New York Times editing cuts mean doing more with less. Will credibility suffer?

The internet went nuts Wednesday when President Trump tweeted an unfinished, unpunctuated thought with a mysteriously misspelled word — “Despite the constant negative press covfefe” — leaving the world bewildered over his meaning.

Trump’s Twitter feed and official White House statements are notorious for such typos — misspelling “attaker,” asking "How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones,” promoting “lasting peach” in the Middle East — glaring errors that raise broader questions about the reliability of his message and underscore the importance of an extra set of eyes on anyone’s prose.

The president has hit back at challenges to his inaccuracies large and small, lashing out at critical press coverage, declaring war on the media and accusing the “failing New York Times” and other major news outlets of “fake news.”

So when the Times announced in an internal memo Wednesday that it was offering buyouts “to streamline our multi-layered editing and production system and reduce the number of editors,” the elimination of extra sets of eyes at the nation’s leading newspaper couldn’t come at a more sensitive moment — when the credibility of the Fourth Estate is being challenged by the president and his loyalists.

Public trust is the most valuable asset news organizations have; it’s the reason readers, listeners and viewers subscribe and tune in, and it’s the reason advertisers, underwriters and donors help pay for the production of news. Historically, the key custodians of that trust have been line editors and copy editors, journalists who do the painstaking work of checking facts, making sure that spelling, grammar and punctuation are correct and that prose is intelligible.

Reaction in the media world to the Times’ cuts to free up resources for “reporting and breaking big stories” focused on the elimination of the high-profile, outward-facing public editor who held the paper to account as the reader’s representative. But the wider culling of rank-and-file editors could have the bigger impact, both at the country’s paper of record and from the ripple effect on our broader news ecosystem.

The News Guild of New York issued a dire statement calling the buyout offer “grave news for the state of journalism. These Guild members don’t simply correct comma splices; they protect the integrity of the brand. They are the watchdogs that ensure that the truth is told.” The Times will impose layoffs if reduction targets aren’t met voluntarily.

The Times is hardly the first newspaper to downsize its editing staff; publications across the country have demolished copy desks under pressure from corporate consolidation and declining revenue in the internet age. In 2012, The Denver Post eliminated copy editors, and in 2014, five Gannett papers cut copy desks and replaced city and assignment editors with “producers, coaches and content strategists” to refocus on digital news.

If it works, the Times’ effort to streamline and update editing for its combined print and digital products could be both a bellwether and a learning opportunity for an industry that’s being asked to adapt to new technology and produce more journalism with less money.

If the changes result in more errors or corrections, it won’t just be Times’ executives and readers watching, but a White House eager for any opportunity to discredit an industry the president sees as his nemesis.

Times Managing Editor Joe Kahn insists accuracy and quality are fundamental values that won’t be sacrificed by the changes. “There will still be multiple eyes on every piece of journalism we produce, and stories of critical importance will get the same level of scrutiny they always have received,” he told me.

The stakes for the industry couldn’t be higher. A 2015 study by Fred Vultee, a Wayne State University professor and director of research for ACES, the Society for Editing, found that good copy editing is good for business; readers will pay more for stories that are well-edited, and they have higher esteem for an organization that delivers them.

The reverse is also true.

David Sullivan, assistant managing editor for editing and standards at Philadelphia Media Network, which publishes The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com, is in charge of corrections and reader mail. “I have found that readers are more upset about bad grammar and mistakes in street names than if you leave some huge fact out of a story,” said Sullivan, who is also vice president of ACES. “What kills your credibility is if you make a basic mistake that they feel they learned in 3rd grade.”

The late Times’ media critic David Carr believed that journalism, at its core, is the art of curating minutiae, something careful editors do famously well. So why, at a time when news organizations are proudly touting their trustworthiness to readers and advertisers with fresh slogans like “Stand with the Facts” (NPR), “Facts Matter” (The Boston Globe) and “Democracy Dies in Darkness” (The Washington Post), would The Times eliminate foot soldiers of the final product’s integrity?

