Goodbye copy desks, hello trouble?

Goodbye copy desks, hello trouble?

Russial, John

Is elimination of the copy desk leading to improvement in the editing process or a sacrifice of quality?

In the last two years, several newspapers have dismantled their copy desks wholesale or in part. The Wichita Eagle has gone the farthest; it has eliminated the copy desk as a distinct operation, moving the editors onto reporting teams.’ The St. Paul Pioneer Press has shifted its copyeditors either to reporting teams or to a presentation hub.2 The Star Tribune in Minneapolis has moved most of its copyeditors onto topic teams.3 Other newspapers have folded copyediting into design operations, calling them, among other names, design or presentation desks.4 Buck Ryan has commented that newspapers might as well dismantle their copy desks, in part because the shift of back-shop work into newsrooms has made it nearly impossible for copyeditors to spend much time editing.5 Writing coach Don Fry argues that reporters should be able to edit their own copy.6 One could easily conclude that the traditional copy desk is under assault on several fronts.

Most organizational changes that affect the copy desk have been undertaken in an effort to improve the editing process – to break down walls between reporter and editor, editor and designer, or editor and editor. Editors’ anecdotal reports in trade journals and interviews with copyeditors at several papers that have adopted team approaches point to successes. Copyeditors say that working on topic teams enriches their jobs by broadening them. They say this type of reorganization has provided a context for copyeditors to get involved in stories earlier in the editing process, reducing the need for oftencontentious last-minute changes. Moreover, they say, reporters and copyeditors who work side by side develop mutual respect and understanding. These are positive, many would say long-overdue, outcomes, but a question remains: Will such attempts to reorganize the process of copyediting erode the overall quality of copyediting?

It is too early to answer that question with any degree of certainty, but it is not too early to ask it. Organizational changes tend to make their way into the nation’s newsrooms slowly at first, then snowball. Assessment tends to come much later. In the case of elimination of copy desks, it is important to ask questions earlier rather than later, because it is far easier to dismantle an institution such as the copy desk than it is to rebuild it.

Similarly, because so few papers have eliminated their copy desks, it is too early to empirically assess the impact of this potentially far-reaching change on job satisfaction and journalistic performance – two traditional concerns identified in the research literature on copyediting.7 It is not too early, though, to examine the idea of copy desk elimination analytically and through anecdotal information from the few papers that have done it. One can ask whether the assumptions underlying this experiment in newsroom organization are consistent with the nature of editing work in a daily newspaper newsroom.

The case for elimination of the copy desk is being argued in newsrooms and in trade journals, and the following are some of the sometimes contradictory points that have been made:

Eliminating the copy desk will not eliminate copyediting. Newspapers might as well eliminate copyeditors because copyeditors no longer have time to edit.

Pagination has spelled the end of copyediting as we know it. Newspapers don’t need copyeditors because reporters should be able to provide clean copy.

Copyeditors should be shifted to (take your pick) design desks, originating desks or topic teams, because that’s where they belong.

Questioning the value of copy desks is sometimes part of a broader criticism of newsroom organization. Edward Miller of the Poynter Institute offers one such view. In an article published in Quill in 1992, Miller argues that the traditional division of newsroom labor is an organizational form more suited to a 19th century coal mine than a late 20th century newsroom.8 Miller’s alternative is a newsroom organized around design, which he defines as “the integration of verbal and visual elements into a coherent whole.” Design, he says, can be “the organizing principle around which rejuvenated organizations seek to explore new markets and audiences.” Though he doesn’t use the term, Miller is saying, in effect, that newsrooms are ripe for what business consultants call reengineering.

Miller doesn’t directly target the copy desk, but it isn’t much of a leap to assume that the copy desk is one station in the “rigidly structured, hierarchical, command and control style” assembly line operation that he finds inappropriate. Others have raised similar points. Saf Fahim, a New York City architect who was asked to design a newsroom of the future for the 1994 American Society of Newspaper Editors convention, was surprised “to discover that newsrooms still operate like Henry Ford-era assembly lines.” Fahim said, “People are sitting in tribes [with] no sense of a team that works together. Most people no longer work on assembly lines but in groups that are oriented toward a quality product instead of a quantity product.”9 Others, such as Buck Ryan, suggest that eliminating the copy desk as a specialized department will improve the editing process because it will improve coordination of the news gathering and production process and “let the story idea drive the organization of the newsroom.”10 Managing editor Janet Weaver of the Wichita Eagle says the linear copy desk assembly-line structure is based “on technology that we had long since replaced.”11 What they are saying, in effect, is that copyediting as it is currently organized and practiced adds little value to the news product. Is that conclusion justified?

