An old pal of mine who works for a Media General newspapers has just relayed some interesting information about how that giant news corporation is restructuring and centralizing the editing function of its organization.
Traditionally, newspapers—except for the smallest—have had what they called copy desks and, most often, a group of copy editors would sit in a circular configuration where they edited the day’s stories and designed the paper and occasionally threw food at each other. In the olden days, when I did some copy editing in this type of setup, we all smoked dozens of cigarettes, drank gallons of coffee and cussed loudly and often during our shift, but I digress.
All of the news copy for a given cycle (daily, weekly) goes through the copy desk. A few copy desks serve both a television station and newspaper in the same market with the same owner. I am not aware of a single copy desk serving more than one organization except in the TV/newspaper rare exception. There may be one or two.
Media General is planning to change that for its papers, my friend tells me. MG owns three metro papers--Richmond, Winston-Salem and Tampa--and they are merging into two copy desks, one in Tampa, one in Richmond.
My pal continues, “All of the community dailies and weeklies (23 community dailies) and non-dailies (couple of hundred, maybe? Who knows?) are merging into two desks, one for North Carolina in Hickory and one for Virginia in Lynchburg. It’s already happening.” The Virginia community dailies are in Manassas, Culpeper, Charlottesville, Waynesboro, Lynchburg, Danville and Bristol (which recently won a Pulitzer Prize).
Sounds like the same kind of assembly line Henry Ford invented. My wife calls it "the Clearchannelization of local news," especially when you consider that there won't be any institutional memory in those far-flung copy desks. Newspapers, especially, live and die on institutional memory. These copy editors know when a young writer calls Franklin Road, Franklin Street or when when that writer doesn't know that two mayors back, the guy in the big chair wound up in the clank for selling dope. Little stuff like that will slip through and ruin any semblance of credibility. But this is the brave--cheap--new world.
Fewer people will apparently be doing the work, which seems to be the trend in a business that is rapidly killing itself.
(Update: An editor at one of the Media General papers takes issue with my friend's assessment of the editing situation there. This editor says news stories are assigned and given a first edit [“and sometimes a second or even third edit”] at their paper of origin, then are transmitted to the central editing area. He also says that at one of the community papers, MG hired extra reporters when the desk was moved to to a central location. He also insists there are "as many, if not more, copy editors and designers on the Virginia consolidated community desk as before.” Seems these guys have different opinions about what’s up.)
(Update 2: The opinion from the MG editor above is in a distinct minority. I have received several others from MG people at various levels--including execs--who believe this move is bad for the company, worse for the readers. They did not want to be identified "for obvious reasons," almost all said.)