The truth is that the changes don’t stem solely from financial pressures. More people are getting their news on the internet, social media apps and mobile platforms, and a dramatically faster news churn requires newsrooms to rethink editing procedures and deadlines. Social media has compressed the news cycle from 24 hours to 24 minutes or seconds, and the demands of covering the deluge of news out of this White House are greater than ever.

The Times’ readership, revenue and stock prices have grown in the last year in tandem with its intense coverage of Trump. Even so, producing quality news is incredibly expensive. Investing more in reporting and all aspects of digital, mobile and video storytelling by streamlining layers of editing that date back to print production systems, is both an economic and an editorial decision.

“The redundant editing system we had was a legacy of the print era, where tasks specific to the copy desk, like headline writing and sizing stories for available space, had to be done at fixed hours of the day when print layouts had been prepared,” Kahn said. “Our new editing system invests our print hub with print-specific editing tasks and empowers desk-level editors producing stories for digital platforms to own other aspects of editing and polishing stories. While there will be fewer hands on each story on average, the duties once assigned to the copy desk are not being eliminated.

“We have found through repeated testing in the digital age that we can ensure a consistently high level of editing without duplicative editing structures that date to a print-centric era,” he said.

Ken Doctor, a media consultant and founder of Newsonomics, agreed that it’s not just financial pressure driving this kind of overhaul. “The craft is changing,” he said. Computers can now flag problems such as spelling mistakes or plagiarism that previously only human editors could.

While Doctor acknowledges the risk of mistakes is inevitably higher when there are fewer eyes on a story, he understands why the Times made the shift. “It is in the production of high-quality reporting that the future of the news business — and probably the country, at this point — rests. It is also how the Times plans its new reader revenue strategy that is transforming its business. More readers will pay for more great content, and the Times must find a way to get to them as it transitions its business,” he told me.

Current and former Times journalists yesterday mourned the impending loss of treasured colleagues who more than once saved their bacon.

https://twitter.com/EricLiptonNYT/status/869922585852727297

“Every reporter has stories of being saved from embarrassing corrections by an alert copy editor,” said Erik Eckholm, who took a buyout last year after 31 years at The Times, including eight years as an editor. “It's likely that there will be more small errors — a name misspelled, a city or date wrong, an event misplaced or misdescribed, not to mention grammatical howlers. Good copy editors, when they had time, even Googled people and events in the story to double-check the facts.”

Eckholm predicts there will be “less intensive double-checking in the new system, hence more mistakes. But that seems to be a price they are willing to pay in order to support the high-payoff journalism that they hope will bring in subscribers.”

Sullivan of The Society of Editors recognizes the Times’ old system of having editors in a variety of roles on multiple desks “is probably is too heavy a burden to bear in an era of lessened revenue…I do worry, though, about what happens when you eliminate the group of editors whose responsibility it was to look at the story with the eye of the first reader,” not just the last editor.

The new Times editors’ hub will handle all aspects of a story, through the various drafts, eliminating the editor “who comes to the story knowing nothing about how it was created, what it intended, what compromises had to be made, what was left on the cutting room floor,” Sullivan observed. One role of that final copy editor was to see a story with fresh eyes and spot holes or presumptions that a journalist involved from the start might not.

Even after these changes, The Times will still have one of — if not the highest — ratio of editors to newsgatherers in the industry, Kahn says — in the range of 1.3 reporters to every text editor.

“We are eliminating a separate copy editing desk, but we are not doing away with copy editing,” he insisted. “We expect our new editing system to produce a carefully edited and polished report.”

For the sake of the industry, the Times and others must be sure to hold themselves to that highest standard, no matter what changes may be required by diminished budgets and warp-speed technology.

“We’re so vulnerable now — people are looking for reasons to mistrust us,” Sullivan said. “Make sure with every breath we take we are true.”

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    Indira Lakshmanan

    Indira Lakshmanan is the Newmark chair in journalism ethics. She has covered campaigns, coups and revolutions, reporting from the U.S. and 80 countries for The Boston Globe, Bloomberg, the International New York Times, NPR, PBS, Politico Magazine and others.

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