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.