The challenges, benefits of consolidated editing & design centers

(This case study, the second in an occasional series, was underwritten by a grant from the Stibo Foundation.)

In a sprawling, windowless office in Hickory, N.C., more than a dozen small-town and metro newspapers come together each night.

Seated in front of rows of computers, about 45 journalists edit copy and lay out pages for World Media Enterprises, a conglomerate that owns newspapers throughout the southeast. At one desk, a recent college graduate edits the crime blotter for the next day’s Dothan (Al.) Eagle. Nearby, his colleagues lay out the comics page for the Hickory Daily Record, proofread the “bridge” column for the Jackson County Floridan, and arrange front page photographs for the McDowell (N.C.) News.

These editing and design tasks used to be done locally in each paper’s newsroom. But World Media Enterprises is among several newspaper chains that now consolidate the work at centralized centers. Gannett, Tribune, and McClatchy are among the other companies that have embraced the trend. GateHouse Media with 78 dailies announced in August it will create a news and design center in Austin. World Media’s Consolidated Editing Center (CEC) produces more than 1,000 pages a week for 10 daily papers and 15 that publish one to three days a week.

While consolidated editing and design centers allow media companies to reduce staff and save money, skeptics worry that they weaken newspapers’ bond to their communities. And the transition can be difficult for publishers, local editors and the consolidated centers’ own staff.

“We’re in a new era,” said Mark Stein, a veteran newspaperman who tended the copy desk at World Media’s Concord (N.C.) Independent Tribune until his job was moved 60 miles to Hickory in 2010. Since he joined the CEC, Stein has edited copy and designed pages for the Independent Tribune, as well as World Media publications in Winston-Salem, Statesville, Morganton, and other North Carolina cities.

“It’s exciting up here, because you get to do different products,” Stein told me in person. “But it’s also scary because you’re not really familiar with the area and the products you’re working on. .. I’ve never set foot in Morganton, and I’ve only been through Statesville on the Interstate.”

The Hickory CEC originally was opened by Media General, a Richmond, Va., company that owned more than 60 papers. When Media General exited the newspaper business in 2012 and sold those properties to World Media Enterprises, the new owner maintained the Hickory operation.

“The industry is really moving toward these consolidated editing centers to save money,” said Mike Fuhrman, who helped start the Hickory CEC and served as its managing editor until 2012. “You can’t discount the cost savings.”

The background

The company: World Media Enterprises is a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., which has significant investments in the newspaper industry. It has owned the Buffalo (N.Y.) News since 1977 and holds about a 20 percent stake in The Washington Post. In 2011, Berkshire Hathaway purchased the Omaha World-Herald and six other papers in Nebraska and Iowa.

The 2012 acquisition of 63 Media General papers greatly expanded Berkshire Hathaway’s media holdings. The acquired papers include two metropolitan dailies — the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch and the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal — and a variety of smaller publications in Virginia, the Carolinas, Alabama and Florida. (Media General’s largest paper, the Tampa Tribune, was sold separately to a private equity firm.) With the acquisition, Berkshire Hathaway formed World Media Enterprises as a new division to manage its newspaper properties in the southeast.

History of the CEC: Media General first began exploring the idea of combining its editing and design functions in 2008. Management felt the consolidation was an economic necessity for a company experiencing severe financial pressure. At the time, Media General was saddled with more than $700 million in debt and had seen a 20 percent drop in newspaper advertising revenue. It was in the process of making deep cuts in its workforce. Between 2008 and 2010, it laid off more than 300 employees at its various newspapers.

Copy editing and page layout posed a significant burden to the local newspapers’ shrinking staffs, especially the smaller publications that dominated the Media General chain. While most still employed a few people who primarily worked as copy editors, page design work often was divided among other newsroom personnel, such as the city editor, the sports editor and some of the writers.

“At small papers, the layout consumes an inordinate amount of time,” Hickory Daily Record publisher Eric Millsaps said by phone. “Our sports guys made decisions about what to cover and what to write depending upon which nights they had to do layout.”