Copy desk history

The copy desk as such has been around for more than 100 years. The bundle of tasks that became associated with copyediting, such as reading stories, making corrections, checking facts and writing headlines, began to evolve earlier, as newspapers became too large for one editor to manage and large enough to support various levels of division of newsroom labor. William Solomon locates the emergence of copyediting as a newsroom specialty at the end of the Civil War – at a time when metropolitan papers were becoming so large that the city editor no longer had the time to supervise reporters and edit all of their copy. By the 1890s, he said, copyediting as a distinct work position was becoming common.12

Much as in other business and industrial organizations, growth prompted the structural change in newsrooms that led to copyediting as a discrete craft and the copy desk as a separate department, particularly at large papers. As small newspaper firms became bigger and bigger businesses, they organized labor throughout all operations by subdividing jobs and developing special expertise in more narrowly defined areas. Technological changes in typesetting, platemaking, photoengraving and printing presses and developing forms of labor organization, such as strong craft unions, helped spur increasing division of labor and multiple job classifications in the production departments.13 Innovations in news technology helped define and redefine such areas as reporting, editing and photography, typically after a period of resistance and negotiation.14 The telegraph, for example, helped create a division of editing labor to manage the volume of news that first trickled, then poured through the wires. The telephone and the telephone switchboard helped editors rationalize a division of reporting into collectors of information and writers.15 The introduction of back shop data processing technology, beginning with tapedriven Linotypes and proceeding through TTS input devices, photocomposition and newsroom front-end systems, began to reverse the specialization of newspaper jobs.

Technology began to accelerate the reintegration of newspaper labor, hastening the demise of various job classifications in production departments and the decimation of production workforces.16 Video Display Terminals, for example, enabled newspapers to shift proofreading chores completely to the newsroom, spelling the end of proofreading as a composing-room responsibility. The trend toward reintegration of news labor has accelerated with pagination and digital darkroom systems, as editors and editorial department photo personnel have assumed many tasks previously done in the back shop.17

In the newsroom, the forces that led to the increasing division of labor in the l9th and early 20th centuries contrast sharply with the forces that are leading to the elimination of some of those distinctions in the late 20th century. Managing growth is no longer the issue; controlling costs, particularly labor costs, and meeting new market demands are.18


The impetus to eliminate the copy desk is consistent with broad organizational changes that have been sweeping through corporate America for more than a decade.l9 To understand what’s driving this idea, one must look into the area of business management, particularly the idea of reengineering. The term itself is one of those neologisms that copyeditors love to hate, but the idea is key to much of what is happening in the newspaper industry and to some of what is happening to copyediting. What exactly is reengineering, and why do people think it’s such a good idea?

The concept comes from the wider world of business and industry, where managers are reconfiguring their organizations to meet new market demands. Management scholars, such as Michael Piore and Charles Sabel, and business consultants, such as Michael Hammer and James Champy,20 point out that many business processes in use today were designed to meet the needs of an earlier era. Elaborate command and control bureaucracies with clear lines of supervision enabled corporations to keep track of production and distribution in an era of rapid growth and increasing demand.

In traditional organizations, workers perform highly specialized tasks and supervision is highly structured. Information flows up and decisions flow down. Consultants say that this highly bureaucratic form of organization is inefficient and counterproductive in an era of rapidly changing global markets, such as the 80s and 90s have brought. They argue that a variety of organizational changes, such as flattening of hierarchy through elimination of management levels, cross-training of employees and team approaches to work, enable companies to dramatically reduce planning and production time and thus add value more quickly. Reengineering is a form of reorganization that makes use of these and other approaches.

Consultants point to reengineering case studies that show dramatic gains in productivity, profit, quality and cost reduction. Before a successful reengineering, work typically is divided into highly specialized tasks with one job classification handling one task. After reengineering, the same (or more) work is done more quickly by fewer workers. A fundamental idea is that computerization can make it possible for employees to handle a much wider range of tasks. The crucial point is that specialization added little value to the product that could not have been added by a single worker equipped with the proper information, tools and training.

