By dismantling its copy desk, The New York Times is making a mistake that’s been made before

Two decades ago, I wrote a critical essay titled “Goodbye Copy Desks, Hello Trouble.” What prompted that Newspaper Research Journal piece was a brief experiment in eliminating free-standing copy desks – an approach taken in the mid-’90s by a few regional newspapers.

Those papers thought that moving copy editors onto reporting or production teams would solve some long-standing problems and, not incidentally, save money by realigning staff resources. Some viewed the change as a way to replace an archaic assembly-line model of news production. The approach ultimately was copied by very few papers, and some that eliminated their copy desks soon found it wise to start rebuilding them. Too many mistakes were appearing in print, and headline-writing suffered. The papers mostly abandoned the experiment, and the lessons learned have been forgotten.

With The New York Times planning to dismantle its free-standing copy desk, it’s a good time to remember them. Do the questions remain valid today? Do they point to what The Times risks by implementing this plan?

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The Times’ idea is to reduce its 100-plus-person copy editing staff by reassigning some into a hybrid role – “strong editors” who will be expected to handle both assigning and copy editing duties. The rest will lose their jobs, either through buyouts or layoffs. How many will be reassigned remains unclear.

The copy editors understandably were hurt and angry. They agree that change is necessary, but they say they’re ready and willing to adapt. According to a letter they wrote to Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn, the company insultingly views much of what they do as “low-value editing” and the decision to eliminate the free-standing desk “betrays a stunning lack of knowledge” of what copy editors do. Reporters agreed, sending their own letter to management. The reporters said that the plan “is ill-conceived and unwise, and will damage the quality of our product. It will make us sloppier, more error-prone.”

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