Monday, November 9, 2009

Humor in the face of outsourcing

Journalists are among the funniest people I've ever met.

They're razor sharp, have a dry wit, and can mimic with perfection the mannerisms and speech of many of the newsmakers they cover.

So I had to laugh out loud at the drubbing given to Toronto Star Publisher John Cruickshank at the hands of his paper's copy desk -- the same people whose jobs likely will be outsourced by management to save money.

The Star, Canada's largest-circulation daily, announced plans last week to restructure through buyouts and other actions, including outsourcing and layoffs. The outsourcing -- moving copy editing and page-layout duties outside the company -- could affect 100 newsroom jobs, according to the union representing the workers.

So in a bit of tit for tat, one (or several) of the creative folks on the copy desk took a red pen to the publisher's memo to staff. To the uninitiated -- and those of the digital-only age -- that means marking up the text for style errors, jargon and a missed opportunity on leading with the news. Gawker got hold of a copy of the red-penned text.

(Full disclosure: I remember when editing was done with what was called a red grease pencil (shown above), which subsequently became a red fine-point marker. I received a framed, red-penned "story" as a going-away gift from a reporter when I left one editing job for another at a cross-town rival. I guess the reporter didn't think so highly of my thoughtful tweaking of her work. I laughed then, too.)

The Star incident was full of the gallows humor that newsrooms are noted for. But, unfortunately, it masked a more serious issue: the continued pummeling of print journalists as newspaper companies scramble to make money. The Star is no different than its U.S. counterparts in reporting ongoing losses for its print holdings in the third quarter.

And it's not alone in trying to find new staffing patterns: The Nieman Journalism Lab today published the text of an address last week to the New York Times newsroom by Executive Editor Bill Keller in which he touched on several money-saving ideas, including the need to find new efficiency in staffing the copy and layout desks.

The one bright spot, though, was his statement on endless belt-tightening: "The idea that you can do 'more with less' is, in my view, one of the four great lies. ... What you can do with less, is less."

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