Sure, New York Times, You Can Get by With Fewer Editors But Better Be Ready to Hire More Lawyers

The New York Times plans to reduce the number of its copy editors. From Poynter this morning:

New York Times reporters plea for copy editors’ jobs in letter to bosses

New York Times reporters on Thursday sent a letter to the paper’s top editors to protest the oncoming cuts to the newsroom’s editing staff.

The letter, addressed to Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joe Kahn, will be followed up by a “collective coffee break” held by the editorial staff at 3 p.m. in a show of newsroom solidarity.

“Dear Dean and Joe,” the letter reads. “We write to you as the saved — those whose copy, facts and sometimes the intelligibility of a sentence or two have been hammered into shape by our friends and colleagues on the editing desks.

“Our editors ask smart questions, engage passionately with our copy, and serve as our safety nets. Editors — and yes, that especially means copy editors — save reporters and The Times every day from countless errors, large and small.”

For readers, copy editors are important not only for good grammar but also for making copy read more smoothly and for calling the writer’s attention to language that could be confusing.  Worthy goals but maybe too vague for bean counters at the Times and other places.

Something else good copy editors do that might speak more directly to the bean counters:

Copy editors can keep you out of very expensive legal trouble.

In 40 years as an editor, managing an editorial budget and always trying to find an extra $100 or $500 to pay a writer, nothing was more dispiriting than sitting in a conference room and seeing thousands of dollars, sometimes hundreds of thousand dollars, of the magazine’s money disappear into the pockets of lawyers.

If someone threatens to sue, you’ll be sitting with your legal representation, often a law firm partner and two associates. The partner is charging $500 an hour, the two associates $250 an hour. That’s $1,000 an hour to get the legal defense started.

Then they go back to their law firm and do research and write letters and you wait for monthly bills: This month it’s only $11,000; that’s better than last month’s $16,000. If you get into interrogatories and depositions, you’re looking at bills of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Go to trial and the legal bills can easily hit a million dollars.

So save thousands of dollars on copy editors, New York Times, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t end up costing you millions in legal fees.
The Washingtonian once ran a story about auto theft; it was written by one of those reporters who thought it was his job to be more effective than the justice system in trying and convicting bad people.  Several questionable characters appeared in the story but when I gave it a final reading it looked legally safe.

After the issue came out, a lawyer sent me a letter, threatening to sue on behalf of one of the questionable characters. He said it was libelous to say of his client “Among his other criminal activities” when the client never had been convicted of a crime.

Whoa, where did “Among his other criminal activities” come from? It wasn’t in the final galley. Oh, the copy editor said, the writer inserted it at the last minute.

A week of negotiations between our lawyer and his lawyer, a painful settlement, a painful legal bill. It’s why you need good copy editors.










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