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The test of our mettle

These are evil days.

You civilians can listen in, but this post is mainly for others in the business.

A colleague I’ve known for years writes that the copy desk at his paper is undergoing yet another staff reduction, which will leave it down 65 percent from a couple of years ago. It appears that proofing has been virtually abandoned, and even slotting is diminished. Pages are going straight from a rim editor to print.

The traditional tripartite checking on copy desks — the article given a first edit by a copy editor on the rim, checked by an editor in the slot, read in proof by a third copy editor — isn’t featherbedding. Errors get caught at every stage, often small but sometimes substantial. On a recent evening, two copy editors, reading page proof as edition deadline neared, identified a problem with a lead paragraph that overstated the conclusion of the article. It was a paragraph that had gone under my hands in the slot. We got it fixed in time for publication because of that final stage of proofing.

Newspapers everywhere are under pressure from falling circulation and declining revenue, and I don’t mean that the copy desk should be immune to the contractions the rest of the newsroom is experiencing. But cutting back too far on the editing will not serve the business well. Multiplication of errors will not increase readers’ confidence or boost circulation. If slack or hurried editing leads to lawsuits, where then are the savings from staff reductions?

But I’m not here to whine. Newspapers brought it on themselves by being complacent and slow to innovate. And if copy desks are to continue to function, to enhance accuracy and clarity in publications, both electronic and print, then copy editors will have to push for maintaining the importance of editing.

Here’s one possibility. Since much of our work is invisible (the correction of errors) or anonymous (the writing of headlines), I’ve asked all The Sun’s copy editors to send me a note each week with a couple of their best catches and headlines. I compile those lists each month and make sure that my masters are aware of what the copy desk does for the paper.

You, too, can do that. Present the bosses with specific examples of how the copy desk protects them from errors, corrections and lawsuits. Put them on the spot; ask what level of error in the published editions they are willing to tolerate. Show them the connection between adequate staffing of the desk for Web site and print edition and the integrity of the product.

I’m not giddily optimistic. Managers of newspapers have always tolerated quite a bit of shoddy work. But if we respect our own work, it is worth fighting for.

Montaigne says that “the name of virtue presupposes difficulty and contrast, and that it cannot be exercised without opposition.” It was easy for journalists to look good when the business was flush. Now that we are in trouble, it will be a struggle to uphold the values we preach. But giving in would be ignoble.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:35 AM | | Comments (9)


That should be, "A colleague I've *known* for years..."

JEM: So it should. Many thanks for pointing it out and allowing me to correct it.

Damn it, whether or not the masses bother to read newspapers, the newspapers should at least be worth reading. If they're not, they'll lose whatever readers they have left. John, please keep up the good fight.

Hear, hear! Which errors are you supposed to leave uncorrected?

Edward Miller's e-mail newsletter, "Reflections on Leadership: Management Tips for the Newsroom" has recently been talking about quality control. Basically, the technique is to catch problems early and change the way things are done so problems don't persist.

If newspaper copy editors are going to be in short supply, then their particular talents should be used where they do the most good. "Routine" errors in newsroom copy will need to be minimal so copy editors have time to deal with larger issues, such as clarity or tone. That means reporters who are sloppy about vocabulary, spelling, or facts will need to improve basic skills.

I don't like seeing the number of copy editors reduced, but I think reporters who are careless with their copy need to stop assuming that it is someone else's job to fix petty errors, when more careful writing could prevent those errors.

I respectfully disagree with Barbara's notion that the reporters needs to step up their own editing.

I'm married to a reporter, and each of us recognizes the other's unique skill sets. He can form relationships with city officials that have them joking and cussing with each other in minutes, instantly gaining trust. I have a steel-trap memory for grammar rules and random trivia. Neither can be taught to the other.

To John: What a terrific idea to promote the importance of the often-overlooked copy desk. We have an employee of the month contest that I'm not thrilled with, because I feel catching all errors, big and small, are part of our job and one person shouldn't be singled out for doing their job.

However, your method is a great way to show the important work, big and small, that's done every day. I'll be passing it along. :-)

This is a larger issue. Being a former newspaper copy editor (in Syracuse), I endorse your view. I've seen similar trends for more than 10 years in the business world. "Correcting errors" is seen as merely being persnickety. Sometimes that may be true, but firms that crow about "quality" rarely employ individuals who can catch micro errors, which truly can become macro errors. I am reminded of the spacecraft that crashed into Mars because no one bothered with that "small' detail of converting to metric -- or was it vice versa?

When I first came to The Post-Standard in Syracuse, the news desk was called the telegraph desk in some parts of the building, and I'm not that old.

Copy editors tend to make excellent bloggers. They write cleanly, clearly and with good critical thinking skills. There's a valuable place for copy editors in the new world, and it's important to have this conversation.

I urge copy editors to think hard about what they're up against. Where do copy editors absolutely need to be, and where do they not need to be? The answers might be surprising.

In some newsrooms, there might be six people between the reporter and the reader, and that's just in the editing process. Other newsrooms can only wish they still had that many.

When a reporter posts directly to a blog, there are zero people between the reporter and reader. That troubles us, but why exactly?

A reporter who posts directly to a blog is taking care of the layout, pagination and even the headlines, without really noticing it. Some of these are tasks that copy editors absorbed from composing rooms. These tasks are necessary to the process of putting ink on a page, but are not necessary to post online, where headline counts and column inches no longer matter.

It's conceivable that a newsroom could set up an online process just like its print process, where even an item posted to a blog is filed to the city desk, which sends it to the news desk, which adds a headline, some coding, some links, and sends it to a clerk who, instead of paginating, posts it online. Or ... a reporter could see a question in the comments section of a blog and just answer it, creating a person-to-person journalism.

I'd like copy editors to think about what happens after something is published online. It's almost as important as what happens before publishing.

I would like copy editors to have as much access as possible to text after it's been published. This is especially true of breaking news blogs produced by the staff, and the captions in online photo galleries. Online publishing offers powerful copy editing tools to go back to a story and keep making it better, and we should make the most of that. All of that critical thinking that copy editors do should not stop after the first edition, or in the case of online publishing, during the constant edition.

If the concept is that the readers can take our coverage, comment on it, upgrade it, degrade it, add to or distract from it, we should allow copy editors with sharp eyes and good critical thinking skills to go back to the coverage as well and enhance it.

Many things copy editors do now are left over from ancient technologies. Some are absolutely vital questions of right or wrong, while others are matters of style or personal preference. Some of our assumptions that seem most crucial might not have the same implications in an online context. So I'd like to push copy editors to look at each thing they do and challenge our assumptions about why we do them.

When I wrote concert reviews for the Syracuse Post Standard , I found to my horror that the copy editor knew less about language and style than I did. Some of his 'corrections' were so appalling that the Metro editor called me to offer abject apologies. What do reporters do when the people along the editing chain aren't as good as he is?

We have some excellent copy editors in Syracuse, although we recently lost a world-class slot editor to a buyout. As reporters post directly online, we'll all begin to see what copy editors have contributed.

It's also possible that people react differently to a typo or a grammatical mistake in a personality-driven blog by a friendly columnist in the middle of a conversation with readers, compared to a breaking news blog that looks more like a staff-produced news report.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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