Remember when we used to have newspapers?

Remember when we used to have newspapers? July 10, 2009

What's the absolute minimum number of people required to copy edit a daily newspaper?

One way to find out, it seems, is to conduct an experiment. Take a functional copy desk and subtract 20 percent of its staff. Look at that — they still managed to somehow get everything read and onto the page. With headlines even.

OK, then, try again. Let's eliminate another 20 percent and toss in some rolling furloughs so that the full complement of remaining personnel is never all there at once. Wow — they still managed to do the job, more or less. Sure there's a noticeable decline in the quality and attention given to the product, but the quality isn't yet declining in a one-to-one ratio with the reduction in staff. And no marked increase in the cost of litigation for libel. Not quite yet, anyway.

So this week the nation's largest newspaper chain pushed its experiment even further. We lost another 25 percent of the remaining skeleton crew on our copy desk yesterday. Good people who were good at their jobs who are now looking for new careers.

This morning our readers received several pages of newsprint covered with words and pictures. It's possible that many of those words were accurate, but I really can't say for sure. ([Woody] I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. I think it involves Russia. [/Woody])

The experiment, it seems to me, has reached its conclusion. We now can say, with some confidence, how many copy editors is not enough.

One unintended, but predictable, outcome of this experiment will likely be that some of our remaining readers won't be delighted to learn that they are the first human being — ever — to read some of the sentences put before them and they may, in turn, decide to join the ever-growing fellowship of former newspaper readers. The ensuing decline in readership will, again in turn, suggest to some that there ought to be an additional corresponding reduction in the number of copy editors. Repeat as necessary until finished — it shouldn't be too long.

So it's a frenetic end to a stressful week and what with the extra hours and the survivor's guilt and the frustrated rage that arises from watching good craftsmenpeople and good craft smanship suffer and from seeing the public trust run aground due to the reckless quarterly myopia of irresponsible bean-counters — what with all that, I'm afraid I haven't time today to give Bruce Barnes' sermon the full attention its peculiar awfulness merits. So this week's LBFriday installment will be somewhat abbreviated, but it should be posted shortly.

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