Let us now praise famous editors
Yes, times are difficult for newspapers; Alan Mutter’s Newsosaur blog calculates that newspapers have lost 20 percent of their print advertising in the past decade. If you had lost 20 percent or so of your income, you’d be struggling to cope, too. Difficult times prompt news executives to try new things, as they should.
But the thing that has worked at the heart of print journalism is a system of verification. Reporters research topics and write up their findings, supervised and guided by assigning editors; copy editors check those stories for accuracy and clarity. The system operates to minimize the number of avoidable errors, as well as the greater hazards of libel, plagiarism and fabrication. The result is the credibility of the publication — the reason you bother to look at it.
The system is labor-intensive. Editors do not bring in revenue; they are what the accountants call “fixed costs,” which it is the goal of accountants to reduce or eliminate. You can see the consequences of such reductions in both print and electronic publications, in major papers as well as minor ones — have a look, for example, at a diseased story that fev (Professor Vultee) palpates on Headsup.
In the time I’ve been at The Sun, I’ve had the good fortune to work under three editors who understand the importance of editing and the value of the copy desk to the paper.
John Carroll, who did much to build up The Sun and enhance its reputation in the 1990s, took the trouble to sit in on the copy desk one night — typically an eye-opening experience. Throughout his tenure, he backed efforts to strengthen the editing and hire the smartest people I could find for the desk.
Bill Marimow, his successor, had the misfortune to take the helm as the industry was beginning its great contraction. But he, too, recognized the importance of copy editing and understood that it is not just a matter of manipulating the punctuation and checking the spelling, but also of raising substantive questions. He, like John Carroll, emphasized that when the copy desk identified issues of concern, those issues were to be addressed.
Tim Franklin, the incumbent, probably looks over his shoulder when someone says that McIntyre is mentioned on Romenesko again, but he has the same willingness as his predecessors to walk into the publisher’s office and say that the copy desk has got to be kept up to strength. When he was proposing the current expansion of The Sun’s electronic journalism and I said that we had to assign a copy editor to review the stories going to the Web, he did not hesitate for a nanosecond in agreeing.
And I would be remiss in omitting Mike Waller, a former publisher who had worked for a decade as a copy editor himself. He was an enthusiastic backer of the American Copy Editors Society from its inception, and it was he who told the members of ACES at their national conference in Portland in 1998, “The greatest service you can give to your paper is to ask this question, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Are you really sure?’ Nine times out of 10 you’ll be overruled, but the tenth time you will have saved the paper.”
It is a deeply confusing environment for newspapers, and their executives are making hard choices. The best editors, like these, are not going to let our core values slip from their grasp.