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Denver Post's Greg Moore on learning to live without a copy desk

Last month, we shared word that the Denver Post planned to lay off two-thirds of its copy editors -- a number estimated by sources as sixteen. Turns out that was a bit high: Only eleven are exiting, with a severance package as a parting gift, because several staffers from other departments, including columnist Tina Griego, have taken the same deal. But the copy desk is already becoming a thing of the past. Editor Greg Moore explains the new system.

Moore is appealingly straight-forward about the reasons for the cuts, and why they will come from a variety of departments at the Post instead of entirely from the copy desk, as originally envisioned. "It's about money," he says. "It's mostly a dollar thing. We kept what we thought we needed in order to reasonably keep up the newspaper."

Earlier in the week, Moore spoke with Poynter's Steve Myers, who noted that in addition to the eleven departing copy editors, three others will become a reporter, a production manager and a design-desk staffer, respectively, while nine more (out of 23 total) will become assistant editors. What will they do?

A copy desk circa 1952.
A copy desk circa 1952.

"They'll be assigned to each of the department desks, and they'll be doing a number of things," Moore says. "They may do some assigning, they may do some content editing, they'll write headlines, place stories on pages, and proof some pages to make sure our display headlines on covers and page one are as good as they've ever been. But they'll also be much more a part of the entire process: posting stories online, making sure we've got SEO-friendly headlines, things of that nature. They'll have a total involvement in the content-generating process, as opposed to coming in at the end of the day and doing the tail-end kinds of things that are part of the typical copy-editor role. They're going to be more fully immersed in the entire generation process for online and print."

He illustrates this approach by outlining its practical application. "A routine story will be written by a reporter," he says. "He or she would also write an online headline, which is typically what we do now. It will be looked at by probably one of our online editors and producers, and then it will be posted."

What happens if the story is designated for print? "Let's say it was filed at 10:30 or 11 [a.m.]," Moore allows. "It will probably be pulled back at three or four o'clock and updated by the reporter. By then, they'll know what page it's going to be on, how long it will be and the headline specs, and they'll write a headline for the newspaper. After that, it would be looked at by one of the assistant editors or an assigning editor and be put on the page by a person. The headline will be checked and the button pushed and cued up for publication. As soon as that page is cleared, with all the stories and headlines on it, that page will be done."

The process for what Moore describes as "higher-profile stories" will be different: "In addition, the story would be read by a department editor: a metro editor, a features editor and so on. And if it's a page one story, it will probably be read by me or one of our deputies."

Hence, even a news brief will "probably get one or two reads," Moore says -- more than on Latest Word stories by yours truly; I write and then publish directly, in addition to editing the work of other staffers and contributors. And while that's far fewer eyeballs than in the past, Moore stresses that the paper still cares about accuracy. "If we make a mistake, we're going to correct it -- that's not going to change," he says.

Errors are more embarrassing than ever right now, given that the journalism community is watching the Post closely to see how its copy editing experiment works out. Here, for instance, is a prominent typo -- "downward sprial" instead of "downward spiral" -- in a sports headline from this week, as featured on Poynter's MediaWire page:

Denver Post's Greg Moore on learning to live without a copy desk

Granted, gaffes like this one occasionally happened under the old system, too. And Moore sees other positives in the new, leaner model.

Page down to continue reading our interview with the Denver Post's Greg Moore.

Page one of the May 25, 2012 Denver Post.
Page one of the May 25, 2012 Denver Post.

"I think it puts accountability deeper into the system, where a story is originally generated," Moore maintains. "The way the system has worked for decades, you could get a routine thing wrong, like misspelling the name of someone -- even a famous person -- and not have to worry too much, because you'd think someone on the copy desk, someone less hurried, would catch it and fix it. Now you have to be more accurate at the outset. It puts a lot of pressure on all of us in the system to do our jobs right the first time."

If budgets in the print-journalism universe weren't so tight, would he not have taken this step? Moore's answer keeps the focus on realism. "In trying to examine where you can get efficiencies and still do a very good job, this is an area where I think you can get efficiencies," he says. "And we still have a lot of journalists available to help us accomplish this task. I don't see it as being destructive to the quality of the product or anything like that. Let's put it this way: I think a number of people will develop additional skills that will make them more valuable to the business."

Some people on the Post staff are looking forward to the new responsibilities, Moore feels. "I think they're excited to be able to share a skill set with fellow journalists who don't have it, and to have the opportunity to create a learning environment -- and we're going to be doing a lot of training and teaching about copy editing and fact checking and writing headlines for print and online. So I think a number of people are excited -- excited to have a job, and excited to be contributing to the future and making us stronger."

Of course, he goes on, "nobody's happy to see colleagues leave. We have to balance against that -- and that creates anxiety and worry. But I think for those who remain, they're all committed to our product getting stronger and surviving."

The departing copy editors won't be leaving until June 15, but "we've already sort of begun working this system and doing schedules," Moore says. "We're seeing how the system works, where we have designers coming in at one o'clock and actually laying out the paper based on the budgets, based on how long the stories are supposed to be and what time it's in. And we're beginning to see that it works. So it's good."

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More from our Media archive: "Post: Rehire Mike Littwin or Penny Parker or be columnist-free 'til 2013?"


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