Media General initially planned just one consolidated editing and design center in Lynchburg, Va., but Millsaps persuaded his bosses to open two — in Lynchburg and Hickory. While the city of 40,000 people in the North Carolina foothills was neither the largest nor the most centrally located in the Media General chain, Hickory offered some advantages. The cost of living is relatively low, making it easier to attract employees at modest salaries. The Daily Record had space in its building to house the CEC, and Hickory already hosted consolidated creative services and human resources departments for several of Media General’s North Carolina properties.

Media General’s three metro dailies — in Tampa, Richmond, and Winston-Salem — weren’t included in the Hickory and Lynchburg consolidations, but they began sharing editing and design functions among their three newsrooms in 2010. For instance, some of the Richmond pages were designed in Tampa, while Winston-Salem’s copy editing was divided between Richmond and Tampa.

When the consolidation was complete in early 2011, the Hickory center employed 35 people. Fuhrman estimated they were doing the work that 45 to 50 used to do locally. Virtually every paper in the Media General chain lost local positions as part of the transition. Employees whose jobs were eliminated were given the choice of transferring to Hickory or leaving the company and receiving severance packages.

After the 2012 World Media acquisition, the Hickory center was given responsibility for the Winston-Salem Journal. The Richmond Times-Dispatch returned to doing its editing and design in-house, while the Lynchburg center, which had been responsible for the rest of the company’s Virginia publications, was broken up into three regional centers in Lynchburg, Bristol, and Charlottesville.

The Hickory center added 10 people to its staff to handle the Journal’s workload. About twice as many people had performed those jobs at the Journal previously.

“We lost several positions when we started doing the Winston-Salem Journal here,” said Jon LaFontaine, who helped manage the Journal’s transition to Hickory, then took over from Fuhrman as the Hickory CEC’s Managing Editor in 2012. “On average, the folks working on the Winston Salem Journal do anywhere from six to 12 pages depending upon the night and the size of the section.”

The operation: In the name of efficiency, the Hickory center uses a heavily standardized process. All of the World Media papers in the region adopted a universal design that employs similar typefaces, headline styles and page layouts. The publications also use standardized software that allows them to send stories more easily to Hickory to be proofread and assembled into broadsheet pages.

Employees at the center, who are assigned in teams to specific newspapers or groups of papers, typically follow a similar routine each afternoon when they arrive for work. Each is expected to edit copy, and almost all are responsible for designing pages.

“We try to guard against the idea that this is an assembly line,” Fuhrman said in an in-person interview. “But the reality is that you come to work and instead of making eight widgets a day, you make eight news and features pages.”

Every evening, the design teams in Hickory speak by phone with local editors to discuss ideas for page layouts. Each paper’s local editors typically dictate where stories are to appear in the next day’s paper and specify a detailed design for the front page. They also provide headlines, photo captions, and other elements that the Hickory staff assembles into finished pages.

Meanwhile, the Hickory employees read all of the day’s copy for each newspaper – including locally generated stories, syndicated content, and wire reports. They make any necessary corrections and send PDF images of the page proofs back to the local newsroom for approval.

“We’re reading for spelling, grammar and style, but we’re not doing heavy editing,” Fuhrman said. The local papers are responsible for doing more thorough line edits of stories — fact-checking them and making sure they’re structurally solid — before sending them to Hickory.

The local newsrooms also are fully responsible for their own websites. The CEC concerns itself only with print material, not digital content.

LaFontaine said the average salary in the Hickory center is less than $30,000 per year. Many of the employees are working their first or second jobs in journalism, though some — like Mark Stein — are company veterans who served as local copy editors before following their jobs to Hickory.

Fuhrman said the center’s workforce has a moderate turnover rate; several of the people who’ve left jobs at the CEC moved on to positions as writers or editors at the company’s local papers.

Still, he’s upfront in saying that the job doesn’t appeal to everybody.

“It’s not investigative reporting, it’s not covering the World Series,” he said.“There are definitely days when it’s a grind.”

