Copy editing: Does outsourcing it make sense?

As newspapers look forward to an increasingly bleak economic future, their managers are beginning to contemplate drastic measures to cut staff and/or expenses while doing their best to avoid cutting their most important jobs: middle managers reporters.

One of the measures that seems to be in vogue recently is the outsourcing or centralization of editorial page production and copy editing. Instead of having staff lay out pages and write headlines, editors ship reporters’ copy to a specialized production house where a team of dedicated personnel put the page together at a lower cost. Canadian Press has become the latest to jump into this field (Canwest and Sun Media are already there), signing a deal with Australia’s Pagemasters to setup a North American production house.

Since my job at The Gazette is a copy editor, and Canwest also uses this kind of centralization (though to another division within Canwest), I’m not exactly a detached observer here. My union is attempting to fight the outsourcing of this work, while at least one manager at a sister paper seems to support the freedom from dealing with “mechanical” and “tedious” pagination.

But with that in mind, I have to be honest with myself, and ask: Does this work? Is this the future? Is employee opposition to this way of functioning just a matter of saving their own jobs? Or is there something inherently better about having your own copy editing staff – something that is worth more than the cost savings of outsourcing?

Some small newspapers and magazines don’t do page layout at all. They don’t have the staff for it. So they leave the layout to the experts. As the budgets crunch, larger papers who have copy editing and design staff are considering moving the work of less important pages at the back of the paper onto these production houses and concentrating their efforts on the section fronts and local news pages that are most important to readers.

Does it cost less to have a page produced by one of these production houses than to have one of your own copy editors put it together? To answer that question, one has to look at where those cost savings come from. The unions would have us believe (and no doubt there is a lot of truth to this) that the savings come mostly from paying workers less in salary and benefits. Instead of veteran, unionized copy editors, the pages would be laid out by inexperienced cheap labour. They would also point out the downside of this: the non-unionized employees are cheap, have no emotional connection to the newspaper, and might make errors because of their lack of familiarity with either the newspaper’s style or local culture. These subtle issues may be dismissed by a bean-counter, but they make a difference to readers. At least, we’d like to think they do. In reality, readers aren’t nearly as observant as we sometimes think they should be.

When rolling out these systems, both the outsourcer and outsourcee make it clear that local editors approve of the layouts and headlines done by the third party. This technically ensures local control, but in practice an editor under time and budget constraints might accept a mediocre job done by an outsourced worker instead of spending the time (and possibly money) to send it back with instructions on how to do it right.

The employers and media empires say the cost savings come mainly from centralization – instead of having a dozen people doing the same thing at a dozen different newspapers, one or two people can do the same job at one central location for all of them. This argument makes sense for things like sports scores and stock listings (which will be mostly the same for different newspapers in the same country). But what about news stories? Each newspaper will lay those out differently depending on what stories they decide to publish, which ones they deem important, and of course what kind of layout they have to work with above the ads. Since no two newspaper pages are the same (copy-and-paste exceptions notwithstanding), it’s hard to see where centralization brings efficiency here for large newspapers who already have staff who are experts in page design.

The other potential problem down the road is that this might encourage newspapers within a similar ownership group to become more like each other (kind of like the Sun papers). If newspapers have the same page dimensions, typefaces and designs, they become easier to duplicate, reducing seemingly redundant work. Centralized workers can simply copy and paste the content from one to the other. And that could lead to newspapers across the country having identical international news pages or national business pages, for example. Eventually the papers could all become identical, save for the front page and a few holes for local news.

On one hand, it sounds bad. On the other hand, it sounds silly for people in different newsrooms at different papers to edit the same wire stories about the same news events. It’s a question of whether readers think that having a local editor editing a non-local wire story is really important enough to dismiss that potential savings.

I don’t have nearly enough facts to make a complete determination of whether this centralization is good or bad in the long term for newspapers (even if I did, the decisions on such subjects are made at a much higher pay grade), and a lot of these issues are still being wrestled with by people on all three sides of this equation.

Only time will tell if this trend will save significant money for major newspaper publishers, or if there will be a backlash from readers. Either way, the problems facing newspapers are much larger than whether the person laying out pages is local or not.

3 thoughts on “Copy editing: Does outsourcing it make sense?

  1. Laurence Miall

    I rather admire that you can discuss so dispassionately the pros and cons of outsourcing your own job!

    While I am not as familiar with The Montreal Gazette as I am with some other Canadian newspapers, and I have no clue how these papers are supposed to stop the current bleeding, one thing seems clear to me. If newspapers continue to cut staff, create a culture of low morale, make their papers smaller, eliminate and merge sections, they will simply downsize themselves into irrelevance. The other day, I purchased a weekend edition of the Globe and Mail because I had to kill some time at the airport. Boy, for $2.50, it was one hell of a disappointment. Thin, lacking substance, and full of columnists who clearly churn out their 750 words in an hour or so, chiefly because it’s gossip, requiring no research. I contrast this to the magazines I’m happily subscribed to, The Walrus, The Believer, The New Yorker, and there is no question that the magazines are by far the better investment for me.

    Again, I’m not offering any informed opinion on this; I just think it’s only logical that if papers make their product worse and worse every year, they will eventually just die out. Maybe in the future there will be fewer papers, but those that survive will have figured out that they will have to offer the best damn reading experience they possibly can. The seeming demise of newspapers does not mean we’re all a bunch of apathetic troglodytes out there. If you’re the sort of person who’s going to buy a paper at all, you’re quite likely also the kind of person who will notice shoddy copy editing. Standards must not only be maintained, they must be raised!

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