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Clueless at the top

Perhaps some will take comfort in learning that fatuous remarks about journalism are not limited to American newspaper executives. One is left wondering, as Casey Stengel did of the 1962 Mets, “Can’t anyone here play this game?”

A European luminary, David Montgomery, head of the newspaper group Mecom, was widely quoted earlier this month on his views that “sub-editing,” the British term for copy editing, is unnecessary. “Reporters out in the field can call up a page on their laptop and put copy straight onto the page without intervention,” he said. “I see a situation where experienced journalists that can be trusted have no barrier to communication with their audience,” he said. He endorses an environment in which “journalists can be freed from humdrum roles and the sub-editing culture can break down.”

This is, to use a British term of art, a load of codswallop.

His idea that the journalist has some direct interaction with the audience used to be limited to the delusional (“I know that what Katie Couric said last night was meant for me”). It may be of interest to hear the spontaneous reporting of a major event, like the explosion of the Hindenburg, but zoning commission meetings? The first look at a medical study about cancer?

For nearly 28 years, I have been paid to read other journalists’ raw copy so that you don’t have to. What our publications, print or electronic, owe the reader is an account that is factually accurate, relevant and clear on first reading. That is accomplished by editing.

But editing, a fundamental element of journalism, appears to be a mystery to some top executives, who do not understand what goes on in their own shops. Mr. Montgomery again: “Sub-editing is a twilight world, checking things you don’t really need to check …Senior people will always monitor the content, a core group will create the product.”

Of course, we copy editors have contributed to this by not demonstrating adequately to our masters how our obscure craft contributes to the quality of the publication.

But, as always, there is also a darker explanation, one that came to me as I read today’s column by my astute colleague Jay Hancock. He writes that while businesses — retail and service — talk about the importance of customer service, they systematically downgrade it. They understand that while the public complains about bad service, consumers aren’t willing to pay for good service: The cheaper price always prevails.

So too, perhaps, in journalism, what our masters privately think is that quality costs too much and doesn’t matter enough. Get rid of the local copy desks. Tell the reporters to file raw copy to the Web site. Talk cant about unmediated interaction with the public to disguise what is really going on. Gamble that you won’t drive off too many customers or provoke too many lawsuits.

Maybe they do know how to play this game.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:13 AM | | Comments (16)


The laugh is that Montgomery used to be a sub-editor himself, once. Now he's a patsy for private investors who want to take over newspapers for their cashflow, and squeeze them until the pips scream in order to extract as much cash as possible, before selling the now ruined assets on to another bunch of squeezers.

I've been to seminars you have given and read your "writing," which has much more in common with typing than actual writing, and find your whiny self-satisfaction to be tiresome.

You take offense at the slightest hint that copy editing is an occupation that isn't nearly as demanding as reporting. You know, reporting, that thing you did on no higher level than some rural rag in Kentucky. Yet, you happily besmirch reporters by implying that all raw copy is poorly composed. Not to mention, if you're like most copy editors, you're getting this stuff after it has been through an assigning editor, which wouldn't make the copy raw, now would it?

Yes, copy editors are essential, as are assigning editors. You and your attitude aren't. Spin your howlingly stereotypic bowtie like a propellor and take off.

You WERE the one they warned me about.

Tell (one L) the reporters to file raw copy to the Web site.

That typo, "telll," has been fixed, thank you.

"Codswallop," or drivel, for those who were curious, is of obscure origin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And I may well have overstated by writing about reading raw copy, since what I edit has in fact passed through the transforming hands of an assigning editor. But I have been able to build an entire semester of a copy editing course out of defective material that reached the copy desk, and I do sometimes think that the stage before mine often resembles peristalsis more than editing.

Hey, maybe you haven't read a few stories recently about somewhat dramatic declines in newspaper advertising and circulation. You may pride yourself on putting out a tightly edited newspaper, but fewer people are reading it. Maybe newspapers have become too fuddy-duddy, and people are publishing blogs and newspaper stories online without the assistance of copy desks. From the (stunningly stupid) errors I read in the Sun, nobody there seems to care anymore. Face it, your career is over, but I would guess you can retire easily. If it's any comfort, you are following the grand traditions of blacksmiths and coopers displaced by technology. There must have been a blacksmith out there under the spreading chestnut tree who protested "but I made the best horseshoes in the country."