Results and changes

Fuhrman said the CEC achieved its primary goal of cutting costs, and the success of the model was underscored when World Media chose to maintain most of Media General’s consolidated infrastructure after purchasing the company. While World Media won’t release specific financial figures about the editing and design centers, Media General in 2010 estimated the savings at more than $1,000,000 a year.

It’s more difficult, however, to determine how the consolidation affects the quality of the newspapers. Fuhrman’s impression is that few readers noticed the change, and some executives at the company’s smaller publications credit the consolidation for reducing their workload.

For example, while the Statesville (N.C.) Record & Landmark lost four positions as part of the transition to centralized editing, publisher Tim Dearman said the remaining editors and writers no longer are expected to help with copy and design tasks.

“In small newspapers, not having to worry about the day to day production of the paper allows you to focus more on local content,” he said, citing the example of his sports staff, which consisted of three people before the consolidation.

“If you had one person on vacation or one person sick, then the only thing your sports staff did that day was lay out the pages,” Dearman said.

Now, the Record & Landmark has only two people in the sports department, but Dearman said they can focus entirely on content, because the page design work is handled at the CEC.

“For us it’s worked pretty well,” he said. “I think it would be difficult for us to go back.”

On the other hand, Fuhrman concedes that many newsrooms didn’t embrace the change, and many felt “they were giving something up.”

Among them was Ken Otterbourg, the former managing editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, the second largest of the Media General papers acquired by World Media. Otterbourg resigned in 2010 in part because of his concerns about the consolidation.

“This was something that I didn’t want to be a part of because I didn’t think it was good for our paper,” Otterbourg, a 21-year Journal employee, said by phone. “There’s nothing more to it than saving money.”

Otterbourg said moving the Journal’s copy editing and design positions — initially to Richmond and Tampa, then later to Hickory — deprived the paper of “local knowledge” and delegated important tasks to people with little understanding of the community.

“The people laying out the Winston-Salem Journal in Hickory don’t read the Winston-Salem Journal.” Otterbourg said. “They just read their pages.”

Otterbourg said the consolidation also diluted the authority of local editors, who no longer supervise the copy editors and designers and have no direct way to train them, mentor them, or hold them accountable for work that doesn’t meet the publication’s standards.

Indeed, the management structure of the CEC — in which center employees report to a supervisor in Hickory rather than to a local publisher or managing editor — results in occasional tension. Joseph Huntley, the CEC senior team leader, said some local editors hesitate to delegate responsibility to the Hickory staff.

For instance, he said one of his newspapers is “very fond of their own headlines” and isn’t happy when he lengthens or shortens headlines to fit the page design.

Meanwhile, he said other local editors, especially at smaller papers, want him to do more extensive editorial work than he has time for.

“They just crank out their copy as fast as they can, and they send it to us and expect us to edit it,” Huntley told me. “We sometimes run into problems with publishers and editors trying to figure out what our job is, as opposed to what their job is.”

Still, LaFontaine resists the suggestion that his Hickory employees can’t do a credible job of editing a publication based elsewhere. “We have a team dedicated to just working on the Winston-Salem Journal,” he said. “They probably know more about the Winston-Salem area than they do about Hickory, even though they live in Hickory.”

Recommendations

Fuhrman, who supervised the Hickory center for three years and hired most of its staff, said managing relationships with local papers was among the most challenging parts of his job. He said he learned several important lessons:

Buy-in from local publishers and editors is essential: While Fuhrman knew he would face initial resistance to the consolidation from local editors, he had little patience for those who weren’t willing to give the new model a chance.

“Everybody needs to get on the bus,” Fuhrman said. “If you don’t have a publisher, editor, and other department heads who support the process from the first day, it makes it very difficult to produce the paper they want.”

Fuhrman said he spent a good bit of time in the CEC’s formative months talking with local editors and publishers, trying to address their concerns and explaining how the consolidation could improve their publications. And when LaFontaine took over as CEC managing editor, he visited each newsroom to try to build trust.

“I told them that we’re partners in putting the paper out,” LaFontaine said.”We really strive to make sure we’re putting in quality work.”

