Research looks at effect of conflicting roles on copy editors

May 26, 2014 By Gwen Girsdansky Resources

A recent Missouri School of Journalism master’s thesis sought to understand how the digital era has affected copy editors. The new and various responsibilities and expectations can often compete and operate in conflict with one another — leading to role conflict. It’s a sociological theory that works through how people handle having multiple roles — say copy editor and page designer.

This type of duality has been common for a few decades now. But for many, the advent of the digital age has increased the number of tasks and has fractured that duality even more. There are more tasks to handle, which increases the number of roles. Even if it’s not part of a specific job title, many copy editors are also social media editors, Web managers and aggregators. As the number of roles a person handles increases, each becomes more and more of a sliver.

The study found that the number of tasks copy editors handle was highly correlated with the amount of conflict they felt. The more tasks, the more conflict they experience. However, the study went one step further and found that there are certain types of tasks that are highly correlated with conflict. The more social media and website management are part of a copy editor’s responsibilities, the more conflict they are likely to experience. This could be because social media and website management can’t simply be focused on for half an hour and then considered done. Generally, any time news breaks, attention has to be diverted from the original tasks to post something to the Web and social media.

The data also yielded some additional tidbits. On average, copy editors considered more than half of their tasks a high priority and almost 30 percent of respondents feel they frequently do not have enough time to complete traditional copy editing in a way that meets their personal standards. This isn’t managing editors saying their copy editors aren’t doing well; this is copy editors who know they can be doing their jobs better but are unable to because of time constraints and other responsibilities. It seems that they are conflicted between doing their jobs to the best of their ability and taking care of all the tasks required of them.

This could impact how newsroom managers consider the workflow of the copy desk. It might be better to give each editor all of one task rather than dividing the same task among several people. For instance, perhaps one person a night could have social media and website management as their top priorities. This would allow these people to focus solely on these tasks that need to be continuously updated or managed, while allowing others to focus solely on longer, in-depth tasks, which might reduce conflict. This might allow them to keep the same mindset, rather than bouncing back and forth between different tasks.

A goal of this study was also to look at conflict and how it affects copy editors’ satisfaction. Copy editors indicated that they were the least satisfied with their schedule and their salary among the aspects of their job. However, the best predictor of overall job satisfaction was how well their values aligned with those of the company. In addition, how satisfied they are with the quality of their work, how well they are able to meet expectations and how well their job requirements agree more highly correlated with overall job satisfaction than the concrete aspects of salary and shift hours.

Perhaps this is because copy editors know going in that there will probably be late nights and the newspaper industry isn’t known for high-paying salaries. Hours and salary are items, going in, that can be expected. Therefore, the more emotionally centric items, such as how values align, have more of a bearing on overall job satisfaction.

It might also be beneficial to consider having copy editors work longer hours on fewer days. For instance, work four 10-hour days rather than five eight-hour days. This makes more sense as the media industry enters into a digital-first era, where stories are published online first. It might allow more stories, especially at smaller paper without a dedicated Web team, to be handled earlier in the day by copy editors, which might ease the backlog that often occurs at the end of the night. It also might give them an extra night to be home for dinner with their families, which might improve copy editors’ satisfaction with their shift hours.

This was a brief synopsis of the survey. If anyone has any questions or would like more detailed information about the research, feel free to contact Gwen Girsdansky at

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