Catching up with the times

Buffett headlineAny good newspaper reporter knows well the terror of waking in a cold sweat at 2 a.m. and dreading an error that’s about to land on readers’ doorsteps.

So it’s not too hard to imagine how someone in Greensboro, N.C., felt Friday when he or she realized the News & Record had misspelled its new owner’s last name in a headline on the front page. BH Media Group, a subsidiary of billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway, bought the 122-year-old newspaper, which sells 58,000 copies daily and 86,000 Sunday. It had been owned by Landmark Communications of Norfolk, Va., since 1965.

Warren Buffett
Warren Buffett

The newspaper announced the deal in a one-column headline that said: Buffet media buys paper.

Of course, misspelling the last name of one of the world’s richest men attracts plenty of unwanted attention in today’s world of social media. I read some snarky comments.

It was the timing of the mistake I found interesting. It comes on the heels of an announcement made this week in the newsrooms of at least some Lee Enterprises newspapers, including the Quad-City Times, to eliminate copy editor/page designer positions at those newspapers. Those jobs will be consolidated, I’m told, at regional hubs in Lincoln, Neb., and Madison, Wis. Copy editors and page designers at the hubs will paginate pages for the Times and the other newspapers, which most likely includes the Muscatine Journal.

To the best of my knowledge this has not been announced publicly by the company or any of the newspapers involved. And I didn’t call to confirm it, but if anyone with knowledge would like to have a say, I’ll approve on-the-record comments that appear in the moderation queue for this blog.

The move to regional design hubs isn’t a big surprise. It has already been done by other companies, including Gannett Co., which has a regional design center at the Des Moines Register. I spoke Friday with a former Lee colleague who now oversees a regional publishing center for another newspaper chain on the East Coast. And Lee had already been experimenting with a design hub in Munster, Ind.

For the companies, it makes sense because it can help keep their expenses more in line with revenue, which has diminished in the past decade. And if you are the editor of a newspaper, losing your copy editors — as bad as that may be — is still better than losing reporters, the people who gather and report news. Good reporting isn’t something that can be done from far away.

But make no mistake, this will not be good for the newspapers or the communities they serve. For the same reason a copy editor in Greensboro didn’t know how to spell Buffett, it’s likely a copy editor in Madison, Wis., may someday misspell Eisele Hill or any of several other Muscatine landmarks with names that are difficult to master. These mistakes are easy enough to make as it is and will become more common as more and more copy is read by faraway eyes.

Institutional memory is a hard asset on which to place value, but it will be lost over time, I fear, when editing and design work is being done far away — often by people who are young, inexperienced or hurried because they have other pages to produce for other newspapers.

The other big downside to regional design hubs is what the move may mean for deadlines. Most likely, deadlines will be earlier than they are now because not everyone can have the last pages to be done at night when many newspapers are all being produced by one crew in a central location. Moving deadlines to earlier at night could mean that a lot of high school and other local sports might not get into the next morning’s newspaper.

And that could alienate readers at the expense of cost savings for the company.

It all makes me happier than ever to no longer be a part of the only profession to which I ever really wanted to belong. To me, it was always more than just a job. But I don’t miss going to work every day and wondering if it would be my last to have that job. That is the dark cloud under which I imagine many of my friends and former colleagues still go to work every day.

I wish them well and I hope they find better days ahead. But for many of them, I don’t think those better days will include regional design hubs.