New York Times Staff Fights Back Against Planned Copy Editor Cuts

A letter yesterday, a walkout today

Yesterday, New York Times copy editors, union members who are part of the NewsGuild, wrote a letter directed to executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joseph Kahn about the plan announced at the end of last month to flatten the paper’s layers of editors, merging copy editing duties and content editing duties into one role. The letter was a response to the plan, but also to the reinterview process for the re-conceptualized positions that was already underway.

The letter had an early ask, for the Times to lower the number of positions it plans to cut, which, according to the letter, would represent more than half of the current copy editors. “Cutting us down to 50 to 55 editors from more than 100, and expecting the same level of quality in the report, is dumbfoundingly unrealistic. Work with us on a new number,” they wrote.

Today, Times reporters, editors and other staff are showing their support for the copy editors by staging a walkout. The walkout will begin at 3 p.m. ET at The New York Times building on 242 West 41st Street.

“Editors, reporters and staff are leaving the newsroom today in a show of solidarity and support,” said Grant Glickson, president of the NewsGuild of New York. “As both the copy editors and reporters stated in their letters to executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joseph Kahn, eliminating copy editors will be detrimental to the Times’ brand. This is devastating for our members, not only because many of them might lose their jobs, but because with less editors acting as the watch dog, the reputation of reporters–the reputation of the newsroom–is on the line.”

As Glickson referenced, reporters issued their own letter this morning. “Like nearly everyone we know in the newsroom, we believe that the plan to eliminate dozens of editing jobs and do away with the copy desks is ill-conceived and unwise, and will damage the quality of our product,” they write. “It will make us sloppier, more error-prone. It will undermine the reputation that generations have worked to build and maintain, the reputation that keeps readers coming back.”

You can read the full text of the letters below.

From reporters:

Dear Dean and Joe,

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.

Copy and backfield editors, producers and photo editors work in concert with one another and with the rest of us to make The New York Times the best-written and best-edited daily newspaper in the world. As hundreds of thousands of new subscribers join us for the first time, we’re left at a loss by our newspaper’s intent on hacking off one of its own arms.

Like nearly everyone we know in the newsroom, we believe that the plan to eliminate dozens of editing jobs and do away with the copy desks is ill-conceived and unwise, and will damage the quality of our product. It will make us sloppier, more error-prone. It will undermine the reputation that generations have worked to build and maintain, the reputation that keeps readers coming back. You are reducing the number of people doing the work of editing, which would be harmful enough in itself. But you plan to take work away from people who do it well, and give it to people who have not developed the same skills, and who are already over-burdened.

We writers are not in need of a companionable read before someone hits the send button on our articles. We don’t need a stroke and a purr. We want forceful, focused intellects brought to bear on our work. We realize that painful change is afoot. We’ve accepted and borne the brunt of many rounds of layoffs and buyouts. None were as destructive to morale – nor, we fear, as destructive to The Times – as this one. It is something different in kind.

Your plan adds insult to injury by requiring many longtime, highly skilled employees to apply and interview for a greatly diminished number of jobs, in sessions that were instantly dubbed “death panels” in the newsroom. Requiring them to dance for their supper sends a clear message to them, and to us, that the respect we have shown The Times will not be reciprocated.

What’s more, this change has had only the barest pretense of transparency. From where we sit, the editing “experiments” looked like flimsy, brief set-pieces, never truly tested under fire – certainly not something on which to base a whole new system. Nothing we have heard from our editor friends says otherwise. We have no idea what results they yielded; you have not told us what you believe worked, what did not, or why. As usual, management sought little input from outside its own ranks.

You are fine journalists with good values, and we prize your leadership. Please reconsider this process, and the message it sends to every corner of the newsroom and the world.

Sincerely,
The Reporters

From the copy editors:

Dear Dean and Joe,

We have begun the humiliating process of justifying our continued presence at The New York Times. We take some solace in the fact that we have been assured repeatedly that copy editors are highly respected here.

If that is true, we have a simple request. Cutting us down to 50 to 55 editors from more than 100, and expecting the same level of quality in the report, is dumbfoundingly unrealistic. Work with us on a new number.

