The latest round of copy editor cuts raises a lifeblood-type question for news organizations - and it isn't whether lopping off editors will damage quality.
Of course it will.
The deeper question is: Do the news media recognize what their real franchise product is, and can they protect it?
What is their product? One answer, of course, is that it's news and information, sold to an audience, which in turn is used to attract advertisers.
But what if the true life-sustaining quality of mainstream journalism isn't just information but something more: trustworthiness?
After all, there is clearly a growing surplus both of sources of information and of ways advertisers can engage consumers. Neither requires the survival of legacy media.
But there is no surplus of trustworthiness. In fact, as the media universe undergoes its own big bang into near infinity, the value of credibility and reliability skyrockets. Despite many lapses, America's news media have an extraordinary record of pursuing public service, social responsibility and accuracy.
As Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach have wisely written, it is this "discipline of verification" that separates journalism from other kinds of communication.
Editors personify that discipline. So, it's highly possible that the editing process itself is the most valuable service journalists provide, and something they shouldn't risk.†
Granted, news organizations are caught in a horrible spiral, steadily losing revenue and audience.
News managers maintain that resources no longer allow overlapping layers of editing. They argue convincingly that today's consumers see content as a real-time work-in-progress that can be instantly corrected and updated. They see a modern audience open to trading away final polish for speed, quantity and dazzle.
This all rings true. But it should not rationalize cutting something vital. For years, the media have been reducing quality control. They have sliced the numbers of editors and the average time editors spend per piece of copy. The results are obvious: more mistakes large and small, even in elite media.
The danger is not just some absorbable damage to content. The more alarming risk is that the cumulative cutbacks undercut the all-important trustworthiness, a nearly unique selling point. Instead of the recognized, essential site for reliable material, a news operation becomes just one among many semi-satisfactory options.
Given a small pool of trusted sources, the marketplace has great incentive to support and save the best ones. If trust and dependability decline, so does the reason to see journalism as special.
One of the biggest mistakes of my career came early. I was in high school and had a summer job with my hometown weekly. My duties included proofreading, and I signed off on an ad for a local store, offering a color TV set for, as I recall, $399. But as I proofed the ad, I failed to notice a typo that turned the price into $39.
That was over 45 years ago, but I'll never forget the call from the store manager, who described the mob at his store demanding the $39 TVs. Then came the skin-slicing lecture from Annie Laurie Kinney, my editor and the paper's co-owner, who didn't care a hoot that I was a kid. As I cringed in front of the whole office, she screamed that I had made her look foolish to her readers and cost her the money from the ad. If I was going to work for her paper I'd better learn that nothing was more important than getting things right.
The two lessons were plain and enduring. Inside the newsroom, accuracy was a sacred value. And that was because, on the outside, errors had huge effects on people's lives and behavior and relationship to the press.
They still do.