Sunday, June 12, 2011

More work, still underemployed

What a difference a weekend and a couple of Gmail filters can make.

The last week marked the second of my transition off the government’s unemployment rolls after taking a contract job as copy editor with Patch.com, a network of hyper-local news websites in smaller communities around the nation. It’s been described as AOL’s attempt to return local news to smaller communities (see Patch’s About Us page).

This is a wonderful opportunity, although I remain woefully underemployed.

Copy editing is an unseen art in journalism – generally speaking, the only time anyone pays attention to copy editors is when a mistake makes it into the paper – or these days, onto the website.

It is an art whose value has diminished among publishers today. I believe that’s a fair assessment; there are far too many copy editors among the ranks of my fellow unemployed journalists. Copy editors are the ones who make sure the i’s are dotted, the t’s are crossed, the commas and periods and other punctuation marks are in the right places and used correctly. We write headlines – some clever, many straightforward. We edit or rewrite photo captions, and perhaps less frequently these days, double-check a reporter’s facts.

In recent years, many of us have done double duty designing pages (or conversely, page designers have done double duty as copy editors). Today, with newspapers having their own websites, copy editors also must write headlines for Web pages (using search-engine optimization techniques), among myriad additional responsibilities thrust upon them in a time of deep staff cuts and advancing technologies.

For Sun-Times Media, many of my former colleagues and I apparently represented mere numbers whose omission would help balance a ledger. Ultimately, the company is decimating a depth and breadth of institutional knowledge and experience that will take years to replace; whether Sun-Times Media actually has that much time left, and if it does, whether it even has an interest in rebuilding that remains to be seen.

Large media companies elsewhere also are pulling back their coverage areas, closing publications in less-profitable venues, laying off staff, consolidating operations, among many other cost-cutting measures.

I want to be fair and emphasize that Sun-Times Media is not the only company doing this, although I am more keenly aware of the details there. I worked there a long time and follow it more closely than others, largely because I still have a dwindling number of longtime friends and former colleagues there.

Nearly the entire newspaper industry is in turmoil – McClatchy Newspapers recently sold 10 acres of land in Florida that was more valuable than the company's stock, according to Bloomberg.com. The land sold for $236 million; the value of the company’s stock was $234.7 million on May 27. According to Bloomberg.com, McClatchy’s stock has lost 94 percent of its value in the past five years.

That sounds very familiar to me.

Media giant Gannett has taken actions reminiscent of my experience at Sun-Times Media, requiring employees to take quarterly furloughs, cutting 20 percent of its workforce in the past three years and consolidating some of its newspaper design operations. So, instead of having a production staff that edits and designs and produces its own paper, Gannett plans to have regional hubs serving groups of newspapers in multiple states.

An aside: Maybe Gannett will do it right. Copley Newspapers tried to do it with The Courier-News and the other daily newspapers it eventually sold to the company now known as Sun-Times Media. Copley's effort was a miserable failure, resulting in embarrassing mistakes, stifled creativity and a homogenized design that failed to help the individual papers stand out much in their own communities. Ultimately, it only helped accelerate the loss of circulation.

Sun-Times Media, which dismantled the failed Copley experiment when it took over 10 or 11 years ago, decided it could do Copley one better when it chose to repeat the blunder in 2008. Company leaders who initiated the move said the Copley mistakes would not be repeated. Of course, those leaders had not lived through the creation of Copley's centralization monster. In that regard, they contributed yet another piece of anecdotal evidence in favor of philosopher and poet George Santayana's often misquoted expression, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

They increased the magnitude of the mistake by adding expectations regarding the use of new media but then failed to put in place any kind of plan to do so – if there was such a plan, it was never clearly communicated to the folks in the trenches. There were some of us who did have at least some of the vision for the changes that needed to take place, but we had no authority to implement those changes or to direct others to do so. As a result, at least in the West Division offices in Aurora, there was a group of people, each of whom held his or her own vision of how they believed the company should be run, but no one rallying the troops under a single, united vision.

Back on point: But where deserts lie, some see a promised land.

Patch.com is attempting to plow into those areas many media companies are abandoning or have forsaken already: small to  midsized communities that still have a need and thirst for local news. Today, the industry buzzword as it pertains to news is “hyper-local” – meaning that media companies must be THE experts and THE source of local information for the communities they cover.

So Patch.com hires a local editor to establish a small news-gathering operation in the targeted community with the goal of establishing a website that eventually will cover the costs of covering news in that area.

In the northwest suburbs, I am copy editing for 12 Patch.com sites whose local editors recognize the value of a copy editor. It feels good to be appreciated by co-workers again. Actually, it feels good just to have co-workers again. I now am a contractor for two hyper-local media companies – locally owned and run BocaJump.com in Elgin and Patch.com; for BocaJump.com I work as a reporter; for Patch.com, I am a copy editor. The folks at both see a value in my skills and talents. They're good people trying to make a living providing something their communities need – information about what's happening in their town or city.

I’ve been a good newsman over the years and have become an exceptional copy editor. I say that not in a prideful way, not to brag, really. I certainly would hope that after working seven years as a reporter and 17 as a copy editor, I should be able to say I am an exceptional copy editor. If, after all that time, I was not, then there are some bosses I’ve had who should get a swift boot in the rear.

I’ve had, however, some really excellent high school teachers who encouraged my love of reading and pushed me to write. And I have had some great bosses and supervisors over the years – I’d say the talents and skills I have today reflect well on them and the time they took to help me hone them.

OK – there are several who might take exception to any suggestion that they have had any part in cultivating my taste (or lack thereof) in puns. To be fair, I'm quirky: When I was a kid with an aquarium, I was the one who liked ugly fish; as an adult, I still like ugly fish – and I like bad puns, too.

Puns are an occupational hazard, however, and whether they want to admit it or not, they have encouraged that.