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NYT Faces Uproar From Copy Editors: ‘We Were Compared to Dogs Urinating on Fire Hydrants’

The New York Times — America’s paper of record faced an uproar yesterday from copy editors amid a growing sense of uncertainty over their futures at the Grey Lady.

In an email to Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn, Wednesday, the Times copy desk blasted management for plans to shift paper resources away from their desk and more into reporting, Poynter reported. The move is expected to result in buy outs and possibly layoffs among Times staff.

“We have begun the humiliating process of justifying our continued presence at The New York Times. We take some solace in the fact that we have been assured repeatedly that copy editors are highly respected here,” the letters begins. “If that is true, we have a simple request. Cutting us down to 50 to 55 editors from more than 100, and expecting the same level of quality in the report, is dumbfoundingly unrealistic. Work with us on a new number.”

In their letter copy editors bemoaned an internal Times report which called their work “low-value editing” and compared copy editors to “dogs urinating on fire hydrants”

Last month Baquet and Kahn announced in a staff memo that it was critical to keep the Times competitive in breaking coverage.

“Our goal is to significantly shift the balance of editors to reporters at The Times, giving us more on-the-ground journalists developing original work than ever before,” the wrote.

The copy desk, however, didn’t seem to go for it.

“You often speak about the importance of engaging readers, of valuing, investing in and giving a voice to readers,” they said. “Dean and Joe: We are your readers, and you have turned your backs on us.”

A subsequent response from Baquet and Kahn confirmed that the Times was eliminating a “free standing copy desk” but insisted that they remained committed to copyediting.

We are in fact eliminating a free standing copy desk. We are not, as we have said repeatedly, eliminating copy editing. A majority of people currently employed by the copy desk will find new editing jobs. All of our desks will continue to ensure a high level of editing, spanning backfielding, copy editing, photo editing and digital and print production, for all the journalism we produce.

Also major shout out to Benjamin Mullin over at Poynter, who has been all over this story.

You can read the full aggrieved memo from the copy desk below:

An Open Letter to Dean and Joe

Dear Dean and Joe,

We have begun the humiliating process of justifying our continued presence at The New York Times. We take some solace in the fact that we have been assured repeatedly that copy editors are highly respected here.

If that is true, we have a simple request. Cutting us down to 50 to 55 editors from more than 100, and expecting the same level of quality in the report, is dumbfoundingly unrealistic. Work with us on a new number.

But after living more than a year and a half under a cloud of uncertainty about our jobs, a cruelly drawn-out period in which we suspended major financial arrangements and life decisions, and carried an ever-growing kernel of fear;

After we were compared to dogs urinating on fire hydrants when we edited stories, in an internal report that called for the elimination of “low-value editing” and made it all but clear which stages of editing this referred to — so much so that it became a running joke among the copy desks for months (“How’s the low-value editing going in your section today?”) — along with the report’s implication that copy editing was merely finding “easily identifiable errors, such as spelling and grammar mistakes”;

After some of us were recruited for “editing tests” to streamline the process, or, as it turned out, figure out how to make our own jobs obsolete;

After enduring a newsroom-wide copy-editing overhaul last year that consolidated the desks, transformed the scope of our duties and confused a whole lot of reporters and section editors (but ultimately made us think we would at least keep our jobs);

After learning that this new setup would be undone just months after it was put in place, with the whiplash announcement that our jobs would simply be eliminated;

After we were told that to remain employed, we would have to apply for new “strong editor” positions meant to be a hybrid of the two types of editors at The Times, backfielders and copy editors, and realized only copy editors had to be reevaluated categorically;

After we were told that this “restructuring” would also reduce our numbers by more than half;

After completing a first round of interviews, some held by interviewers who clearly had not even read our résumés and cover letters, and competing against the very colleagues we are leaning on in these times;

After we heard that The Times would soon go on a hiring spree, just as it gets ready to shed jobs, and thought to ourselves that it is particularly ruthless to talk about all the others you intend to court as you break up with someone;

After all of this and more — we are finding it difficult to feel respected.

In fact, we feel more respected by our readers than we do by you. We are living in a strange time when routine copy-editing duties such as fact checking, reviewing sources, correcting misleading or inaccurate information, clarifying language and, yes, fixing spelling and grammar mistakes in news covfefe are suddenly matters of public discourse. As those in power declare war against the news media, as deliberately false or lackadaisical reportage finds its way into social media feeds, readers are flocking to our defense. They are sending us pizza. And they are signing up for Times subscriptions in record numbers because they understand that we go to great lengths to ensure quality and, most important, truth.

This should be a triumphant moment for all Times employees. Everyone from the ground floor up should be thrilled and proud to come to work, and walk into the building feeling valuable and needed.

And that is why it feels like such a profound waste that morale is low throughout the newsroom, and that many of us, from editors to reporters to photo editors to support staff, are angry, embittered and scared of losing our jobs.

You may have heard that the elimination of the copy desk is widely seen as a disaster in the making (including by many managers directly involved in the process), that the editing experiments were an open failure, and that there is dissension even in the highest ranks and across job titles regarding the new editing structure.

But you have decided to press forward anyway, and this decision betrays a stunning lack of knowledge of what we do at The Times. Come see what we do. See the process, what comes in and what actually goes online or to print. See what we do before you decide you can live without it.

We copy editors understand that our roles will have to change, that we must find ways to edit more efficiently, and that The Times must evolve into a nimbler, more visual, more digitally focused news outlet. We will learn and we will adapt. In fact, through many workflow changes, through the adoption of new technologies and platforms, we have already proved we can. We only ask that you not treat us like a diseased population that must be rounded up en masse, inspected and expelled.

After all, we are, as one senior reporter put it, the immune system of this newspaper, the group that protects the institution from profoundly embarrassing errors, not to mention potentially actionable ones.

We are one of the crucial layers of review that you seem so determined to erase, as the sudden removal of the public editor role shows. We are stewards of The Times, committed to preserving its voice and authority.

You often speak about the importance of engaging readers, of valuing, investing in and giving a voice to readers.

Dean and Joe: We are your readers, and you have turned your backs on us.

We abhor your decision to wipe out the copy desk. But as we continue this difficult transition, we ask that you sharply increase the available positions for the 109 copy editors, as well as an unknown number of other staff members, who have effectively lost their jobs as a result of your actions.

We worry that if we do not speak out, you will feel emboldened to make similarly sweeping staff reductions elsewhere in the company without debate. We worry that the errors and serious breaches of Times standards that copy editors catch each day will go unnoticed — until we are embarrassed into making corrections. We worry, in short, that the newsroom has forgotten why these layers of editing were created in the first place. But we still believe in The Times.

We ask that you believe in us.

Respectfully,

The Copy Desk

 

[image via Shutterstock]

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