Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Illinois Senator and the New York Senator

Barack Obama, Illinois senator? Well, he was, but now he's a U.S. senator! OK, OK, OK -- this is a story about pedantry and the all-sorts-of-different lines that can be drawn in its name, and I'm just telling you where I stand. I try to avoid "Illinois senator" and "New York senator" in references to Obama and Hillary Clinton. There, I said it, though I grant that I would never use "Illinois senator" or "New York senator" alone to refer to a state senator. Call it a nicety, one of those let's-be-absolutely-clear gestures that only a copy editor would make. Of course, the natural alternative -- "senator from Illinois" -- has its own problems if you're a true pedant. Obama isn't from Illinois (but Clinton is). Still, I say OK to the latter idiom but not, except under duress, to the former idiom. Such is the delicate balance a copy editor must strike.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Changing Times

A memo from a former colleague of mine at the Washington Times (where I worked from 1989 to 1997), my successor's successor as copy chief, is making the rounds in the blogosphere:

From: Patrick Tuohy
Date: February 25, 2008 4:43:13 PM EST
Subject: Style changes


Here are some recent updates to TWT style.

1) Clinton will be the headline word for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

2) Gay is approved for copy and preferred over homosexual, except in clinical references or references to sexual activity.

3) The quotation marks will come off gay marriage (preferred over homosexual marriage).

4) Moderate is approved, but centrist is still allowed.

5) We will use illegal immigrants, not illegal aliens.


As earth-shattering as these changes are to those of us who lived under the previous rules, they shouldn't come as a big surprise, given that the Times has been using the retirement of Wesley Pruden as a springboard for a leap toward the mainstream. First it launched a large-scale search for Pruden's successor, bypassing the obvious stay-the-course choice of Fran Coombs, and then it surprised a lot of people by wooing John Solomon from his relatively new job at the Washington Post. There were some I-told-you-sos from the left-wing blogs, which had been wary of Solomon's politics all along, but then Solomon filled Coombs's managing-editor job with David Jones, a journalist's journalist among the Times veterans. (Yes, there always have been such people, and Patrick Tuohy is another one. When I'm asked about my time at the Times, I say it's a weird place -- but not as weird as you might think.)

Routinely referring to a first lady by her first name in headlines was borderline (it's not hard to imagine "Jackie" or "Lady Bird," but that was a very different time), but of course you couldn't very well call her "Clinton" when that was the president's name. Those news outlets that chose not to demean or infantilize her opted for "first lady" or "Mrs. Clinton." The ambiguity continued to exist when he was a private citizen and she was a senatorial candidate and then a senator and then a presidential candidate, but those news outlets that chose not to demean or infantilize her opted for "Sen. Clinton" until she became the primary Clinton in the news. It's a bit ironic, of course, that Clinton herself has chosen "Hillary" as her campaign-poster identity.

The opposition to "gay" in this day and age was similarly ideological and insulting, but the editors could always hide behind horn-rimmed glasses and insist that it was more like insisting that kids are strictly baby goats. (We're not prejudiced, we're just clinging to 1952!) And, in all fairness, I should point out that "gay" was permitted in headlines too tight for "homosexual."

I've written before about the senselessness of putting quotation marks around "marriage" when it's of the same-sex variety. The fact that it's actual marriage is precisely the issue that right-wingers are getting worked up about. If the marriage isn't real, if it has quote marks around it, it's none of the courts' or the legislatures' business.

The objection to "moderate," near as I could ever tell, was a two-parter. The idea that anyone could be such a namby-pamby spoilsport as to stand outside the kabuki-theater fray of modern politics was offensive to the top editors. If such people don't exist, or are not to be acknowledged in the pages of the Washington Times, you may wonder what business "centrists" would have there, but I think the other objection was the idea that "moderate" has the connotation of "reasonable," and at least "centrist" avoided that horror.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Where the hell are people getting "Wisc."?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The More Things Change ...

My essay in defense of my craft could have been even longer, but I left out, among other things, what we newspaper people would call "B-matter" -- the background that puts a story in context, to bring newcomers up to speed and refresh the memory of everyone else. In this case the B-matter would cover exactly an unsuspecting reader might encounter in a story untouched by editors, or touched only by the big-picture editors. You'll find plenty of that in the archives here and elsewhere and in the comments and other blog reactions to the original Newsosaur post (don't miss Nancy Nall's).

But my favorite recent find in the what-copy-editors-face department is not recent at all. It's a little harsh, but in the spirit of good fun. In case you didn't see it last year on Pam Robinson's site, I present "That Sad-Looking Man," from the May 21, 1882, Arizona Daily Star (I'm forgiving the "proofreader" references just this once):

"Papa, who is that sorrowful, sad-looking man we just met?"

"He is a proof-reader on a morning newspaper, my son."

"Well, I should think he would be very happy, reading all the news and all the pretty stories. Why does he look so miserable?"

"There's where you're off, my son. Happy, indeed! He has cause to look miserable, I'll tell you."