Reengineering challenges assumptions about what needs to be done and who needs to do it, and if it finds those assumptions wanting, abandons them and creates new processes based on new assumptions. Another element, which consultants acknowledge but typically do not dwell upon, is that reengineering often means loss of jobs. Reengineering newsrooms

It is difficult to pick up a newspaper trade journal these days and not find somebody arguing that newsrooms are ripe for reengineering. Topic teams and design / presentation desks are two examples of, if not exactly reengineering, something approaching it.

Does reengineering the editing process, particularly what is now known as copyediting, make sense? The answer turns on whether the assumptions that underlie copyediting as a newsroom specialization remain valid. Three key assumptions are:

That copyediting and headline-writing skills are vital in maintaining editorial quality.

That not everyone in the newsroom has those skills, is interested in developing them, or is even capable of developing them.

That the skills can be best developed, applied and nurtured in specialized operations known as copy desks.

The first assumption seems valid on its face. Copyediting is quality control, at a minimum, and every business needs quality control. Management consultants of various stripes insist that customers are best served by quality products. And even if the market doesn’t demand it, editors have a professional, ethical imperative to ensure that stories are as well-edited as possible. What’s possible clearly depends on resources available, but newspapers of every size have an idea of what level of quality is possible for them to meet. Even if the copy desk is eliminated as a separate department, the newspaper still needs copyediting.

What about skills? Can copyediting be done by reporters and assigning editors? Many papers, particularly small-circulation ones, operate that way; their editors have always worn many hats. The city editor or wire editor is also a copyeditor and a page designer. In general, the larger the paper, the more specialized the position. On the largest papers, copyeditors edit copy and write headlines. On smaller papers, copyeditors often select news, lay out pages, oversee makeup and sometimes do reporting on the side. It would seem that many small papers don’t need to reengineer their copy desks. Is this model appropriate for larger papers?

The blunt answer is no. Larger papers have more resources and can afford to set higher standards. High standards can be met by highly qualified specialists or by highly qualified generalists if enough are available and they have the time to concentrate on multiple tasks. At this point, it is questionable whether such a pool of generalists exists. Candidates with top copyediting skills are in demand; editors who have those as well as broader editing skills are in very short supply. The traditional expectation at large papers is that copyeditors will become quite expert at the relatively few tasks they perform, and compensation reflects that expertise.

A job classification, such as copyeditor, represents an institutional commitment to a set of practices. By creating the position, the organization says it considers these tasks important. Will these tasks be considered as vital if the job category is eliminated? If, for example, assigning editors must also copyedit, something valuable may be lost in story planning, story shaping, reporting staff development – or copyediting. If news editors and designers must copyedit, something valuable may be lost in story selection, design, pagination – or copyediting. It is reasonable to assume that copyediting would suffer most if it is shifted to either originating or design desks because it would be an add-on, not the primary focus of the job.

Can the value added in the copyediting process be added by reporters? Some say yes. More than a century of newspaper history in this country suggests not. Level of expertise is the issue. Some reporters may be capable of copyediting at the level of full-time copyeditors, particularly at smaller papers with less experienced editors. At mid- to large-size papers, which typically demand greater copyediting expertise, most reporters may not be capable of, or, for that matter, interested in, copyediting. Moreover, when copyediting is only one of a reporter’s responsibilities, copyediting is most likely to be treated as an afterthought and suffer as a result.

Some editors say that reporters should be required to prepare copy that doesn’t need copyediting. The Wichita paper has adopted that philosophy, and, according to Weaver, reporters have accepted that responsibility – with some trepidation.zl Some daily newspaper reporters have always been able to write clean, well-organized copy. Many, however, don’t, even at the elite dailies. That’s the dirty little secret known only to the many editors who have ever worked at those papers.

Is it just sloppiness, or are there fundamental differences in aptitude? Wichita’s elimination of the copy desk did lead to greater sloppiness with mechanics, according to Weaver. Weaver reported that the number of correctable errors did not increase after the copy desk was eliminated but that the number of “sloppy mistakes,” such as typos and grammatical lapses, did increase initially.22 She said that situation has since improved.23

Correctable mistakes and typos are not the only criteria for quality copyediting. Other considerations, such as clarity of writing, completeness, fairness, balance, logic, organization and freedom from libel, are fundamental to quality copyediting. Such criteria are much more difficult to measure. Moreover, it seems unlikely that mere sloppiness would have led to a century or more of copy desk institutionalization. Wishing won’t make reporters into editors, and, most likely, given time pressures and increasing pressure to do more with less, neither will cross-training.

