What Do We Lose With Copy Editors?

Hilarious. In the below, a Toronto Star editor copyedits the publishers memo announcing layoffs. It was the editor’s subtle clue that the publisher could benefit from editorial aid and that outsourcing copyediting to freelancers might not be the best idea.Torstarsubsnit

There’s no doubt that newspapers are in trouble. Copy editor layoffs haven’t gotten  much attention — certainly not as much as the reporter layoffs. After all, copy editors are invisible by nature. They’re layoffs are the unacknowledged part of the larger loss of “journalism jobs.”

Unfortunately, the marketplace now eliminates journalism jobs at a rate in excess of 1,000 a month.

That’s a lot of people out of work, and in the case of copy editors, a lot of people who served a valuable function to the community. What do we loseWeight Exercise with copy editors?

(1) We loseWeight Exercise people who know their community- During one stint as a copy editor, I had a piece of copy come across my desk that said that an informal but influential village council was dissolving itself because the council members all hated each other. I’d only been there a month or so, but sounds like BIG news right? Wrong. Turns out they used to do that every six months or so. They’d take a month off and when people started talking about electing new council members, the old council members would go back to work.

I had no sense of how important the news was. And I don’t doubt that there are the occasional geeks who know all sorts of random information about their community. But in my experience those geeks want to be paid (there’s not a lot of interest in “Citizen Copyediting”–not a ton of perks besides a grandiose feeling of self satisfaction). More likely you’ll get cheap editors who can do some story structure, some grammar editing but aren’t going to be the best when it comes to deciding what goes on A1. Here’s Poynter:

Copy editors matter. They bring news elements together to make the whole more than the individual parts. They think about news packages, news pages and overall content and credibility.

(2) We loseWeight Exercise people who care about getting accurate information- As the copy editor said in his edit of the publisher’s memo, to loseWeight Exercise your salaried copy editors is to loseWeight Exercise people who, well, care if an error gets into a story. Here’s another adventure from that same, very weird newspaper.

One time I got a 6000-word story on a council meeting. It was supposed to be 600. And I had to edit it. I was pretty sure I was going to quit. But I didn’t. Am I a hero for not quitting? I can’t really say. But yes.

Once I trimmed it down to about the right length, I found a little gem. In this middle of the story with no context, no explanation, there was an unattributed quote: “She does it so good. I really love it when she does it for me. We don’t even have to pay her. Let’s have her do it more.”

7283732_148cdb3ded To this day, I have no idea what that quote was about. But the fact is, I didn’t have to care. And in many situations — far more serious than a random quote — salaried copy editors serve to protect misinformation from getting into the hands of the public. Losing stakeholders, losing copy editors is loosing a hold on misinformation. And you know, after that story (which I essentially rewrote), I didn’t even get a byline. The reporter got calls telling her how good her story was.

Karen Dunlap’s post does make copy editors sound like superheroes, but she does make a good point:

They know that some of their best work is invisible. Writers and editors might admire the flow of a story without noting the deletion of an article, a change in punctuation, or the upgrading of verbs that helped the story flow.

Copy editors know that their work is also among the most read and influential copy in newspapers or online. Even television news turns increasingly to headline writers to produce news crawls across the bottom of the screen.

The industry is changing and it’s hard to argue that cuts have to be made. But in the case of copy editors: their contribution was invisible, but their exit will be very evident.

Greg Perreault

Greg Perreault is a former M.A. student in the Communication, Culture, Technology program at Georgetown University. He has a B.A. in News and Information from Palm Beach Atlantic University and spent three years working in print journalism before he and his wife, Mimi, moved to Washington, D.C. A writer at heart, his work has been published across the country at outlets including The Palm Beach Post, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times. He continues to freelance for United Press International. His interests lie the influence of media on society. He has a particular interest in media influence on culture, especially religion. He’s currently the Program Coordinator for the Washington Journalism Center where he lectures on general media and journalism issues. He also manages the InkTank blog for the program’s undergraduates, who also contribute to it, and maintains a personal blog Gaelic Gopher which also explores media issues.