Why Copyediting Work Doesn't Export Well

News media managers feeling the squeeze may be tempted to outsource the fine-tuning of copy. But those who do so will regret it

Nandini Lakshman's "Copyediting? Ship the Work Out to India" tells how some English-language publications now outsource copyediting and other editorial processes to Mindworks, a company based near New Delhi. The logic is deceptively simple: If sewing, electronics-component assembly, computer programming, and customer-service operations can be outsourced to countries with lower labor costs, why not copyediting?

Let me tell you why not, based on nearly five decades of editing news copy in two countries. In 1964, I left my copyediting job in Florida and joined The Nashville Tennessean. The move entailed several adjustments. Although my work, editing news stories, would be the same, I had to familiarize myself with Tennessee geography, politics, and sensibilities as well as my new employer's editorial line. But the learning curve entailed in mastering those nuances was nothing compared with what I would encounter three years later.

That's when I moved from the U.S. to Israel, where I was hired at The Jerusalem Post. Despite working there as an editor, in English, fitting in took much longer than I had anticipated. I had to get up to speed on an entirely different country, with a different cultural background, political system, geography, and history. Not to mention that Hebrew, not English, was the official national language. The main political parties, the then-ruling Labor Party and the predecessor to the current Likud, were nothing like the Democrats and Republicans. The gap between their views about the nature of the Jewish state—even its boundaries—was huge, almost impossible to comprehend in an American context.

Out of Touch

Such subtleties, which were difficult enough for me to discern and appreciate, would have baffled a total outsider. It would have been absurd for The Jerusalem Post to outsource its copyediting to a firm in another country. Similarly, how would a copyeditor in Punjab or Pune catch credibility-destroying errors in the description of a crime scene in, say, Santa Ana, Calif.? Is it acceptable to groom young reporters and writers and only to teach them to forget what they may have learned in journalism school and rely on the Internet and Google Earth to get a "feel" for a story originating in a foreign country? Or to memorize a style book but wing it on subjects that are completely (and quite literally) foreign to them?

The absurdity of this situation reminds me of a fellow copyeditor years ago who, frustrated while editing a story on cricket, vented by bellowing out across The Jerusalem Post newsroom: "If Sri Lanka is 278 for three wickets in the second innings, and England is 470 runs all out in the Second Test Match at Lords, who's winning?"

Who's winning, indeed? Or, more to the point, who loses when editing, reporting, storytelling, and local knowledge are treated like automated functions that can be shipped overseas? Copyediting isn't like writing computer code, assembling an iPod, or sewing a straight seam—universal tasks that are better suited for outsourcing. Cheaper outsourced editing may sound like a good idea to profit-squeezed, advertising-challenged media barons. But they're deluded if they think their readers won't notice, or care.

Print's Promise

Along with the bathwater, they would be throwing out credibility, reliability, and any semblance of quality—the same journalistic standards that should set them apart from, and far above, Internet blogs and news-aggregating Web sites. News-wire copy may be an exception (or an addiction) for budget-strapped news outlets that see editorial merely as something to fill the spaces between the Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Junkmart ads, but it's not the answer.

If there is to be any salvation for the printed press from the challenges of the virtual and electronic media, it will come from unique, original storytelling, and sensitive, informed copyediting aimed at each publication's niche market of readers.

Outsourcing copyediting turns the craft I've practiced with pride for 46 years into something mechanical. It cheapens editing and devalues thoughtful, knowledgeable, and experienced editors who know their subject and their locales.

Before long, the money-conscious managers of globalization will want to replace human editors with souped-up computer programs and glorified spell-checkers. Think of the savings: no fringe benefits, paid holidays, or health insurance. They'd best be careful, however—the next step will be to skip the human interface entirely and replace these same managers with adding machines or electronic calculators.

More important, outsourced "journalism" won't fool, let alone be enjoyed by, human readers. The only beneficiary from remote copyediting might be Regret the Error, a Web site that highlights copyediting gaffes. If you think that Web site is busy (and hilarious) now, imagine how it will look if long-distance copyediting becomes the norm.

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