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Yes, there is a future for editing

An able editor, Brian Throckmorton, made an astute comment to yesterday’s post about the dismissal of the copy desk at the Raleigh newspaper, saying that the shrinkage of print editors and diminution of local coverage doesn’t leave enough work to justify a full copy desk and that regional editing hubs may not be ideal but are practical.

Steve Yelvington posted a complementary opinion yesterday at his blog, “Let’s bury the nightside copy desk.” The world of the print copy desk is gone, not to return, he says, and it’s time to give up on the concept. (If I can, just to a degree, demur, to the extent that newspapers continue to publish print editions—which even in decay are still the greatest source of revenue—copy editors are necessary for their production.)

Mr. Yelvington makes a couple of salient points:

[E]diting should be tightly coupled with newsgathering and writing. If your newsgathering process isn't producing clean, publishable copy, you're not ready for a digital world. Fix it.

Print is, at best, a static fork of a continuous digital process. If you're waiting to post news until it's edited for print, you're killing your job. If you're posting news on the Web that isn't of publication quality, you're killing your job.

And there, I think, is the point that is missed by the managers who are eliminating copy desks. They would be better advised to find ways to incorporate copy editors more thoroughly into the production of the electronic editions.*

It has apparently been thought at high levels that because people will spend an inordinate amount of time on the Internet looking at photographs of cats accompanied by ungrammatical captions, that they will read anything online. Thus, engaging copy editors to improve the accuracy, clarity, and concision of online prose would simply waste money.

I suspect that as news organizations grow savvier about interpreting the available metrics—not just how many page views an article gets, but also how long the reader spends on it and whether the reader returns to the site—it will be discovered that the quality of the material does matter if the publication is to capture the readers the advertisers are looking for.

Unfortunately, by the time the publishers make this discovery, they will have put one of their most valuable resources out on the curb.


*Not all copy editors will welcome the new environment, and some may be so habit-bound that they cannot make the adjustment. (Newspaper journalists’ resistance to change makes the Vatican bureaucracy look innovative and fleet-footed.) But those who can make the adjustment possess the skills and the temperament to accomplish the task.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:38 AM | | Comments (8)


I admit to scratching my head over the belief copy editors somehow can't be integrated into a continuous news stream.

I work for an online news outlet with no print at all. We get stories from wires, direct from journalists and sourced from various broadcast stories around the organisation.

Stories are selected, edited, checked, checked again and then posted. Rinse and repeat, for the duration of your shift, with breaks for updating existing stories, attaching media as it becomes available, u.s.w.

I suspect one model for combined print and online may be: All content is passed through the online desk where most the editors sit and the cleaned copy is sent to layout editors who look after location and formatting but have less need to worry about the copy itself.

Either way, the editing process is continuous as long as the lights are on in the office, which in our case is approaching 20 hours/day.

Picky forwards a link to a grand little essay by Allan Prosser, "Why the hubs will come full circle."

Sample assage: "[I]n the Gadarene rush to impose manufacturing process on their titles, publishers have destroyed value, thrown away knowledge, and vandalised their assets. In many cases they should be ashamed, not that shame is a common characteristic of the newspaper business. More importantly, very few managers who have overseen this damage would last a week in the real world of competitive industry."

"Gadarene." Priceless.

I worked for a financial services provider. One aspect of my job was to write communications regarding processing problems. These communications were written in the least amount of time possible... and editing was built into the process. The communication *could not be sent* without being edited. Most were edited twice... once immediately after having been written and then as a final proof before it was sent.

Newspapers and other outlets publishing online can do the same thing. They just choose not to. I read my local newspaper's site and I'm shocked at how illiterate some of the reporters are and how their mistakes would have been easily caught by a competent editor, if not by peer review.

The problem is the perceived "need for speed." Newspapers are posting stories online with little or no editing due to the mistaken believe that it is a failure to post a story 90 seconds after a competitor does. Thus, much copy goes on the Web without so much as a barebones edit, and the newspaper's credibility suffers. It seems a terrible price to pay to gain a two- or three-minute edge on the competition.

It isn't necessarily "either/or," given that most print publications have web divisions and today's editor is well advised to be able to work seamlessly in any distribution format.

The Columbia Missourian, attached to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, has already been working on that kind of a copy desk model. I was on the team that helped start these changes, and they've been very happy with the results so far, as outlined here on the blog about the changes:

GSB made a wonderful point, too, about the need to have some print production people, which the Missourian also has, but they ride second pony to the Web team (though people will work on both teams at different times).

Jonathan and James, I actually worked on the Missourian copy desk for a week while attending Dow Jones workshops, and I was surprised by the emphasis they placed on online content. By the end of the week, I realized how streamlined the entire production cycle was thanks to the new system--even breaking news like the coverage of the tornado in Joplin, which was occurring during my week there. Imagine, clean copy being posted online throughout the day! Saints be praised!

Also, Robert Lane Greene posted this article on Twitter the other day, in case you haven't seen it: Craigslist Ads With Good Grammar Get Better Response

The article basically jives with your point that online readers don't just consume every bowl of slop. (And for the record, LOLcats are even funnier when you know enough to laugh at the grammar.)

Interestingly, just as a segment of more old-school newspaper copy editors might instinctively balk at the current rush to the on-line digital news model, roughly a decade ago in my field of expertise, TV animation, a coterie of my fellow early 'boomer' background painting cohorts opted for early retirement rather than transition to digital/ computer image rendering, unwilling to give up the now outmoded, hands-on cell vinyl acrylic painting on either illustration board, or celluloid with which they were most comfortable, and skilled.

Today, hand-rendered, directly painted animation backgrounds are a thing of the past. in fact other elements of the creative animation production process, such as story-boarding, and color palate matching have also gone the total digital route.

Of course, for the younger, neophyte animation artists who grew up w/ computers, video games, smart phones, and such, coming into the industry today their learning curve would be fairly minimal, having likely been trained at art school in various cutting edge computer modalities like Flash, Adobe painter, Photoshop, et al.

Today's burgeoning feature animation field is almost entirely driven by 3-D digital production methods, so many of us old fogy veteran artists either have had to get w/ the program (read retrain) to survive in the industry, or find some other line of creative endeavor.

Let's face it, so many established industries, and enterprises today have been turned virtually upside-down by the revolutionary transformation of our analog world into the ever-expanding, ever evolving digital universe.

The dye has been cast. Like most major technological revolutions/ innovations----the automobile, the airplane, the telephone, radio, TV, the transistor, the silicon chip---- there will be the vast majority who will tend to embrace the novelty, practicality, excitement, and early challenge of it all, and then there are those minority voices in the wilderness who are more averse to change--the troglodytes of this world--- who may be more reticent to leave their familiar comfort zones. Eventually, most see the light.

Whether on-line news will completely displace hardcopy newspapers seems a rather premature presumption, at this juncture. Yet if I were a betting man (and I'm not) I'd say in fifty years time, the options in the ways we choose to receive our news will be radically different than this current hybridized, mish-mash of on-line reportage gleaned largely from traditional hardcopy sources.

As Dickens once said, "These are the best of times, and the worst of times." (But clearly this isn't revolutionary 18th century France, or pre-Industrial Revolutionary Britain.)


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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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