Newspapers have explored a variety of options to keep costs down, but one possibility — outsourced copy-editing — comes with a substantial fear that the quality of a newspaper will decline because articles will be replete with errors. Copy editors housed in the newsroom are familiar with local facts and figures, the logic goes, and that allows them to catch errors that those editing elsewhere would miss.
In a recent investigation, Justin Martin, an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar, and his undergraduate student Ralph Martins, put the notion to a test. The pair examined five newspapers that had outsourced copy-editing: the Hartford Courant, Raleigh News & Observer, Winston-Salem Journal, Newport News Daily Press, and Toronto Star. The Toronto Star outsourced copy editing to a Toronto-based company. At the other newspapers, copy editing was moved from their newsroom to a parent company.
Martin and Martins compared the number of corrections printed by the paper one year before and one year after each newspaper transitioned to having their copy editing completed elsewhere. The article, forthcoming in the academic journal Journalism Studies, shows that the number of corrections did not uniformly increase at all of these newspapers. Rather, there was considerable variability.
The number of corrections did not uniformly increase at all of these newspapers. Rather, there was considerable variability.
At the Newport News Daily Press, corrections declined after copy editing was outsourced. At the Raleigh News & Observer, the number of printed corrections increased. At the three other papers, there were no differences before and after the transition. These findings suggest that the effects of outsourcing aren’t uniformly bad — at least not in terms of the number of corrections printed.
Although it may be tempting to think of reasons why the papers’ experiences differed, the sample of five newspapers makes it difficult to reach any clear conclusions. What the authors do note is that none of the papers seem to have changed their corrections policy over the course of the editing transition. This reduces the possibility that the results are due to different handling of errors, rather than the change in copy editing.
The Northwestern team also analyzed whether the types of corrections changed. Across all the newspapers, there was very little change in the types of corrections before and after the switch to external copy editing. For example, there were 312 errors of quantification or mathematical errors with in-house copy editors and 259 with outside copy editors. Corrections involving the wrong time or date increased from 151 to 178.
When looking at correction types at each paper individually, more differences appeared, but they were far from systematic. For instance, visual/graphic/layout errors increased at the Courant and the News & Observer, as did corrections involving the time or date at the News & Observer. These same changes did not appear, however, for the other papers.
Working with copy editors housed outside of the newsroom doesn’t mean the end of carefully edited articles.
As the authors are careful to acknowledge, there are limitations to the analysis. Articles weren’t randomly assigned to external and internal copy-editing, so it is still possible that something other than outsourced copy-editing accounted for the observed differences. The authors also were only able to study five newspapers because at the time of the study, only five newspapers publishing seven days per week had switched to external copy-editors. And only one of the studied papers had hired an outside company.
Despite these limitations, Martin and Martins make an important and novel contribution — working with copy editors housed outside of the newsroom doesn’t mean the end of carefully edited articles. Although one newspaper made more corrections, another made fewer, and three others made a similar number of corrections after they had outsourced copy editing. Overall, the relationship between outsourcing and corrections seems to vary depending on the arrangement.
Scholars and news organizations interested in continuing this line of research could collaborate to analyze the following questions:
- If an in-house copy editor and an outside copy editor were given the same article, what would differ in the corrections that they would make? Further, what would the differences be among various external copy-editors, such as a copy editor housed within a parent company versus one in an unrelated firm offering copy-editing services?
- Do loyal readers recognize a difference when a news organization transitions from internal to external copy-editing? If readers become aware that a news organization has outsourced copy editing, does it affect their trust in the paper?
- Does outsourced copy-editing affect the relationship between reporters and copy editors? As the two are no longer co-located, do they begin to think differently about each other?
Justin D. Martin and Ralph J. Martins. (2016). Outsourced credibility?: A quasi-experimental study of corrections at newspapers pre- and post-outsourcing of copy editing. Journalism Studies. doi: 10.1080/1461670X.2016.1178594