Those words come from an internal survey that the New York Times conducted in preparing a January 2017 strategy report. Consensus had settled around the urgency of editorial streamlining: “The Times currently devotes too many resources to low-value editing — and, by extension, too many to editing overall. Our journalism and our readers would be better served if we instead placed an even higher priority on newsgathering in all of its forms,” reads the report by the so-called 2020 Group.
And this week, the New York Times masthead acted on that priority. A memo from Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn announced a buyout “primarily focused on reducing layers of editors,” though some reporters might qualify. With the savings from the buyout, the newspaper aims to hire about 100 additional staffers — mainly reporters and videographers and the like.
Meanwhile: “What we now know as the copy desk will no longer exist,” reads the memo.
So just what is the New York Times scrapping, and what is it building? We checked in with New York Times associate managing editor for standards Phil Corbett for the nitty-gritty. By way of caution, Corbett noted that the new processes at the newspaper will vary from desk to desk, and that the institution’s tendency to let every darned editor touch the copy will persevere in certain situations. “I’m pretty confident that most important and sensitive stories that we do are still going to get edited to within an inch of their lives,” says Corbett. “We will still give reporters a lot of reason to complain of too many editors.”
Status Quo Ante Memorandum: According to Corbett — and some editorial commentary from this blog — this is how a typical New York Times story has long progressed from idea to finished product:
*The story starts out with a consultation between a reporter and a so-called “backfield” editor, or assigning editor. In some cases, there could be more than one of these backfielders in the process.
*The backfield editor polishes the story according to its needs, which are sometimes light and sometimes overwhelming. Some veteran backfield editors at the paper are owed thousands of bylines.
*The story then moves along to a supervisor at the copy desk — or the “slot editor” — who assigns it to a copy editor.
*Copy editor imposes the austere New York Times style on the piece, often inputting a “courtesy title” such as “Mr.” or “Ms.” or several. Copy editors being some of the keenest people on earth, they also clean up the messes left by the assigning editor; spot and eliminate logical lapses that would have launched at least 3,000 derisive tweets; vaporize out-of-place modifiers; flag problems with balance and fairness; nail factual errors to the cubicle walls; write headlines and captions; and wish that their colleagues would stop making the same damn style mistakes every time.
*Once finished, the copy editor relinquishes the piece to the slot editor, who then reads through the copy, amending as needed. The slot editor then slots it to appear online, in print and so on.
*If the story is sensitive and important, to borrow Corbett’s thresholds, masthead editors will swoop in and big-foot the story according to their prescriptions. Also: At some point, photo editors and web producers hop in and do their thing.
Status Quo Post Memorandum: Under the new system, says Corbett, the New York Times “in many cases” will have “a single editor who’ll take greater ownership of a story from beginning to end.” That editor, says Corbett, will need to be versatile, with line-editing and copy-editing skills. Then? “I think that the expectation is that there would still be a final set of eyes on it. You know, one more quick look,” says Corbett.
One of the reasons that this consolidation is possible, continues Corbett, is that people are learning more and more of the skills involved in digital publishing. “Reporters in some cases are starting to propose headlines … In many cases, reporters are doing things like adding links, adding related stories that will be part of the digital presentation.”
A former copy editor himself, Corbett affirms the importance of this position. “Many, if not most, of these people are still going to be here, but they’ll be doing it as a part of a broader process. The fact is, many backfielders here are people who came to the Times as copy editors.”
Millions of nitpicking New York Times readers, rev your social-media passwords: The paper of record is about to take a pair or two of eyeballs off routine pieces of journalism. Corbett welcomes whatever criticism may result. “I always think that the day readers no longer complain about mistakes in the New York Times will be a sad day,” he says. That’ll be the day that they don’t expect excellence anymore.
Asked if he’s worried about the streamlining, Corbett says, “I’m always worried. I mean, that’s sort of my job, is to be worried.”