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Cassandra was right

The beautiful daughter of Priam and Hecuba, king and queen of Troy, caught the eye of Apollo, who, smitten, gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy. Then she threw him over. He could not, in his chagrin, take away the gift, so he rendered it useless by cursing her so that no one would ever credit what she said.

She foresaw the burning towers of Ilium and Agamemnon hacked to death in his bath, and no one paid any attention to her.

"I told you so" has never been a source of much comfort.

Today, overtaken by a collapsing business model, skidding revenues, a shaky economy and a history of corporate strategies that didn't work out, American newspapers are abruptly cutting pages and shedding staff. The Hartford Courant is cutting its newsroom staff by 57 positions, the Palm Beach Post by 130. The Washington Post has just conducted a round of extensive buyouts. The whole industry is desperately seeking to find a new equilibrium.

And now it has come home, and in a few weeks we will be saying a wrenching farewell to several dozen colleagues in the Sun newsroom.

There is no denying the ugly realities of the metropolitan newspaper. Circulation has been on a steady decline for years. Every time I read in an obituary that the deceased served in the Second World War, I think, “We’ve lost another reader.” The Greatest Generation was a devoted reader of newspapers, the children, not so much; the grandchildren, nearly not at all. But the greatest threat has been the sharp and accelerating decline of classified advertising in recent years as that revenue has migrated to the Internet. Classified advertising essentially constituted the profit margin for the metropolitan newspaper.

It will now fall to those of us who remain to find a way to preserve the core integrity of The Sun’s journalism with diminished resources.

What I fear is that some papers will make bad decisions out of a misunderstanding of the value of editing, particularly copy editing.

I have said so before, at “Upholding Editing” and “Editors: The Future of News” at poynter.org. I’ve said so here at “Just sack all the editors” and “I’m not dead yet.” There’s something funny about that big wooden horse outside the walls.

Now the Orange Country Register has just announced that it is outsourcing the editing of some of its local copy to a company in New Delhi. I suspect that this will save money while compromising content. If local news is the franchise for daily newspapers, the information it provides that is not duplicated on the Internet or in broadcasting, how is a copy editor on the Indian subcontinent going to recognize what ought to be fixed in a story about Anaheim?

Lawrence Downes in a New York Times op-ed piece has expressed his dismay at the decline of copy editing in an elegy for the copy desk, and Gene Weingarten has expressed his affectionate regard for our obscure and endangered craft at The Washington Post. Able responses have come from two of my most valued colleagues and friends, Kathy Schenck at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and David Sullivan at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

But before you put the coin in my mouth to pay Charon’s fare, let me say it one more time.

Copy editing is not a frill.

Yes, we do still have some obsessives in the ranks who busy themselves distinguishing between since and because and other time-wasters. And we have more who, under pressure, have abandoned editing and resorted to processing. But where we still actually edit, we make a difference. We add value, if you as a reader consider accuracy and clarity to be of value.

When reporters get people’s names wrong (something that occurs with alarming frequency), if it gets caught at all, it will be caught on the copy desk.

When a writer makes a schoolboy error in grammar and usage, it falls to the copy editor to make the correction.

When the assigning editor moves a story that is five column inches longer than the available space, the copy editor is the person who cuts what can be sacrificed while preserving the essential information.

When a writer comes up with a metaphor that would leave readers rolling on the floor, clutching their sides in mirth, the copy editor will step in.

When the reporter writes a dozen introductory paragraphs before getting to the point of the story, which turns out to be something other than what those dozen paragraphs appeared to be leading up to, an editor has to address the issue.

Copy editing is not merely some trivial manipulation of commas and the spell-checker. It involves substantive editing. It makes a difference for the reader, who, if irritating errors of fact or lapses in clarity turn up regularly, is free to seek information elsewhere. And will.

Remember, I told you so.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:34 PM | | Comments (5)
        

Comments

The Orange County Register notwithstanding, I think the problem will be not that copy editors will be viewed as a frill to be eliminated, but that the reduced corps that remains will be expected to take up the slack and shoulder additional duties.

On, the other hand, I understand New Delhi is lovely this time of year.

Having worked at the Palm Beach Post and The Sun, this is a sad week for me.
Not just because friends' jobs are threatened, but because you're probably right, John.
Diminished quality and quantity is not a blueprint for success.
If readers truly want to be able to get through a paper faster, then they would benefit from accuracy, coherence, graceful writing and meaningful display type -- just what copy editors strive for.

The readers of the Orange County Register are in for a big surprise.

Grandchild of that Greatest Generation here (my grandfather really hates that term, by the way, and I think I would too, if I were of that era):

I'm a voracious reader of newspapers, as are many of my peers. However, we do our reading on the Internet, which has many advantages over print. The ability to quickly click to primary sources, other newspapers, opinion pieces, etc. cannot be matched by print. Newspapers in particular benefit from this ability, in ways that novels, for instance, do not.

The one difficulty with newspapers online is that you can't do crossword puzzles at the bus stop.

There are those who say there's "just something about reading a newspaper that the Internet can't duplicate." To them I reply, "yes, inky fingers."

(I do think that for reading long pieces, print is more enjoyable. I can't read books on a computer, for instance.)

Just one piece of anecdotal evidence from the "darn kids."

I heard "Maryland Morning" on WYPR today where the SUN's editor was trying to explain what's ahead to the hostess (who shall remain nameless).

She asked something about the "big difference" in output between the LA Times and the SUN "51 column inches, versus 300 column inches ... I assume that's per year."

Tim (?) the editor I think was too shell-shocked to bother to clarify such an ignoramical statement.

So when the newspapers go, don't expect radio hostesses to fill in with in-depth understanding of whatever it is they're talking about.

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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