Monday, June 16, 2008

Copy Editing: The Newseum

Lawrence Downes, clearly a friend of newspaper copy editors, waxes elegiac in today's New York Times after visiting Washington's new Newseum and not finding a copy editing gallery:

"I was one for a long time, and I know that obscurity and unpopularity are part of the job. Copy editors work late hours and can get testy. They never sign their work.

"As for what they do, here’s the short version: After news happens in the chaos and clutter of the real world, it travels through a reporter’s mind, a photographer’s eye, a notebook and camera lens, into computer files, then through multiple layers of editing. Copy editors handle the final transition to an ink-on-paper object. On the news-factory floor, they do the refining and packaging. They trim words, fix grammar, punctuation and style, write headlines and captions.

"But they also do a lot more. Copy editors are the last set of eyes before yours. They are more powerful than proofreaders. They untangle twisted prose. They are surgeons, removing growths of error and irrelevance; they are minimalist chefs, straining fat. Their goal is to make sure that the day’s work of a newspaper staff becomes an object of lasting beauty and excellence once it hits the presses."

But then Downes hears the flapping wings of mortality above him:

"Presses. It has probably already struck you how irrelevant many of these skills may seem in the endlessly shifting, eternal glow of the Web. ... In that world of the perpetual present tense — post it now, fix it later, update constantly — 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."

Copy editing can work just as effectively, copy editors can do their jobs just as well, in online or print, for the same reason that copy editors could do their work on a single-edition morning paper or on a multiple-edition afternoon paper (which is what the Web increasingly resembles for newsrooms). Subbing out wire stories with 17th leads, rewriting headlines when a story was bumped inside, cutting five grafs for the last edition -- that was part of our job, too. With a Web story, you may not have time to do the math the first time, but you can fix it on the fly. With a morning newspaper, you do what you do and the next morning find out if you did it right. There are pluses and minuses to both.

Stupid newspaper editors, who can't see beyond "feet on the street," downplay the role and involvement of copy editors, and stupid Web site chiefs, who can't see beyond "sticky eyeballs," do the same. And there have always been stupid newspaper editors, so there will always be stupid Web site chiefs.

The biggest difference for copy editing is workflow -- the mechanics of putting out a printed newspaper dictate the time sequencing of your job. The mechanics of a Web operation are still free form. Eventually, though, they will settle into some sort of general workflow and routine, because people want their jobs to have a routine, except for those with gnatlike attention spans who want permanent revolution -- who, alas, are still controlling too much of the conversation about the Web.

As for editing audio and video, some copy editors will excel at this and some will not, and eventually, I think, it will rotate back everywhere to visual editors and word editors -- but everyone's too strapped for money at the moment. The movement to regional toning centers, while bad in the short term for employment, holds the promise that the people who used to tone photos in St. Cloud and Muskogee might be replaced locally by people who edit video, thus letting copy editors edit copy. Is there anything about toning a photo that demands local expertise? (There may be, but I expect in an age of filmless photography that it is far less important than it was when the toners were lab techs.)

Downes should take a closer look at the Newseum, though. Are the exhibit captions correct, spelled right, done to style? Are the quotes properly attributed? Do the exhibits make clear why they are there? Do the brochures have the right verb tenses? If so, the whole building is a tribute to copy editors. I haven't been yet, but I hope copy editors' work is seen everywhere in the Newseum the same as it is seen in newspapers every day -- the anonymous thing in the background that lets the reader (or visitor) concentrate on the content and not question the professionalism or credibility or relevance.

No comments: