Jeff Jarvis has posted an "utter bullshit" spreadsheet (for discussion only, not to be taken literally) outlining how a newsroom might reorganize to save money and focus on its strengths. One of the notable line items was reducing the number of copy editors (subs, for you Brits) from 15 to three. "Make writers edit," he declared.
It is a timely idea in a profession that just loves a three-point "trend." In London, the free sheet City AM is whacking its entire "subediting team." Down under, Australia's Fairfax Media is cutting 40 of 190 subeditors across the group. I'd mention a U.S. example as the third point, but I can't decide which of last week's layoff announcements to cite.
There will be consequences.
The dirty little secret of newspaper journalists is that a lot of them can't write very well. That's by no means universally true, but it's true enough. I was a copy editor for years at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, where slot chief Vickie Kinney kicked my butt until I learned to be pretty good at it, and at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. I didn't just write headlines and hook paragraphs. I transformed some real trash into publishable writing, saved my paper and some writers from professional embarrassment, and introduced relatively few errors on my own.
Newspapers historically have been able to support a great deal of specialization. At the Globe we had reporters who literally never set foot in the newsroom. Police reporters were one-third journalist and two-thirds cop. Some had grown up in Ben Hecht's world of "The Front Page," where a reporter burned shoe leather and occasionally called the switchboard: "Sweetheart, give me rewrite!" When computers came along (Teleram Portabubbles, for you technohistory buffs), those reporters suddenly were expected to not only report, but also write, and even type. What showed up in the newsroom's editing system was outright scary, unpublishable.
But as rewrite disappeared, reporters also took on the responsibility of writing. About the same time, editors began taking on responsibilities of the composing room -- a department that doesn't even exist at most newspapers today, but one that was at the heart of newspaper production for generations. Fewer people, fewer hands, less specialization, more responsibility.
And it continues.
If you're studying journalism, you'd better learn to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time, without making any mistakes, because there's not going to be anyone there to save you from your own shortcomings.
Whether you or I like these changes isn't particularly meaningful. The forces acting on the business of journalism are going to rewrite job descriptions, and the luxury of specialization will continue to disappear. Sweetheart, rewrite don't work here any more.
Some copy editors are going to lose their jobs. But so will some reporters.
Because without copy editors, the reporters who are weakest at writing, at attention to detail, at stepping out of their own heads and critically examining their work, are going to be subjected to the harshest editors of all: a readership that today is empowered to talk back.