Reader’s Digest slashes FT copy-editing, fact-checking jobs

Reader’s Digest‘s famed fact-checking and copy-editing departments have just taken a blow.

Masthead reports that the magazine has cut all full-time jobs in both departments:

“The move, which affects seven full-time positions at the company means the fact checking and copy editing will now be contracted out to freelancers, says Reader’s Digest vice president and editor in chief Robert Goyette. ‘We are shifting to a variable cost model,’ he says. ‘With the old model we had permanent employees which had downtime after the issue closed and then were rushing to get it out in the last few days. Now it will allow us to better adjust the resources. It is based on a cost model which has been proven at other departments in the company, including Our Canada.’ ”

A position in the company’s French editorial department  — senior editor of books — was also cut, Masthead reports, with the duties to be spread amongst the other editors.

I wrote about Reader’s Digest and its infamously rigid fact-checking process in 2007 for The Ryerson Review of Journalism, here’s an excerpt about the editing process:

RD prints four or five times as many articles as most other magazines. In addition to a sponsor editor, each writer’s copy passes through many hands on its way to fact-checking. From first draft to final copy, up to eight editors — each with detailed ideas about tone, structure and voice — tinker with articles. Critics say the groupthink wipes copy clean of colour, style and any other fingerprints that might identify an author; but then, the writers are paid well for enduring the three-draft requirement and rigorous fact-checking. “Instead of relying on one or two people’s knowledge,” Swain says, “we bring more experience to the table.” To maintain consistency, every word goes through this internal assembly line, dubbed “Murderer’s Row” by grieving writers. The cut-first, finesse-later process is thoroughly entrenched, having been perfected over many years. Copy will be sacrificed to accommodate the cute anecdote, ironic cartoon or inspiring quote that runs at the end of each story. Robert Collins — whose memoir, Who He?, examined his 15 years as an RD editor — compares the mandatory cuts to a shrunken head: “interesting for strangers but not much fun for the owner.”

“Writers’ work faces another intense test when running the RD‘s fact-checking gauntlet. This can be excruciating for those who, after sweating, stressing and straining over the surgery performed on their sentences in editing, have to watch them die in post-op. The research department demands up to five months to meticulously pore over details of a story — on average, they check more than 12,000 facts per issue, about one for every three words. Writers complain the nitpicking is overkill and changes copy too easily. Life’s Like That at RD — as one American editor cracked, “Well, the Bible was written by a committee.”

“The anal-retentive attention to detail is part of what makes the magazine the most-trusted media brand in the world, its guardians claim. In keeping with this “unfailing dedication to accuracy,” errors have even been found in reprinted stories. One regular contributor, Ann Mullens, wrote an anecdote where she had been blown out into Georgian Bay and spent four hours hanging onto a buoy, singing until she was rescued. The RD fact-checker said: “nice opening, but who can vouch for your story?” She had to find the man who had saved her 25 years earlier. “As a writer, you never slip at RD,” Mullens says, “and I find it makes me strive to be better and better.”

“Even the reader-submitted anecdotes are fact-checked for accuracy. One too many rejected “Life’s Like That” jokes elicited this lament from one online reviewer: “I guess I will have to climb a mountain, get trapped in an avalanche and chew my arm off to get in RD.”