Editing and headlines

At first blush, separating copyediting from headline-writing appears to be a logical division, a technologically sensible division. Some have argued that headlines should be written on presentation desks because now they can be. Divorcing the editing function from headline-writing does make some sense; headlines appear to have more to do with presentation than editing. Headlinewriters working closely with (or as) designers might produce better headlines when elaborate or designed headlines are called for. And, at a practical level, people who have to write the headlines they design are more likely to design headlines they can write.

At a more fundamental level, copyediting and headline-writing go together. What would be lost in a divorce is the intimate knowledge of a story that comes from copyreading it and discussing it with reporters and editors – a level of knowledge that is vital in good headline-writing. That level of familiarity might not be crucial on straightforward stories. But on many other stories, such as takeouts, analysis pieces, trend pieces, long stories, sensitive stories and more experimental writing, the danger of lost subtlety and hyped or misleading headlines increases. Because copyeditors are familiar with the story, they tend to be conservative when conservatism is necessary; presentation specialists sometimes march to a different drummer.

Good headlines are based on skill and on knowing the story well. Display editors may have the skill; what they may lack is the time to know the story well. Presentation specialists have much more than headline-writing on their plates. They have news editing, page design, pagination, item-tracking and sometimes digital imaging and graphics processing to worry about. They have a full day without the added burden of writing headlines. Anecdotal reports and several studies suggest that headline-writing is already suffering because of the added production burden borne by copyeditors.24 If reengineering turns headline-writing into an add-on, headline-writing is bound to suffer further.

In the course of careful editing, a copyeditor assesses the story. He or she asks: What’s the focus? Is the lead supported? Is the story properly organized? Is it fair? Is it libelous? Is it oversold? Is it undersold? What qualifications or attributions are essential? Good copyeditors ponder these and other questions and act upon them when they copyread stories. These assessments also furnish copyeditors with the background they need to write fair, accurate, properly qualified headlines. At many papers, copyeditors don’t ask many of these questions; at well-edited papers, copyeditors do, and the results appear in the paper every day. At reengineered papers, will anyone have the time to ask those questions? If not, then value will be lost.

Newspapers could redistribute work or add staff to address workload problems. Some have done this, creating large design/presentation desks to handle both technology and editing. But many editors are already lamenting their newspapers’ unwillingness to hire enough people in the newsroom to make up for the extra work brought on by information technology.25 Some papers have shifted resources from reporting to editing, but this approach solves one problem by creating another. Adding staff is not an option for many editors these days; downsizing has been more the norm, to offset newsprint price increases, cyclical declines in advertising and stagnant or declining circulation.zb In such an era of doing more with less, the temptation to eliminate positions, particularly if the reduction can be characterized as innovation, may be too great.

A copyeditor, rather than being a station on a Rust Belt assembly line a catchy, though largely inaccurate, image – is a nexus, a link between reporter and designer. He or she provides a safety net – the assurance that enough care will be taken so that display type does not go beyond a reporter’s words. Division into editing and display may look like efficiency. It removes a station on the assembly line, but quality control will suffer.

For practical reasons, moving all or most copyeditors to reporting teams might require adjustments to the headline-writing process. Wichita and St. Paul, for example, have created templates for generic-size headlines that are written before pages are designed and can be tweaked later by presentation specialists to fit page layouts. In St. Paul, the generic heads are written by editors; in Wichita, they are written by reporters. Both papers report that the approach seems to be working. Weaver, for example, said that in Wichita, the sense is that headlines may not be as clever as before but they’re probably more accurate.7 She pointed out that Wichita’s generic approach might not work as well at papers that have zones, multiple editions or different design considerations.zs

Looking at headline-writing in a historic context, the approach seems to be a step backward. It recalls the common pre-computer practice of writing generic headlines on stories and letting compositors make up pages out as they saw fit. Many papers ended that practice when VDT systems and pagination gave copyeditors greater control over headline size and page production. Is the copy desk inefficient?

Most reengineering is aimed at increasing the efficiency of a process, whether it be design, production or customer service. Reengineering typically removes bottlenecks that often accompany strict task specialization. It does so by integrating tasks – having one worker perform multiple tasks, an outcome typically made possible by information technology. Computers can give a previously specialized worker enough information to perform new tasks. When one worker is responsible for multiple tasks, work no longer waits in a queue or sits on a desk. The result can be dramatic productivity gains.