But after living more than a year and a half under a cloud of uncertainty about our jobs, a cruelly drawn-out period in which we suspended major financial arrangements and life decisions, and carried an ever-growing kernel of fear;

After we were compared to dogs urinating on fire hydrants when we edited stories, in an internal report that called for the elimination of “low-value editing” and made it all but clear which stages of editing this referred to — so much so that it became a running joke among the copy desks for months (“How’s the low-value editing going in your section today?”) — along with the report’s implication that copy editing was merely finding “easily identifiable errors, such as spelling and grammar mistakes”;

After some of us were recruited for “editing tests” to streamline the process, or, as it turned out, figure out how to make our own jobs obsolete;

After enduring a newsroom-wide copy-editing overhaul last year that consolidated the desks, transformed the scope of our duties and confused a whole lot of reporters and section editors (but ultimately made us think we would at least keep our jobs);

After learning that this new setup would be undone just months after it was put in place, with the whiplash announcement that our jobs would simply be eliminated;

After we were told that to remain employed, we would have to apply for new “strong editor” positions meant to be a hybrid of the two types of editors at The Times, backfielders and copy editors, and realized only copy editors had to be reevaluated categorically;

After we were told that this “restructuring” would also reduce our numbers by more than half;

After completing a first round of interviews, some held by interviewers who clearly had not even read our résumés and cover letters, and competing against the very colleagues we are leaning on in these times;

After we heard that The Times would soon go on a hiring spree, just as it gets ready to shed jobs, and thought to ourselves that it is particularly ruthless to talk about all the others you intend to court as you break up with someone;

After all of this and more — we are finding it difficult to feel respected.

In fact, we feel more respected by our readers than we do by you. We are living in a strange time when routine copy-editing duties such as fact checking, reviewing sources, correcting misleading or inaccurate information, clarifying language and, yes, fixing spelling and grammar mistakes in news covfefe are suddenly matters of public discourse. As those in power declare war against the news media, as deliberately false or lackadaisical reportage finds its way into social media feeds, readers are flocking to our defense. They are sending us pizza. And they are signing up for Times subscriptions in record numbers because they understand that we go to great lengths to ensure quality and, most important, truth.

This should be a triumphant moment for all Times employees. Everyone from the ground floor up should be thrilled and proud to come to work, and walk into the building feeling valuable and needed.

And that is why it feels like such a profound waste that morale is low throughout the newsroom, and that many of us, from editors to reporters to photo editors to support staff, are angry, embittered and scared of losing our jobs.

You may have heard that the elimination of the copy desk is widely seen as a disaster in the making (including by many managers directly involved in the process), that the editing experiments were an open failure, and that there is dissension even in the highest ranks and across job titles regarding the new editing structure.

But you have decided to press forward anyway, and this decision betrays a stunning lack of knowledge of what we do at The Times. Come see what we do. See the process, what comes in and what actually goes online or to print. See what we do before you decide you can live without it.

We copy editors understand that our roles will have to change, that we must find ways to edit more efficiently, and that The Times must evolve into a nimbler, more visual, more digitally focused news outlet. We will learn and we will adapt. In fact, through many workflow changes, through the adoption of new technologies and platforms, we have already proved we can. We only ask that you not treat us like a diseased population that must be rounded up en masse, inspected and expelled.

After all, we are, as one senior reporter put it, the immune system of this newspaper, the group that protects the institution from profoundly embarrassing errors, not to mention potentially actionable ones.

We are one of the crucial layers of review that you seem so determined to erase, as the sudden removal of the public editor role shows. We are stewards of The Times, committed to preserving its voice and authority.

You often speak about the importance of engaging readers, of valuing, investing in and giving a voice to readers.

Dean and Joe: We are your readers, and you have turned your backs on us.

We abhor your decision to wipe out the copy desk. But as we continue this difficult transition, we ask that you sharply increase the available positions for the 109 copy editors, as well as an unknown number of other staff members, who have effectively lost their jobs as a result of your actions.

We worry that if we do not speak out, you will feel emboldened to make similarly sweeping staff reductions elsewhere in the company without debate. We worry that the errors and serious breaches of Times standards that copy editors catch each day will go unnoticed — until we are embarrassed into making corrections. We worry, in short, that the newsroom has forgotten why these layers of editing were created in the first place. But we still believe in The Times.

11:41 a.m.: This post has been updated with a statement from Grant Glickson.