The news industry can't cut its way to quality

You may not expect this, but I like James Robinson’s recent memo about clear cutting the copy desk at the Bay Area News Group.

Why? It shows that Robinson, the managing editor for content at the newspaper group, is aware of the ramifications of the decision. And instead of just pretending that life can go on as normal without copy editors, he’s giving his staff priorities to focus on.

He includes a serious warning that clearly states the value copy editors bring. Unfortunately, it’s not valued enough to pay for.

Is this a tectonic shift in copy editing? No. The tectonic shift took place some years ago.

According to the American Society of News Editors, copy editors have been bearing the brunt of legacy media job losses. Newspapers are now being produced by half the copy editors they were in 2007. More than 7,000 copy editing jobs were cut by 2015. And more current numbers, when available, will be more stark.

What this is is another nail in the coffin of legacy media. The industry is hemorrhaging revenue and readers. And all the cuts over the past nine years haven’t stanched the bleeding.

The reason is simple: You cannot make a case that your stories are worth paying for by delivering crappy content.

When is the last time you paid more for less? Newspapers do not have a monopoly on readers’ eyes. They have a choice, and they’re choosing to not read content they can’t trust because of typos or because it is complete gibberish.

Research after research shows that the quality of your content has a direct impact on your credibility. The business world knows this: Copy editors in corporate communications are flourishing.

When ACES was founded nearly 20 years ago, its membership was 100 percent legacy media copy editors. That group is now less than 25 percent of our membership. And our membership is flourishing; we’re seeing record increases year after year. We also set record attendance at our national conference just last month in Portland.

This year, I will become the first president of ACES working outside legacy media. Next week, I’ll end 25 years in this amazing industry as I move from deputy ME of digital operations at the Daily Herald to managing editor of Rotary International.

Not all the blame for continued losses in journalism can be found in the ashes of copy desks. Reporters and editors are absorbing an inhumane amount of additional duties. They have to work a story 24/7 to feed the digital machine. Even after you publish it, you’re not done. You need to tweet, post, pin, snap, scope and gram it. And then you need to visit it for weeks or months later, “engaging” readers with comments, likes and emojis.

How can they continue to produce amazing content while taking on all the digital demands, plus now editing each others’ stories and writing headlines? It’s ridiculous to think the quality of their work won’t suffer.

Can you imagine putting your trust in a hospital that tells its doctors that from now on, they’re going to do the duties of nurses, lab staff and medical techs while seeing twice as many patients? Of course not, but that’s what we’re asking our readers to do.

We’re flying a thousand times faster without a net. This is not a recipe for business recovery or innovation. It’s how you assure your death.

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