Monday, February 18, 2008

The Case for Copy Editing

Can newspapers afford editors? Alan Mutter at Reflections of a Newsosaur asks that question in a depressingly timely discussion of the idea that the jobs of editors, mainly copy editors, will be in danger as newspapers continue to cut costs in the face of shrinking circulation and advertising revenue. These are difficult times, and I don't pretend to have my own answers, but I have some concerns about the idea that my job doesn't need to be done.

Mutter quotes an unnamed top editor at an unnamed top newspaper as asking: "Why do we have all these people processing stories after a reporter writes it? They are not producing anything that will get us traffic on the Web."

"Processing" makes me wince a bit, as does the "Why are there so many gnats buzzing around at my wienie roast?" tone that I'm picking up, but once you get past that, you have to admit that you've asked that question yourself. I often point out that I was surprised to learn as a beginning journalism student that the job of copy editor even existed at grown-up papers. If you're like me, though, the question was answered when you saw your first samples of raw copy. (As John McIntyre and at least one commenter to the Newsosaur post point out, the prose produced out by many reporters, even at the top level, needs a lot of work.)

And I do have to concede that copy editing isn't generating Web traffic. I didn't realize Web traffic was the only goal of a newspaper -- if that's the case, I have a one-word solution:


But perhaps I'm taking that quote too literally. The issue is whether the blog model of little or no editing can be applied to a print publication, whether we copy editors have managed to be demoted from necessary evils to unnecessary evils. Of course such a model can be applied, and has been in many cases, just as the paper always comes out no matter how many editors call in sick, and just as hundreds of small-town papers are "copy-edited" by the first just-out-of-college kid with Quark skills who's willing to move to the small town in question. The real question is whether a major print publication would want to make such an approach standard. "If we have to economize, the editing process is the place," says the top-paper top editor quoted by Mutter, and it isn't surprising that sometimes-sloppy writing about more beats will be favored to win out over well-edited coverage of fewer beats. But at some point the term "foolish economy" must come to mind. We don't need copy editors, but we don't need a lot of things. Why this big building? We have cellphones and modems, don't we?

Readers of top-flight publications don't get their copy directly from the reporters for the same reason that a stalk of wheat and a cow do not a hamburger make, for the same reason that fiancees don't have a freshly mined chunk of carbon, mounted on a sliver of ore, deposited on their fingers. We hire editors to make the writing presentable the same way we hire designers instead of letting the stories flow onto the page or the screen scroll-style, a la Kerouac. There is a certain level of refinement that the readers expect and deserve in the presentation.

Why not hold the assigning editors responsible for copy editing (or vice versa)? Well, they're busy doing their own very demanding jobs, and they may or may not be qualified to do ours (and vice versa). Reporting, assignment editing and copy editing are separate skills. And whereas nobody would automatically expect an assignment editor to be able to design pages or take pictures, it's widely thought that if you're a word editor of any sort, copy editing is a lesser included skill. If you've worked your way into a content-editing position at a major publication, one might ask, why can't you be expected to be reasonably competent at the finer points of spelling and grammar? The answer is (a) we should be aiming higher than reasonably competent, and (b), to quote Paul Simon, 'cause that's not the way the world is, baby. If being an "editor" means that of course you can edit, then save me a spot in the Indy 500. After all, this here license says I'm a driver. I've worked with plenty of reporters and assignment editors who do turn out clean copy, but I also know that some of the very best at what they do are not at all good at what we do. To push aside those journalists would be just as foolish as pushing aside the journalists who populate copy desks.

Perhaps someday consolidation will reshape the business to the extent that all aspiring journalists know that news organizations can afford to insist on hiring only the latter-day renaissance men and women -- the multiple threats who can report, write, big-picture edit, little-picture edit, craft display type, take photos and video, design pages, and code HTML. (Hell, sell an ad or two and vacuum the office while you're at it, you lazy bastard.) Until then, we go to press with the staff we have, not the staff we wish we had and never knew we needed till five minutes ago. And there are barriers of concentration, time management and perhaps left-brain-vs.-right-brain function that make such an arrangement questionable even for those most qualified.

I once worked for a truly exceptional slot man, a man who was and is one of the best copy editors I've ever known, and he took an exploratory detour to work as an assignment editor for several weeks. And you know what? He made mistakes he never would have made on the copy desk. He turned in clean copy, by assignment-editor standards, but it still needed to be copy-edited (just as my books on copy editing needed to be copy-edited). If this guy, copy editor extraordinaire, couldn't reflexively copy-edit to his usual standards while he's assignment-editing, it's doubtful that an assignment editor with lesser, or no, copy-editing skills would be able to do so.

It's true that readers of blogs and news-aggregation sites don't expect the same level of refined presentation that newspapers, magazines and books have always strived for, and it's possible that down the road, when the online publication is supreme and the print version is secondary or nonexistent, we will live in an idiocracy in which scrupulous attention to detail in accuracy and language usage is strictly optional. (Some at Testy Copy Editors think so.) Things are changing fast, but for now, at least at the big news organizations, the question of copy editors vs. no copy editors should be seen as the false dilemma that it is -- in a big newsroom, as in any office, it's not hard to find people with too little to do.