“We must move away from duplicative and often low-value line editing,” the Times is quoted as saying. It went on:
It slows us down, costs too much, and discourages experiments in storytelling. Backfielders, department heads, News Desk editors and, yes, the masthead spend too much time line editing and copy editing, moving around words with little true impact on a story. Copy editors, meanwhile, spend too much time editing and re-editing stories that should be posted quickly.
Earlier this week the newspaper announced the criteria of the new editing positions. Current editors will need to apply for one of the fewer editing jobs the Times will offer. The list of skills is long—25 bulleted items—reflecting the overreaching nature of the new editing roles.
The New York Times isn’t alone in compressing its publishing process and asking one person to do what has traditionally been done by several people. The Times, however, is compressing its process upwards. According to the announcement, editors will be responsible for several editing passes, including assessing whether a story is newsworthy, helping the reporter develop the story, determining and experimenting with different storytelling modes, coaching reporters in their writing, as well as all the usual copyediting tasks, such as factual accuracy and grammatical correctness.
In addition, these editors will need strategy and planning skills, subject matter expertise, and “other unique skill(s) or experience.”
What the Times is asking for is a managing editor and copyeditor rolled into one, all while increasing the number of stories that editor will need to edit in a day.
It’s a troubling move.
In such a combined role, the editor will have less time to work on both editing tasks. With the increased workload as well, will an editor have sufficient time to do quality work on any given article?
Developmental and copyediting are separate editing passes performed by different editors for a very good reason: to work on an article’s structure, you need to ignore the details of the language. Once ignored, they’re difficult to see again because you will see what you expect to be there instead of what is actually there. You need a fresh set of eyes to see the errors in the details again.
This can be done with an acceptable degree of accuracy with enough time between editing passes. And while how much time might vary between editors, we’re talking days or weeks, not minutes.
I can’t say I’m surprised at the Times’ decision to compress its publishing process. Nor am I displeased that the newspaper will increase its reporting; there’s more news than ever to cover and an increased depth in that coverage is sorely needed.
But I’m concerned about how quality and accuracy will be maintained. I’m concerned about the expectations being put upon editors and their ability to deliver. Failure to deliver will hurt everyone involved, and the stakes just now are high.
“The elimination of extra sets of eyes at the nation’s leading newspaper couldn’t come at a more sensitive moment,” writes Poynter’s Indira Lakshmanan, “when the credibility of the Fourth Estate is being challenged by the president and his loyalists.”
Whether the Times made a smart decision or not remains to be seen. But I’m not hopeful.