Obsolete jobs: Wire editor, features editor

Charles Apple has highlighted some structural changes at the Tribune Company newspapers that many find troubling. The comments on his blog post are especially interesting.

Some of the reaction struck me as reflecting a big disconnect between working journalists and economic reality.

Tribune is consolidating some editorial functions in Chicago, producing standard shared page modules for nonlocal information that slip seamlessly into local newspapers in Orlando, Baltimore, Fort Lauderdale, Hartford, Allentown and Newport News. This enables fewer hands to do essentially the same work; in Orlando, "half the design desk and two-thirds of the copy desk was laid off."

Read my lips: This is not a temporary maneuver in response to an economic cycle. This is permanent structural change.

As a medium, print is on an irreversible decline relative to digital. We are headed for an inflection point at which print newspapers as we knew them in the past will be unsustainable.

Like it or not, print must change.

For print newspapers to continue to exist at all, their production must become radically more efficient, and for journalism to thrive, energies and efforts must be redirected at digital media and new products.

If you are a wire editor or features editor, your odds of surviving in such a position until retirement are slim to none. Those jobs are obsolete. We can not save a system in which thousands of people sit around reinventing the wheel in parallel processes all around the country.

The Tribune Company's bankruptcy raises the urgency of facing this issue, but it will be an issue for everyone sooner or later. This is just another case of "the future is already here; it's just unevenly distributed."

If you imagine that jobs will simply move from a print focus to an Internet focus, you're wrong. Some jobs, like the wire editor and the features editor, will disappear. The Internet presents us with completely new tasks, requiring different skill sets.

Most smaller daily newspapers no longer have wire editors (if they ever did). The percentage of nonlocal content in midrange and small dailies has dropped, in some cases to near zero. Newspapers -- including those owned by the Tribune -- are beginning to restructure the physical product as it becomes more locally focused, merging the redundant "metro section" into the A section.

On the Internet, we have no need of wire editors; if we wish to have wire content on our websites, we can plug in AP Hosted News, or run a full feed of AP Online or some similar product from another service. But with everything on the Internet just a click away, the value of such branded and hosted wire content is low (and measurable), and even that may go away before long, based on simple cost-benefit analysis. We may be better off sending users to CNN, MSNBC and NYtimes.

The situation for the features editor is only slightly different.

One of the "jobs to be done" that leads a consumer to read a newspaper is "entertain me in my spare time." Spare time is becoming scarce, but some of us like to read while we eat breakfast, or ride the bus, and the printed features section, much of it consisting of nonlocal syndicated content, fulfills that need.

But the job simply doesn't transport to digital media. Again, everything on the planet is just a click away, much of it more interesting, entertaining and informative than can be found in the typical daily newspaper's features. This is why efforts such as the AP's Web-based ASAP "youth product" are doomed before they're even built. Print has only to compete with whatever is in the room at the moment (TV?), but a Web product has to compete with everything.

This isn't a case of good guys (journalists) against the bad guys (management).

I know some people are offended by the description of print production jobs as "manufacturing," but they are. Newsrooms of the past were integrated parts of newspaper factories. We're leaving that behind.

I understand the concerns about quality as copy editing becomes minimal. I worked as a copy editor for years. In some situations my job was more rewriting than editing, as talented gatherers of news are not always talented tellers of stories.

If you are one of those talented gatherers of news who can't write clean publishable copy, you can pretty much consider your job to be in the same at-risk category as wire editing and features editing.


Thanks and see also this long, thoughtful and marginally related article: http://bit.ly/m3mfJ.

I'm surprised that this has only been brought up now. I'm living in Europe, there is not one newspaper I know of with a "wire editor", in fact, I had to ask an American journalist friend what exactly a wire editors role entailed. Now, I may be wrong but from the explanation I received, a wire ed's job is to watch the wires all day, cherry-pick the world/national (depending on the newspaper market one is working in) stories that may be of interest to readers, possibly sub-edit the wire copy a little to fit house style then file it with the news editor. When I heard that I thought... isn't that the news editor and news reporters' job? Surely the news editor should be keep on top of emerging news in the area that the newspaper covers. A combination of a clued-in reporting staff and decent network of freelancers should be bringing the news in their market to the news ed without the need for a wire for that area. Any news reporter worth their salt will also be checking CNN/NBC/Fox/Sky at least 3/4 times a day also, in fact most newspapers will have some form of 24-hour news piped into the newsroom all day so they won't have to. So newspapers are then relying on wires for their copy (to save a reporter's time) rather than the actual "news". If the newsroom has been receiving breaking news all day then by the time print deadline looms the news editor should know exactly what wire news he or she wants to run - basically the stuff the news channels have been covering. All they have to do is find the copy they like on the wire two hours before deadline, give it to a sub-editor, have them tweak it to fit house style and space, and run it. ...Now, maybe there is more to a wire editor's job than was told to me in my explanation, but if that's all it entails, why they hell have they been around for the last ten years? 24 hour news channels should have made them obsolete years ago. As far as I can see, the role of the wire editor is one that should be, and is being in many papers where I am at least, covered by a combination of the news editor, vigilant reporters, a sub-editor and 24 hour News TV stations. Correct me if I wrong... but is this observation not 8 or 9 years late? If not more... Maybe it's completely different over your side of the pond though, I could be way off.