"...peristalsis ... "

Would you actually let this word no one knows through your precious copy desk at the Baltimore Sun?

By the way, at three out of three of America's largest circulation newspapers (more than 300,000 daily) where I've worked, assigning editors have thoroughly masticated a story before passing it through the alimentary canal to the colon that is the copy desk.

In case you were wondering, I've done time as a reporter, copy editor and assigning editor. The least demanding job I ever had was on the rim. I worked hard, took it seriously, picked nits with the best of them and wrote award-winning headlines, but when I went home at the end of the day, the job was done. I had none of the constant worry about getting beat by rivals or filling up the next day's paper that came with either reporting or assigning.

As risible as my opinions, my writing and my neckwear may be, I at least stand by them using my own name.

As a reporter for 15 years, I'll cast my lot with Mr. McIntyre on this one. Yes, revenues and readership are down, but I doubt that's because we're making too much of an effort to be accurate in our use of the language - quite the contrary, I'd guess. Copy editors have saved my butt (and my assigning editors' butts) more times than I can count, and I've never doubted the value they bring to the product. They're more than automated spell-checkers; they're trained, experienced journalists who (hopefully) know their communities and catch things no machine possibly could. To argue against their employment is to argue against quality.

Touching as it is to see others spring to my defense, I'm withholding approval of another comment. In supporting me, it took a swipe at someone else, who, though he is one of the most egregious twits on this side of the ground, I would prefer not to see attacked by name at this site.

It is all right to make ad hominem attacks on me. Evidently so. The anonymous commenter thereby gives us the means to measure his own abilities, which appear to be limited. But not other parties.

"Of course, we copy editors have contributed to this by not demonstrating adequately to our masters how our obscure craft contributes to the quality of the publication."

Gee, John, ya think? And how many years did it take you to reach that conclusion?

And the poster above hits the nail on the head: You can retire easily. But take this knowledge with you: By your inaction, you have contributed to the mess we have now. You're not a part of the solution; you're a part of the problem. You're a big part of the problem.

I've been a copy editor for almost 40 years - newspapers, magazines and books.

The contention that copy is cleaned up by coming through assigning editors gave me the laugh of the week. There are assigning editors and there are assigning editors. Three years ago, an "experienced" reporter wrote a piece on a retiring police chief who contrasted the new police headquarters with the old one. The new one, the reporter quoted him as saying, was the "Tashma Hall" by comparison. THAT had come through the assigning editor's nonobservant eye.
The copy editor is analogous to the goalie in hockey -- or to the man with the shovel who follows the elephants in the circus parade.

This has to be the third column I've read by you on the importance of the copy desk to a newspaper. But you need to read the Tribune Co's October report, which shows an almost 10 percent decline in revenues, largely from diminished ads. So, instead of this constant mewling about your importance, how about adopting a fresh stand, and look at ways you can contribute to bring back advertising dollars and return the Sun to its one-time position as Maryland's newspaper of record? If you don't do that, not only your job, but the jobs hundreds of your colleagues will be gone.

Please email this to everyone in management at the Chicago Sun-Times.
I have a suspicion that all of their copy editors were fired a couple of years ago.

Do state newspapers of record exist anywhere anymore?

If you need to cut back on filing here, John, while you and the copy desk sell ads, at least some of us will understand.

[My copy-editing comments earlier today, Tuesday, Nov. 27,2007, failed to make it, I was told, because I inserted the wrong letter] The following is an addendum...

Twenty years before I become a copy editor at The New York Times in the Sixties and, soon after, as a reporter, I was a Page One reporter at The University of Texas @Austin on The Daily Texan...

One day, while interviewing a Dean about some offending student, the Dean remarked something like, "We'll just have to test his mettle, I guess.''

Never having heard the word before, I wrote "We'll just have to test his metal, I guess.''
When I read the printed version, my spelling had been corrected by a student copy editor...

It was 1942 but I never forgot it...

bob cole [NYT, retired]

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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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