Come over to the dark side
Were it not for gallows humor, we’d have no morale at all.
Yesterday’s post offered a window into the sensibility of the copy desk. Humor on the copy desk is usually dark and ironic. Like the humor in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H and the adulterated humor of the television series based on the film, it is not for civilians.
There was a woman employed in The Sun’s human resources department who had, I suppose, a sense of humor. She was observed laughing with other people. But when met with the kind of ironic tone in which copy desk discourse is marinated, she looked as mildly bemused as Margaret Dumont to Groucho Marx’s zingers.
Take an example from my days at The Cincinnati Enquirer. A colleague lived on a street that motorcyclists used as a racetrack in the evenings. We reached a point at which, when a story about a motorcycle fatality arrived on the desk, usually involving someone without a helmet, we would nod formally to each other, and one of us would intone, “The Darwinian process continues.”
Or at my current job, where I am known as the Death Slot because so many prominent figures have climbed that golden staircase on nights when I was working the desk.
Or the remarks, best not repeated here, about a president of the United States, a White House intern, and a certain blue dress — which might come as a surprise to those entertaining the lurid fantasy that everyone at The Sun is on Stalin’s payroll.
As I said, not for civilian consumption.
You have to consider the circumstances, which, I discovered in many late-night conversations with colleagues from across the country in the American Copy Editors Society, are duplicated in newspapers across this great broad land of ours. First, copy editors experience the easygoing scorn of many reporters. (Think of reporters as the football team and copy editors as the marching band, and you will have twigged to the hierarchical scorn.) Second, whatever it is that copy editors do occurs anonymously and late in the evening, a time when the upper-level editors of newspapers are entirely without a clue about how their newspapers are actually produced. (It’s a mystery to the reporting staff as well, and they show no interest in being inducted.)
The result is a paradox. The copy desk, which actually functions more like a team than any other unit in the newsroom — otherwise, no newspaper would be produced — is allergic to management cant about teamwork. Still and all, they’re a murmuring but steady bunch who have constructed an esprit de corps out of unpromising materials.
Now comes the point at which I should repeat that just about all I know about these attitudes comes from what I have heard from people who work at other newspapers.