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Why hundreds of New York Times employees staged a walkout

For those in the business of words, copy editors are considered the “safety nets,” the meticulous proofreaders who catch everything from spelling mistakes to major factual errors.

And in the era of “fake news,” averting error is more important than ever.

For these reasons and others, employees at the New York Times are outraged over a recent decision to eliminate the newspaper’s stand-alone copy desk, a team that includes more than 100 copy editors. These editors have been invited to apply for about 50 available positions.

The imminent staff cuts are part of a broader effort at the Times to restructure the operation of the newsroom, an attempt to “streamline” by reducing the layers of editing. But copy editors say the move has forced them into a “humiliating process of justifying our continued presence at The New York Times.”

Other employees across the newsroom share their anger. Hundreds of Times employees staged a walkout on Thursday afternoon to protest the cuts. Employees from various corners of the newsroom left their desks, walked down to the ground floor and marched around the building near Times Square. They carried signs displaying a slew of copy errors:

“Without us, it’s the New Yrok Times”

“Copy editors save our buts”

“This sign wsa not edited”

“We kneed are editors! They make us look smart.”

The hope, according to a letter from the New York NewsGuild, was that “the utter silence of a suddenly cleared out newsroom, and the news coverage of the event,” would send a “powerful message of discontent.”

Though Thursday’s walkout was brief, it resonated across social media. Former and current reporters and editors tweeted in support of the protest, recalling moments in which copy editors came to their rescue.

The protest followed letters from copy editors and reporters to Dean Baquet, the newspaper’s executive editor, and Joseph Kahn, the managing editor, pleading for reconsideration of the decision or at least for an increase in the number of available editing positions.

The letter from the copy editors said:

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.

“Covfefe” referred to a misfired tweet from President Trump that attracted wide attention in May and has since become, among other things, an emblem of sloppy writing and failed editing.

But making these cuts and “expecting the same level of quality in the report, is dumbfoundingly unrealistic,” the copy editors wrote. They also called out the recent decision by the Times to eliminate the position of the public editor.

The letter from reporters said that in cutting copy editors, the Times was “hacking off one of its own arms.” The reporters wrote that while the Times has undergone many rounds of staff layoffs and buyouts in the past, “none were as destructive to morale — nor, we fear, as destructive to The Times — as this one. It is something different in kind.”

The two top editors at the Times, Baquet and Kahn, issued a response to the copy editors, clarifying that while they are indeed eliminating a “free standing copy desk,” they are not “eliminating copy editing.” The letter stated that most of the currently employed copy editors will find new editing jobs at the Times.

“We have also made clear that in an environment of limited resources, we intend to invest more in recruiting top talent to keep us ahead on the biggest stories of our time and the best ways to tell those stories to a growing readership.”

When an article is prepared for publication at the Times, it currently has to go through a layered editing process. First, it is sent to “backfielders,” editors who assign stories and work closely with reporters. Then it is sent to any number of copy editors, who write headlines, check facts and sources, clarify confusion and make sure the story meets Times standards. The Times plans to realign this system by replacing it with one layer of editors who will fill all of these roles.

The company also recently offered buyouts to employees and said if it does not get enough takers it will have to follow up with layoffs. These layoffs could also affect reporters, according to a memo obtained by the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based center of journalism education.

Buyouts and layoffs are familiar, dreaded terms for reporters and editors in newsrooms across the country. A massive decline in print advertising revenue over the years has forced many papers to go out of business and others to dramatically downsize. In only 15 years, American newspapers have cut their staffs by more than half, from 412,000 employees in 2001 to 174,000 last year.

But these financial woes come at a time in which the news industry faces intense pressure to produce more accurate, responsible journalism.

The president and his administration have made press-bashing a regular theme, describing news outlets as “dishonest” purveyors of “fake news.” He once called the media “the enemy of the American People!”

One of Trump’s most recent barrages of tweets against the press came this week, when he blasted CNN after the network retracted a story about alleged ties between Trump’s allies and Russia.

Many of his attacks have been against what he has dubbed “the failing New York Times.”

The Times drew criticism for an erroneous editorial published earlier this month shortly after a gunman opened fire on Republican lawmakers during a baseball practice in Alexandria, Va. The editorial — which was later corrected — compared the shooting to the 2011 mass shooting in Arizona that wounded former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

“Before the shooting” in Arizona, it read, “Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.”

In fact, the map had put crosshairs over targeted electoral districts but not Democratic politicians.

Former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Palin filed a defamation lawsuit Tuesday against the New York Times, saying the newspaper “falsely stated as a matter of fact” that Palin had incited the attack.

In their letter to management, Times’ copy editors said that without its copy desk, the newspaper would lose its “immune system” that protects the paper from publishing “profoundly embarrassing errors, not to mention potentially actionable ones.”

“We worry that the errors and serious breaches of Times standards that copy editors catch each day will go unnoticed,” the letter stated, “until we are embarrassed into making corrections.”

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