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.


Natalie DeBruin said...

Well said.

kostia said...

Yes! Exactly!

Doug/Michelle said...

Maybe if newspapers cut the copy editors, you can get work in television. Caption under Sunday's "This Week" roundtable discussion of the Democratic campaign: "Can Hillary Comeback?"

rknil said...

And yet somehow many newsrooms decided copy editing and designing were linkable skills. Hence, the copy editor/designer, which then morphed into the "copy editor"/designer, and today the designer/"copy editor."

No wonder we have people deciding copy editors are optional. The people doing the job treat it as if it's optional.

It's like someone said in college: There's a difference between writing a paper and studying for a test. If you're not done writing the paper at 3 a.m., you can't go to sleep. But you can always decide you've studied enough.

Today's designer/"copy editors" treat copy editing like studying. They know as long as they spend enough of the shift designing, they won't have time to do the copy editing.

none said...

Bill, do you know what level of copy editing goes into online-only stuff on, including the regular breaking-news front-page stories that will be updated for the next day's print edition? What about blogs, such as The Fix, which is often one of the lead stories on the front page? (I sometimes read The Fact Checker, and he always spells it "per cent," so I'm guessing not.)

Unknown said...

At Prodigy, before the dawn of the internet as we know it, news editors were not allowed to publish anything to the 'live' service before it was copy-edited by an editor colleague. That was a seldom-excepted rule through the years Prodigy was the only online service aside from Compuserv, and through the first few years it divvied up the online world with AOL.
But then, when the 'real' internet came along, and news began being 'poured' online from wire services and cleverly-created harvesting processes, Prodigy's top editor changed the rules, and copy ever after went 'live' with only the original editor's oversight.
At about the same time, the company began seriously considering doing away with the news room -- and it did so within a couple of years.
And a couple of years after that, Prodigy as we knew it was no more.
Perhaps there's a lesson in there somewhere.
(another) doug

Bill said...

My wife and I met on Prodigy!

me said...

I find this discussion interesting. I'm relatively new to copy editing, but it is already clear to me that copy editors play an important role in a paper's presence on the Web. As we know, good editing is good editing, but editing for Web readers does require some understanding of how visitors to a site read and--perhaps more important--find the content. I think those who want to eliminate editors and copy editors in particular need to realize this. Having attended the ACES conference in 2007, I wrote this story about the ways "Web-savvy" copy editors can boost traffic to a site:

Phillip Blanchard said...

I'm happy to write the kind of straightforward headlines that make it easy for readers to find stuff on the Web. I write most of my headlines like that anyhow.

Why can't stories being posted to the Web go through a copy desk? They can, of course, but editors cost money. Why can't "comments" be moderated before they are posted? They can, of course, but moderators cost money. All the talk we hear about "immediacy" and "interactivity" from people making the case against editing and moderating is a collective red herring. Posting unedited copy is a colossal disservice to readers, writers and "brands." It is also an insult to us.

I don't care whether the copy I edit ends up in print or on the Web, as long as I get to do the work.

I've been harping about this since the World Wide Web began. I have no reason to think that anyone is going to start listening to me now.

Roger Aller / The Tresa Group said...

Funny, newspapers are shrinking in circulation and cutting back on creating quality because they are competing with the web? I am launching a new web design company with an artist, musician, mathematician, coder, and a copywriter (me) and we spent hours deciding between web site and website, e-mail and email, copy editing and copyediting because we want to create a professional image. Why? Because we plan to create a professional product. Our content has to be good every bit as good as our art, our code, etc. Hasn't anyone learned anything from the demise of U.S. businesses facing superior products from Japan? In conclusion, forget about newspapers. There really will be a home for good writers and copy editors on the internet. I am sure we will be subcontracting out work before long.

rknil said...

Today's "copy editors" aren't editing the stories that appear in the print edition. Why would they edit the stories that appear online?

Also, references to "copy editors" should be placed in quotes. Today's "copy editors" don't edit; they shouldn't have a title that implies they do. Perhaps copy handler would be more accurate. Copy skimmer? Copy glancer?

Tahoe Editor said...

Stanley Fish's latest "Think Again" column ("Memo to the Superdelegates: No Principles, Please") has been on for two days now, and it has a double "the" and "superdelegtaes" -- errors that Word flags automatically.

The column has 500 comments, but no one cares about these things. From now on I think we should consider ourselves lucky if we can find employers who care about clean, clear, consistent, error-free copy.

purple words said...

This was an excellent post and one I've shared with friends. They just don't understand! I think copy-editing and layout could be integrated in the right collaborative environment, but not by conflating the two jobs.

Unknown said...

This is probably less true of copy editors in other fields, but newspaper copy editors are expected to be fully qualified journalists.

Copy editing services