Why Saving The New York Times’ Copy Desk Matters to All of Us

07/07/2017

By Grant Glickson
President, The NewsGuild of New York

“This sign wsa not edited”

“Without us, it’s the New Yrok Times”

“Copy editors save our buts”

Protest signs have a way of going straight to the heart of a matter, cutting extraneous words to convey information in a way that’s clear and concise, but never dull.

They’re poster-board illustrations of what copy editors do on a grand scale every day, meticulous work that is as vital to journalism as reporting itself.

Reporters know it, and so does every reader who’s ever caught a typo, a grammar error or a factual mistake in a story. 

And yet The New York Times is determined to join the industry-wide epidemic of newsrooms who have taken an ax to their copy desks — and their reputations — over the last decade.

Yesterday, I watched dozens of copy editors get the news that there was no room for them at the Times. Through our recent collective action, we were able to secure approximately a dozen more copy editing jobs. Still, the Times commenced with tearing down its copy desk in favor of “streamlined” editing process. A process that has been tried before, and, ultimately, failed. (Example: The Washington Post had let go of many copy editors only to hire more copy editors.) 

Last Thursday, carrying signs with deliberate typos and other messages in support of copy editors, as well as photo editors who are also under siege at The Times, hundreds of angry NewsGuild members and supporters marched outside the building in protest of these cuts. 

“Like nearly everyone we know in the newsroom, we believe that the plan to eliminate dozens of editing jobs and do away with the copy desks is ill-conceived and unwise, and will damage the quality of our product,” reporters said in a letter to Times management. “It will make us sloppier, more error-prone. It will undermine the reputation that generations have worked to build and maintain, the reputation that keeps readers coming back.”

Copy editors wrote to management the day before the protest, spelling out the dangers of cutting their ranks by at least in half — to 55, at best under the company’s plan for buyouts and layoffs, from a staff of more than 100 now. 

It matters, in particular, that this is happening at The Times, as the Columbia Journalism Review explained last week: “While the Times is not starting a trend, it nonetheless is sending a powerful message to the rest of the news industry: If the Times can cut its backfield and copy desk, then executives elsewhere can more easily justify similar cuts.”

The Times’ thorough, multi-level editing process has been the industry’s gold standard. To “streamline” the process, as management calls it, copy editors who want to stay are being put through degrading interviews to reapply for their jobs. It shows appalling disrespect for talented, dedicated, loyal professionals, many of them with decades of experience and institutional knowledge.

Let’s be clear: These are good, fair-wage jobs and it’s our moral duty as a union to fight for them. We do so vigorously, for all our members, and we stand proudly with other unions waging the same battles.

But as The NewsGuild of New York, we also care deeply about the survival of quality journalism and know that our democracy can't survive without it.

Arguably, skilled copy editors are more essential than ever in an era stained by bogus claims that the Times and other respected media organizations are “fake news.”

We’re grateful to the scores of other media workers, as well as fellow union members, who are helping us send that message, from demonstrating with us to setting social media afire with pictures and posts.

From Vanity Fair’s Hollywood correspondent Rebecca Keegan, “RT if a copy editor has saved you from a mortifying error. Like if you're you're a copy editor and you've got a better way to phrase this.”

Readers get mad at newspapers for all sorts of reasons, of course, but troubles multiply without a healthy, vigilant copy desk. We’re doing everything in our power to stop The Times from making the kind of mistake that can’t be corrected with an editor’s keystroke.

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