A typical example is offered by Hammer and Champy.29 IBM Credit Corp., which finances products that IBM sells, had developed a byzantine process to handle a customer’s request for credit. The request had to move through five separate departments before approval, a process that took six days. IBM found that the actual work involved in processing requests took 90 minutes; the time requests spent sitting on desks took the rest. To reengineer the process, IBM replaced the specialists in each department with generalists, each of whom – aided by a new computer system that made technical information and assessment tools available to them – could handle all of the tasks. Productivity gains were astounding. The key was throwing out the assumption that specialists were needed at each step in the process. Many successful reengineering efforts follow that pattern – they enable companies to add value more quickly by turning specialists into generalists.

Does reengineering make similar sense when the production window is as short as it is in a daily newspaper newsroom? The entire editing process takes hours, not days. With such a narrow window of opportunity, the copy desk is not a bottleneck. It is, however, a place where quality can be improved (value added) in a very short time. Task specialization in newspapers has more to do with quality than it does with bureaucratic control. Good copyeditors can improve stories quickly, sometimes dramatically, by exercising their specialized abilities to reorganize information, to find holes or illogical constructions, to catch inaccuracies and to ensure fairness and balance. “You can say a lot of things about the problems of copy desks,” said Gene Foreman, executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, “but they are very efficient at pooling resources at the end of an editing cycle.”30 In business reengineering, fewer steps in a process can mean productivity gains. In a newsroom, fewer eyes on a story can mean a loss in quality. If specialization creates a higher quality product than nonspecialization does, then it remains a valuable process, not an archaic remnant of l9th century industrial organization.

In part, the issue is that the product of a daily newspaper newsroom is very different from the product that reengineering consultants are discussing. In the previous example, IBM consumer credit created a new process – one that would be repeated with minor variation by a new class of generalist employee. On the surface, what copyeditors do looks highly repetitive, somewhat analogous to the IBM consumer credit process. Beneath the surface, it is anything but repetitive. Rather than executing a process or designing a product that will be placed into production, copyeditors face different sorts of challenges with different stories. In effect, they are constantly redesigning a product.

Technology issues

Another difference is in the application of computer technology. In the IBM Credit example, and in successful reengineerings in general, according to Hammer and Champy, technology enables companies to transform processes, but it is not the driving force. It is not used merely to increase efficiency of existing processes or to automate those processes.31 In the newsroom, the picture is mixed. In some cases, technological changes are enabling organizational changes; in other cases, they seem to be driving organizational changes.32 For example, the first tip offered by Steve Sidlo, managing editor of the Dayton Daily News, to preserve quality while paginating is: “Reorganize your production desk to take advantage of pagination s strengths and minimize weaknesses.”33 Both Wichita and St. Paul reengineered their desk operations at the time they instituted pagination. In Wichita, Weaver said that concern about the production burden of pagination was a factor in the decision to move copyeditors onto topic or presentation teams. She said she felt moving copyeditors to reporting teams was a way to preserve the quality of copyediting, noting that many papers had compromised copyediting when they added pagination to copyeditor duties.34

Copyeditor training

How will a newspaper maintain and improve copyediting quality if there is no copy desk? At a well-edited newspaper, the slot is a teacher- a teacher of copyeditors and often of reporters too. Ryan is one who has mourned the loss of that teaching function, a loss he blames primarily on pagination.35 Reengineering the copy desk out of existence would compound the loss. Even at the best-edited papers, many copyeditors need training. They don’t start at full speed, they need to learn the paper’s style and approach, they need to learn many things that aren’t readily available in a style guide or procedures manual. The slot is typically the trainer. He or she works alongside rim editors and is available to answer questions and improve headlines.

Gene Foreman says he feels that copyeditors dispersed to teams will lose the close mentoring relationship they have with a slot.3 Team leaders, he says, will not be able to provide training for copyeditors; they will tend to focus on reporting and on solving reporting problems. The Star Tribune has attempted to address this issue. Its general assignment copy desk is used to train interns and new copyeditors, and the paper’s two senior copyeditor/ advocates for copyeditors have taken on some training and staff development functions.37 Wichita has a team of interested editors who meet and discuss copyediting issues.38 The (Portland) Oregonian’s hybrid approach may be more effective at promoting staff development. The Oregonian has moved several copyeditors to teams while it has retained its traditional copy desks. The team copyeditors have a dual allegiance -they consider themselves part of the copy desk as well as part of the topic teams, and they maintain a close relationship with the desks and the slots.39

Ongoing staff development would not be as serious an issue if all copyeditors on teams were top-flight generalists. Few managing editors, even at prestigious metro dailies, would argue that they have such depth of talent.

