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I'm not dead yet

It comes as no surprise that when Lawrence Downes went to the Newseum in Washington, he found no trace of copy editor in the exhibits. Copy editing has always been an obscure and anonymous craft. Beyond that, the people who run American newspapers are almost invariably former reporters, whose conception of the copy desk is formed either by dim incomprehension or outright hostility. There are copy editors at major metropolitan newspapers who have never spoken with their editor or managing editor.

All the same, the work gets done. Errors of fact are caught, lapses in grammar and usage corrected, tortuous syntax untangled, amazingly inept metaphors suppressed. There are fewer and fewer copy editors on the desk, and the pressure from deadlines is unrelenting, but we have not yet marched with General Lee to Appomattox Court House.

Mr. Downes, however, thinks otherwise. His New York Times op-ed piece suspects that the continuing cutbacks in copy editing will make doom the traditional craft, that “old-time, persnickety editing may be a luxury in which only a few large news operations will indulge. It will be an artisanal product, like monastery honey and wooden yachts.” (And snickering reporters will note that artisanal contains the word anal.)

But it’s not a question of my applying gold foil to the initial capital of “Police seek man in stabbing.” Newspapers are in a fix, and they are desperate to cut costs, so it may seem like a good idea to eliminate levels of editing and proofreading. (How to say this delicately? American newspaper publishing concerns have not been celebrated in recent years for their shrewd business decisions.) I’ve seen how people write. I don’t think that reporters are suddenly going to become more scrupulous about the factual details once they know that fewer copy editors will be looking at their texts. I doubt that they will suddenly become more rigorous in English usage, or more sensitive to excesses in prose effects.

What I suspect is that a decline in copy editing will contribute to less reliable, less readable publications. What I further suspect is that newspaper publishing concerns will encounter the common human experience of discovering, too late, that they have miscalculated.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:42 AM | | Comments (2)


Thank you, John, for your thoughtful response to this. I was pretty depressed after reading the op-ed, knowing how important copy editors are and how poorly regarded they are by many managers. And many cutbacks seem to be in the spirit of, "If we make it worse, maybe people will buy it more!"

I'm not sure how much people articulate, even to themselves, why they continue reading/stop reading something, but the fact is, if the quality drops, then quite quickly they don't bother returning, be that a decision they have made consciously, semi-consciously or unconsciously.

That's even more true with the web than with dead tree news, where often inertia means people continue to receive a title they've actually given up on some time before.

Once a newspaper allows too much inarticulate, mistake-ridden, unedited copy to get out to the public, copy that is a struggle to get through and unrewarding when you do get through it, whoof, your readership is evaporating fast.

And once a reader is lost, it's extremely hard to get them back again. So if the result of eliminating the copy-editor function is a deterioration in the copy seen by the public, then by the time anyone notices that, as a result, the readers have all departed, it will be too late.

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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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