The Washington Post's plan to drag the editing process into the 21st century.

The Washington Post's plan to drag the editing process into the 21st century.

The Washington Post's plan to drag the editing process into the 21st century.

Media criticism.
March 14 2008 4:58 PM

From Assembly Line to Network at the Post

The Washington Post's plan to drag the editing process into the 21st century.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

It's an observation that would warm the heart of media theorist Marshall McLuhan:

Newspapers cling to an assembly-line model for news production even though computers and other technologies have rendered it obsolete. Information, which once marched in orderly lines from sources to reporters to editors to mammoth printing presses to fleets of delivery trucks to readers, now caroms every which way in a network.

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That's Washington Post Managing Editor Phil Bennett's notion, and it's the kernel of a memo Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Bennett e-mailed to the Post newsroom today about a pilot program to capitalize on the power of the network and shake up the editing process at the Post's A section. The Post brass plans to bring these changes to the rest of the paper eventually.

The press-centric orientation even influences how news is sorted and organized into predetermined "sections," says Bennett. But the rise of the Web has vanquished the traditional once-a-day production cycle as reporters and editors in the Post newsroom file original stories to Washingtonpost.com to feed 24-hour-a-day news consumption.

Although Bennett calls the memo "fairly modest," it calls for dramatic changes in the production of the paper. The plan shifts editing resources to earlier in the day, merges the night National and Foreign copy desks, reroutes the editing of feature stories and nonbreaking enterprise news pieces and projects to daylight hours, and eliminates the bottlenecks that tend to form at the end of the day.

The plan also mandates "fewer touches" on some stories by editors, which will elicit cheers from many Post reporters. They've long complained about "drive-by editing" in which editors up and down the chain of command drop into their stories and fiddle with them to the point of destruction. According to the memo, a half-dozen editors routinely make changes on A-section stories, and an internal audit discovered one inside story that 12 different editors changed.

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The layers of editing newspapers lavish on stories have long been regarded an essential safety net. But Bennett says, "It's time to put the net away." He's confident that reduced editing won't necessarily sacrifice quality if it's done smartly. As an example, he points to the quality work done by reporters whose copy appears on the Post's Web site without the extensive editing and re-editing traditionally lavished on the print product.

"The more people who touch a story, the less authority and responsibility each take," Bennett says.

The reason many newspapers rely so heavily on editors—a reason rarely spoken—is that some reporters can't write. Their copy isn't edited as much as it's rewritten. Bennett has a message for them: "Reporters who can't write are a dying breed."

Improving publications by eliminating meddlesome editing is a regular theme  of my Slate colleague Mickey Kaus, who will do cartwheels when he learns of the Post initiative. Alan D. Mutter, who blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur, started a ruckus on Romenesko last month when he saluted the idea of throwing a few newspaper editors overboard.

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Streamlining newspapers by jettisoning layers of editing won't be enough for one magazine columnist of my acquaintance. Spoiled by the Web, he complained to me that it now takes longer for his editors to close one of his magazine pieces than it does for him to write it as they poke and tinker with it for days. If Slate suffers any drop in quality because it rejects magazine-style editing and copy-editing, I think it more than makes up for it in timeliness with a Webby approach that gives maximum control to writers. (Note to Slate copy staff: I've never worked with a staff that did better work faster or faster work better, so let no hurt feelings ensue.)

Newspapers everywhere face falling circulation and revenues, with many shrinking their staffs. The Post recently announced an employee buyout, following similar buyouts in 2003 and 2006. Today, the newsroom employs about 300 reporters and just fewer than 300 editors, Bennett says.

But staff cuts aren't what the editing plan is about. He envisions a "flexible" copy system whose primary design is to put "original journalism in play in the Web and the paper."

"Cutting reporting jobs is suicide," he says.

******

My conversation with Bennett spanned more acreage than a free-ranging chicken bulking up in an Iowa corn field for a sumo wrestling match, so this brief article doesn't really do it justice. Topics we discussed included his questions, "What does the front page want to become?" and "What is the lifespan of a story and how does it grow?" We also marveled at how Dan Balz does what he does. And more. I laughed out loud when he called the Washington Post "that thing we throw at your door." But be quiet, dear reader! I think I hear a meddlesome editor approaching to cut me off! Send your universal editing instructions to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

(E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: Here's a hand-built RSS feed that will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word editing in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.