Benefits of reorganization

Shifting copyeditors to reporting teams means that copyeditors can be involved in stories earlier in the reporting process. Earlier input means fewer calls to reporters at night to patch up problems just before deadline, eliminating one of the traditional sources of friction between reporters and copyeditors.40 Casey Selix, a team copyeditor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, said that being part of a team enhances trust between editors and reporters. Editors and reporters who work in the same area of the newsroom get to know one another better and tend to respect one another more, she said. The payoff is that she feels she can ask harder questions and has a better chance of getting answers. Kathy Gorman, a business team copyeditor at the Oregonian, said, “When you have earned their respect and trust, it’s easier to talk things over.”41

Other editors, however, expressed concern that copyeditors might be less likely to ask reporters tough questions once they became members of a reporting team.42 Nancy Olsen, a copy / layout editor with the Star Tribune’s Urban Team, said she thought she might be less critical of team members’ copy at times but that the camaraderie allows her to “ask better questions.”43 Foreman pointed out that there may be a downside to having copyeditors involved early in the story-shaping process. Copyeditors should act as the readers’ representatives, he said, and maintaining a distance from the newsgathering and assembling process enables copyeditors to see stories more as readers do. Copyeditors involved early in the process might get too close to a story and lose their critical eye.44 Pete Lesage, a copyeditor with the Oregonian’s Public Life team, said that maintaining some distance is important. “I don’t want to be an insider copyeditor,” he said. “I won’t do the team any good if I become one of them.”45

The shifting of copyeditors to topic teams does offer some potential training benefits to editors, such as the development of expertise in content areas”6 and the ability to perform a wider variety of tasks.7 It also may help reporters, if, for example, a copyeditor’s attitudes toward accuracy, clarity and fairness rub off onto the team reporters. It may, as in Wichita, enable the paper to put more reporters onto the street or give copyeditors the opportunity to do some reporting.48

Working with a reporting team may enhance a copyeditor’s ability to get a better job. Weaver said a good, young copyeditor was hired away by a major metropolitan paper in part because he had experience in content editing with the team. At the Pioneer Press, Selix said that moving copyeditors to teams has improved copyeditor morale and that copyeditors who had broader editing experience with teams might be stronger candidates for promotion.49

The dismal state of copyeditor morale has been raised in a variety of forums,50 and any organizational change that improves copyeditor morale is not to be taken lightly. Clearly, there can be benefits to individuals and to the paper in copy desk reorganizations – benefits that consultants say reengineering can bring. But the overall quality question remains. How will a newspaper ensure that it is well-copyedited and that copyediting abilities can be developed and nurtured if there is no copy desk and nobody to teach copyediting?

Does the issue come down to tradeoffs? Must newspapers accept editing quality tradeoffs in one area for enhancements in others? Foreman, for one, doesn’t think so. He said editors have to look at making improvements but that it’s better to have evolutionary developments. “We’d be interested in any kind of organizational structure that would give us the level of editing we have or better while giving visibility to the copy desk and improving relationships with other staffers,” he said. Perhaps another way to frame the issue is, How can newspapers avoid tradeoffs in reorganizations? How can they preserve what’s valuable in the traditional organizational forms?51


This paper offers an analytical examination of an emerging trend; further study is needed to assess the impact on a wider variety of newsrooms. Such study will not be easy – some of the most important aspects of quality copyediting are difficult, if not impossible, to measure – but it is important. Newsroom researchers need to keep a close watch on this trend because the idea of eliminating the copy desk is particularly seductive in an era when newspaper corporations are falling all over one another to see who can downsize the most. The rhetoric can be seductive, too. Who, indeed, would defend a command and control operation that belongs in a dingy old coal mine? Who would argue against the progress that reengineering promises? But what looks pretty good on paper might not look so good in the paper.

On the face of it, the assumptions that underlie reengineering approaches in other businesses and industries may not apply as well to the work of editing in a newspaper newsroom. There may be benefits to these approaches in cross-training and job enrichment, but there are drawbacks, too. The copy desk, as it is traditionally constituted, particularly at large newspapers, appears to add value through specialization, not to create inefficiency and bottlenecks. The real danger in reengineering away the copy desk is that bigger newspapers may start to look and act like many of their smaller brethren. If that happens, whatever it’s called, it won’t look much like progress.