(Spam filter wouldn't let this through, so I'm posting it for Bill Dunphy.)


At my paper I'm part of a project that's putting in place a chain-wide CMS (CCI's Newsgate) that will certainly accelerate the process of enabling "fewer hands to do essentially the same work" and there's no question we'll all be re-allocating our newsroom resources to jobs that outside (our market) sources can't do well.

But I think you're wrong about the wire editors and feature editors disappearing. It seems to me that they will morph some - perhaps a great deal, but their core functions will be pretty similar.

A wire editor will no longer be dipping into the wires simply to fill pages, it's true - "filler" will kill ya in a world of abundant information.
But the other part of the wire and feature editors job is more crucial than ever - filtering. Finding good information is a valuable service, indeed, one of the most valuable services we can render. And while the communities we create and join will collectively do (and are doing) a lot of that filtering for us, they're really only efficient (signal to noise ratio) when they are focused, i.e. when they are topic, issue, or viewpoint focused. But we need more than echo chambers recommending information to us. Some talk about the serendipity of newspaper reading, but it's not truly chance - it's an editor's skill that creates the opportunities for us to stumble across information we didn't know we needed to know.

Admittedly they won't be trolling the wires for that content - they'll be searching the web; and they won't be publishing it, they'll be linking to it.

But it's a real, critical job and talented editors (properly re-trained? or more likely hired) can do that very well.


The big changes that are going to eliminate wire editing and feature editing in the long run aren't the kind of consolidation you're seeing at Tribune, but rather the replacement of omnibus media by specialty media. The American newspaper is rapidly becoming highly local in print, belatedly recognizing the change worked first by 24-hour cable news and later by the Internet. You don't much need a wire editor if you don't cover national and world news.

Mark Coughlan's comment (above) made me recall how wire copy was edited in the 1980s at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. A three- or four-man wire desk scanned the wires, chose the "best" material from AP and an array of "supps" such as NYTNS and LAT/WP, and often spliced together stories by pulling a paragraph from here, a paragraph from there, merging multiple sources into one.

The copy then went to the wire side of the copy desk, which gave each item a close read on the "rim," then another close read on the "slot," passing the result on to a holding queue.

The news editor actually was a layout editor, running the (wireframe, pre-Adobe) layout system. After stories were placed, if they were too long for the position, a production editor would kick the story back to the rim for a trim. It then went back to the slot for a final review, then off to the virtual typesetter.

Now, in theory, if not in practice, each story was supposed to be publication-ready before it entered the building. How many hands touched that story before it showed up on a page?

Filling features sections with "nonlocal syndicated content" is one of the things that's brought newspapers to their current crisis. There's a place for features editors online, and it's the same place it ought always to have been in print: Identifying unique, local feature ideas; sending reporters out to cover them; and shaping the stories into vibrant, fascinating packages by pulling together sidebars, images and complementary information. Sure, you can find all kinds of entertaining content from around the world online, but people still care about what's going on in their communities and the things their neighbors are up to. Maybe we're moving to a model that's going to do without editors at all — one where reporters will assign themselves, write their stories and publish them with little direction, supervision or enhancement — that's a dangerous path, as I see it, but unless we go there, features writers will still need editors just as much as news reporters do, perhaps more.

When you take emotion out of it and read this post objectively it makes perfect sense. All that you share here is the absolute truth. When I stepped into a print newsroom as the multimedia editor after 13 years in TV news, I was amazed at the overlap and the number of bodies doing so little. That is not a jab at any of the people in those jobs because it was no fault of their own. I never understood how a wire editor could be so highly paid. Print reporters have balked at broadcast reporters for years, but TV reporters turn several stories each day and there is no one with the advantage of producing one story per month no matter how much research is involved. These changes sound right to me. Are they hard to swallow for many? Yes, but something has to be done. Those who do it first will always be the target but as you said Steve, this is the way it is and the way it will be. Angela Connor | @communitygirl

Do you have further suggestions as to what a Features Editor might venture into? In particular, one with an educational background in public relations, but nine years of work experience primarily in feature writing and special sections?