phrase “describing the sides of a rectangle.” The distance and time are roughly the same: My over then down, or her under then up, and there you are, thptpth.

Content Retangle
A plus B equals C plus D. ... Unless ...

This is the feeling I had when rereading “Denver Post, Bay Area News Group Revamp Story Editing with Fewer Copy Editors” by Steve Myers from Poynter’s Latest News blog, including the thptpth raspberry.

Yet, the first time I went through the May 23, 2012, piece I grew as angry as those critical of this, such as John E. McIntyre’s Baltimore Sun column, “The Empty Copy Desk.” They’re upset that Editor Greg Moore in Denver and Editor Dave Butler of Bay Area News Group are gutting their publications’ copy desks, continuing a trend seen elsewhere in the nation. They’re either keeping some copy editors but decentralizing them or losing all of them, giving that task to colleagues, where reporters edit one-another’s work as time permits.

Me, too, until the vague familiarity crystallized.

First, why more — or fewer — editors: Periodical writers do their thing and their supervisors edit those pieces. But for a good century-and-a-half, that didn’t take care of correcting the texts as perfectly as humanly possible. More eyes are needed. The copy desk comprises two-to-four more editings where flaws in form and content are discovered and fixed. Also, you see copy editors in ad agencies, magazines and book publishers. Online-only publications have copy editors. Big nonprofits and corporations employ copy editors in their public relations division. In the latter groups, these professionals may be free-lancers or the copy-editing may be part of another job title.

But if you’re a 21st-century newspaper manager and have to choose between laying off a content generator (a reporter) and a content inspector, then you might take your chances and reduce the secondary, to retain the primary. You tell the reporters’ supervisors to be extra careful and. yes. read each other’s work. Another option seen in newspaper chains is to have a central copy desk in a hub with sister publications sending their stories in.

Inevitably, typos and factual errors increase. And, yes, errors did sneak past all the layers of editors in traditional systems. And they did in your grandparents’ day, too, don’t let anyone tell you differently — check the microfilm or microfiche archive at any library.

Greg Moore is reducing his 23-member copy desk to nine. “The Denver Post is … moving away from an assembly-line editing process.” Not all are layoffs, as buy-outs are offered and some are transferring within the Post. Those nine, he said, “will become ‘assistant editors’ assigned to desks (business, features, Metro, sports) throughout the newsroom. Each of those desks will operate as ‘self-contained publishing units.'”

The Bay Area group, according to the Poynter article, is keeping the singular copy desk but “reducing the amount of copy editing for routine stories and moving deadlines up so stories are published earlier in the day.”

The goal for both, the article says, is that even though more mistakes will be missed, is “publishing stories during the day when people are online” rather than posting to the web overnight while paper editions are printed and distributed.

Right two blocks, left one block; left two blocks then right one block

On the second reading, “during the day” hit me. I had written something parallel as a memo to someone who since has left the company.

That person did confirm he received it and would study it. Now it’s probably buried in the former executive’s shuttered email queue.

I am claiming it back.

This person had written the staff in late January asking for ideas big and small to save money in the newsroom. (The resignation came in late April.)

Here is the memo. I have elided anything that might be too revealing, for the sake of this person’s privacy and for me to not risk all of my remaining job security.

Problem:

Saving money in the newsroom.

Restated:

Transition to a modern, more efficient newsroom.

Our newspaper has essentially a daily cycle. While each [of its two zones] has two print editions, they run about an hour apart, around midnight. [Our two websites], outside of a few “breaking news” posts, key from the print editions out at midnight and post before dawn.

While some U.S. newspapers had an all-day strategy — morning-evening or multiple cycles such as bulldog-early afternoon-final — all of them presumed that readers ingested each paper once a day. (In the ’60s, my family would take the Arkansas Gazette in the morning and also the Fort Smith Times Record, which arrived about when I came home from school.)

It’s not just the Internet that has changed most-everything in most ways, but that the audience for journalism has discovered the enjoyment and convenience of checking the news several times a day.

Multiple times daily, contemporary news junkies (our most desirable readers) check news sites directly but more often click on links to news in social media, links posted by news junkies who checked online publications moments earlier. The readers are using smartphones, e-tablets and even their work computers.

[Because of our minimal midday postings but mainly because our publication has a firm paywall charging for online access, w]e are letting TV and radio stations get away with providing most of these links on Facebook and Twitter. (Online publications and newspapers both are essentially text media.)

Advertising.

I understand that the success of ads comes from multiple views: The more times I see the shoe store ad the more likely I’ll check it out. However, print and online ads seem to be set up with the presumption they’re viewed once a day. But what if we got our key readers to check our website(s) multiple times a day? More views (not necessarily more “unique visitors”) should equal more results.

Tangent.

They’re all newspapers. Calling nytimes.com an online newspaper makes no more and no less sense than calling time.com an online magazine. Both update several times a day. Both continue to have weekly features — sections, columnists etc. The Internet community has no common, catchy name for these: The awkward but correct “Online Publication” and “News Aggregator” serve until a catchphrase takes. My take: They’re all newspapers. The function that washingtonpost.com, newsweek.com and thedailybeast.com all fulfill is most similar to the print-on-paper daily. Jets are still called planes, and plane parts use railroad terminology, which in turn came from ship jargon.

Solution:

Rather than the current dominant print cycle with a mirror online cycle, the news staff ought to think of itself as the modern-day version of an all-day metro paper, with multiple editions. In 2012, that means the earlier editions are online and the latter are print. Online and print editions would have a nearly equal footing. Print of course would continue to define the “final” edition.

The papers still would run continuing features on schedules. Reporters and photographers, though, would file on the earliest practical deadline. Articles would be edited by the writers’ supervisors and an all-day news copy desk, then posted on the next website cycle. Reporters could submit updates or a final version later in their shifts.

The online editions’ pay wall would not be of concern. The local midday news links on my Facebook account are from TV stations, and their pieces are no longer than the synopses that our websites provide before asking for the subscriber log-in.

This means all routine stories, not just strong spot news, are posted during the day. The reason is the “long tail” theory: With readers/subscribers in six digits, hundreds or thousands will be interested in even minor pieces.

Facebook and Twitter, iPhone and Android, may well be superseded in a few years by other formats, technologies or companies. The all-day multiple web/print editions can accommodate that evolution.

Saving Money in the Newsroom:

To answer the question you posed, [name], inefficiencies will surface shortly after implementing this strategy.

This is a concept, not so much a concrete change, but a way of viewing output. We state (to ourselves) that online editions lie on a continuum with print. The production of news content continues as in future years the demand for print distribution decreases and forms of electronic transmission increase.

Staff can be reallocated, retrained as needed, as the shift occurs. The need for proprietary, semi-customized software [word processing and desktop publishing] — and paying to update it — will decrease.

Oh, it’s what came to me.

[End of memo]

Deja news

Sure my memo could be bass-ackwards as we used to say in Fort Smith, but now it’s posted in Brick so it won’t be totally a waste.

The similarity of old all-day metros and online access has a rectangle aspect, this way that way that way this way. Major media movie reviews are printed on Fridays but posted on Thursday — bulldog! The fun parts of the Sunday New York Times are available on Saturday — bulldog! It’s already started and accepted.

Lots of people are giving all this serious thought with fresh analysis. Here’s one from last week from Sean Blanda, a Philadelphia media techie: “We Need to Reinvent the Article; This Post is Outdated.”

Copyright 2012 Ben S. Pollock

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