Establish ground rules for the relationship with local editors: The Hickory center edits publications that range from the Winston-Salem Journal, with a weekday circulation of 67,000, to the Lake City (S.C.) News & Post, with a circulation of less than 5,000. Not surprisingly, the papers have a variety of standards and expectations, and their former in-house copy editing and design staffs often varied in their responsibilities.

Fuhrman tried to provide clear guidelines to local editors, so they knew what to anticipate from the center. Under the World Media model, the CEC staff doesn’t trump the judgment and decisions of local managers, but there also are limits on what those managers can expect the CEC to do.

For instance, while the CEC journalists are supposed to catch obvious misspellings, it’s not their job to research the names of individuals, streets or companies to confirm obscure spellings. Nor are they expected or encouraged to do major re-writes of stories, regardless of how poorly they may feel the stories read.

“We expect our newsrooms to give us clean copy that could run as-is,” Fuhrman said. “(The paper) has an editor, the editor has read the stories, signed off on them, and is saying they’re good enough for his paper.”

Hire carefully and keep the work as interesting as possible:  While many CEC jobs are entry-level, Fuhrman said they’re not a good fit for every journalist. Though he didn’t mind hiring people who saw Hickory as a potential stepping-stone to newsroom positions elsewhere in the company, he screened out applicants who seemed ill at ease with the repetitive nature of the work.

“I don’t sugarcoat things,” he said. “I can’t afford for someone to get here and be here for three weeks and say ‘this isn’t for me.’”

Meanwhile, for people already on the job, Fuhrman tried to rotate their assignments.

“We try to mix the pages up a little bit, not give people the exact same work to do every single day,” he said.

Create a team atmosphere between the CEC and local papers: As virtually all communication between the CEC and local newspapers happens over the phone or via email, it’s easy for the papers to think of their copy editors and designers as part of an outsourced entity, rather than part of the same company. That can lead to a lack of communication and strain the relationship between the CEC and local editors.

“You can’t be hands-off just because the hands are in a different place,” Fuhrman said, adding that most of the Hickory staff does better work when they receive productive feedback from local editors. “The newsrooms that are fully engaged with their team here don’t have any complaints.”

Dearman, the Statesville publisher, said his editor stays in almost daily contact with the CEC, not only discussing the next day’s paper, but also talking about things that could have been improved in the previous day’s edition. He said his local staff isn’t always pleased with everything the CEC does, but as a supporter of the consolidation, he urges them to keep the situation in perspective.

“When we did all the copy editing here, we made mistakes, too,” Dearman said. “You have to have realistic expectations.”

The future

So long as newspaper ad revenues continue to shrink and new online ventures demand investment, the pressure to cut costs on the print side will continue. Consolidating content production is another strategy chains are using.

Gannett prepares major league sports reports and summaries of national and international news from USA Today that move as drop-in page packages to many of its 80 community newspapers. Digital First has assembled a network of national news providers for the MediaNews and Journal Register papers it manages, hinting it may sometime drop the expensive Associated Press service.

So except at large papers or independents, the days of turnkey operations where the staff picked stories to run in all categories of news and did layout in-house are rapidly disappearing. That’s a luxury, or inefficiency depending on your viewpoint, most print newspapers can no longer afford.

Correction: This piece originally misspelled Joseph Huntley’s name and incorrectly stated the number of pages World Media’s Consolidated Editing Center (CEC) produces each week.

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  • Robert Knilands

    Well, at least this one has some honesty to it in terms of talking about cost savings. The piece about the Phoenix center was simply a “Rah-rah, design!” cheer masquerading as an article.
    That said, there are some levels of delusion here. For example, the editor who bristles when headlines are lengthened or shortened is blissfully ignorant of the process required. Those silly demands only add stress to a stressful process.
    Finally, the concepts of editing and layout (I’m sure the visualniks at Poynter and elsewhere bristle at this term) are made much harder than necessary by pseudoeditors who are too managerially limited to allow people to specialize. Simply blending those tasks every day for every visualwordstuff staffer is about the worst possible way to do things.
    Maybe that could be the slogan of today’s “editing”/design/visualwordstuff center: “We do things in the most inefficient way possible!”