1. Janet S. Weaver, Wichita Is Doing Fine Without a Copydesk. The American Editor, January-February-March 1996, pp. 14-16; Clayton Haswell, Editors Wrestle with Change. The American Editor, December 1995, pp. 10-11.

2. The presentation hub handles page design and pagination of section fronts. Interview

with Casey Selix, copyeditor for the Education and Minneapolis suburban teams, July 17, 1996.

3. The Star Tribune has kept a small general assignment copy desk to handle later copy and changes. Interview with Nancy Olsen, copy/layout editor with the Star Tribune Urban Team, July 23,1996.

4. See, for example, Ann Auman, Design Desks: Why Are More and More Newspapers Adopting Them? Newspaper Research Journal, Spring 1994, pp.128-142.

5. Leland Buck Ryan, Goodbye Copy Desk, Hello, Display Desk. ASNE Bulletin, April 1991, pp. 7-12.

6. Don Fry, Maybe It’s Time for You to Stop Editing Copy. ASNE Bulletin, September 1994, p. 23.

7. John M. Shipman Jr., Computerization and Job Satisfaction in the Newsroom: Four Factors to Consider. Newspaper Research Journal, Fall 1986, pp. 69-80; Betsy B. Cook, Steve R. Banks and Ralph J. Turner report that copyeditors have significantly higher levels of emotional exhaustion than reporters and that copyeditors who have multiple role assignments-copyediting, layout and design-have the lowest levels of personal accomplishment, making that type of position a high-risk job for burnout. The Effects of Work Environment on Burnout in the Newsroom. Newspaper Research Journal, Summer and Fall 1993, pp.123-134. The literature on editor performance and technological change is summarized in David Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit, The American Journalist. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986 and in Judee K. Burgoon, Michael Burgoon and Charles K. Atkin, The World of the Working Journalist. (New York: Newspaper Advertising Bureau,1982.

8. Edward D. Miller, Where Is Design Leading Us? Quill, September 1992, pp. 24-25.

9. Rebecca Ross Albers, New Age Newsrooms. presstime, April 1995, p. 32.

10. Quoted in Carl Sessions Stepp, Reinventing the Newsroom. American Journalism Review, April 1995, pp. 28-33. 11. Weaver, Wichita Is Doing Fine, p. 14.

12. William Samuel Solomon, Technological Change in the Workplace: The Impact of Video Display Terminals on Newspaper Copy Desk Work, 1985 unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, pp. 70-75.

13. Anthony Smith, Goodbye Gutenberg: The Newspaper Revolution of the 1980s. New York: Oxford,1980, Chapter 3.

14. Zelizer shows that in the 1920s, reporters and editors resisted the inclusion of photographers as journalists. Barbie Zelizer, Words Against lmages: Positioning Newswork in the Age of Photography, pp.135-59, in Hanno Hardt and Bonnie Brennan, eds., News Workers. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota,1995.

15. Marianne Salcetti, The Emergence of the Reporter: Mechanization and the Devaluation of Editorial Workers, in Hardt and Brennan, eds., News Workers. University of Minnesota,1995; Smith, Goodbye Gutenberg.

16. Arne L. Kalleberg et al., The Eclipse of Craft: The Changing Face of Labor in the Newspaper Industry, pp. 47-71 in Daniel B. Cornfield, ed., Workers, Managers and Technological Change. New York: Plenum,1987; Marion Dearman and John Howells, Computer Technology and the Return of the Printer-Journalist. Journalism History Winter 1975, pp.133-136; Cynthia Cockburn, Brothers: Male Dominance and Technological Change. London: Pluto, 1983.

17. John Russial, Pagination and Digital Imaging: A Contrarian Approach. Newspaper Research Journal, Fall 1995, pp. 42-56. Russial, Computers, Ambivalence and the Transformation of Journalistic Work, August 1995, paper presented to the AEJMC Communications Technology and Policy Division, Washington, D.C.

18. Kalleberg et al.; Smith; Michael Hammer and James Champy, Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for the Business Revolution. New York: HarperBusiness, 1993.

19. Michael Piore and Charles Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide. New York: Basic 1984; Hammer and Champy, Reengineering the Corporation.

20. Piore and Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide, op.cit.; Hammer and Champy, Reengineering the Corporation,op.cit..

21. Interview with Janet Weaver, July 15,1996.

22. Weaver, Wichita Is Doing Fine, p. 15.

23. Interview with Janet Weaver, July 15, 1996.

24. See, for example, M.L. Stein, Joys and Sorrows of Pagination. Editor & Publisher, December 24, 1994, pp. 24-25; David Cole, Pagination Page by Page. presstime February 1995, p. 29; and Steve Sidlo, Tips for Preserving Quality While Paginating. Pagination Handbook, APME Small Newspapers Committee, October 1995, pp. 28-29; John Russial, Pagination and the Newsroom: A Question of Time. Newspaper Research Journal, Winter 1994, pp. 91-101; Doug Underwood, C. Anthony Giffard and Keith Stamm, Computers and Editing: The Displacement Effect of Pagination Systems in the Newsroom. Newspaper Research Journal, Spring 1994, pp.116-127.

25. See, for example, Julius Duscha, The Alameda Model. presstime, April 1994, pp. 48-50; Jim Johnson, Pagination, Anyone? APME Journalism Studies Report, APME Photo, Graphics and Design Committee, 1994, pp. 2-3; Carl Sessions Stepp, Editor Meltdown. American Journalism Review, December 1993, pp. 27-29.

26. Alex S. Jones, Feasting on the Seed Corn. Nieman Reports, Spring 1996, pp. 5-8.

27. Interviews with Weaver and Selix.

28. Weaver, Wichita Is Doing Fine.

29. Hammer and Champy, Reengineering the Corporation, p. 36-39.

30. Interview with Gene Foreman, July 24, 1996.

31. Shoshana Zuboff, In the Age of the Smart Machine. New York: Basic, 1988; Raymond L. Manganelli and Steven P. Raspa, Why Reengineering Has Failed. Management Review, July 1995, pp. 39-43.

32. John Russial, Computers, Ambivalence and the Transformation of Journalistic Work.

33. Sidlo, Tips for Preserving Quality While Paginating, p. 28.

34. Interview with Weaver, July 15,1996.

35. Ryan, Goodbye Copy Desk.

36. Interview with Gene Foreman, July 24,1996.

37. Interview with Nancy Olsen, July 17,1996.

38. Interview with Janet Weaver, July 15,1996.

39. The relationship is institutionalized in copy flow. Team copyeditors move their stories and headlines through the slots. Interviews with copy chief Jerry Sass and copyeditors Pete Lesage, Jan Jordan and Kathy Gorman, September 1996.

40. See, for example, Beryl Adcock, Attention, Please, for Some Words from the Copydesk. The American Editor, October 1995, 34-35.

41. Interview with Gorman.

42. Peter Bhatia, managing editor of the Oregonian, said the possibility that team copyeditors would ask fewer tough questions of team colleagues is a potential downside, though he hasn’t noticed it happening at his paper. Janet Weaver said that editors from other papers have expressed concern about the issue. She says she has not noticed any loss of independent criticism at the Eagle. Interviews with Bhatia and Weaver.

43. Interview with Nancy Olsen, July 23,1996.

44. Interview with Gene Foreman, July 24, 1996.

45. Interview with Lesage.

46. Traditional copyeditors tend to become specialists in a variety of skills, such as word editing and headline-writing. Olsen says that team copyeditors tend to become specialists in content areas, such as health and science, which enables them to ask better questions. Interview with Olsen, July 17,1996.

47. Copyeditors who have moved to teams at the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Portland newspapers mentioned this benefit in interviews.

48 Weaver, Wichita Is Doing Fine, p. 15.

49. Interviews with Weaver and Selix.

50. See, for example, To America’s Top Editors, From Your Copy Desks: How We Can Help Each Other, The Human Relations Committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors,1995-96.

51. Specific suggestions are not the focus of this paper, but a few possibilities are: 1.) Create a rotation in which copyeditors work with teams but periodically cycle back to a traditional slot/rim copy desk, which could handle overflow from the teams and late copy and changes. 2.) Institutionalize copyeditor training by having roving slots work with team copyeditors. 3.) Enhance respect between copyeditors and reporters by making it clear that newsroom managers value copyediting and support copyeditors. Foreman said this respect can be encouraged in a traditional newsroom. He points out that when asked their reactions to a weeklong tryout at The Inquirer, copy desk candidates typically say that reporters “talked to us; took us seriously, acted like they appreciate us.” The way the tryouts said these things, Foreman said, suggests that they were not treated that way at their home papers.

Russial is assistant professor in the school of journalism and communication at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

Copyright E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Spring 1998

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