Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What Copy Editors Do

Dean Singleton said the O word about copy editing at a meeting yesterday. ACES' leader, Chris Wienandt, points out far more succinctly than I could why outsourcing copy editing is a bad idea. At this point Dean probably would like anything that would let him pay the bills, and he has always seen copy editing as the sort of back-shop check-processing operation that you only keep until you can figure out a way to get rid of it.

But I do fear that part of what allows people like Dean to bring up these ideas is copy editors' tendency to martyr themselves as underappreciated cogs who will throw themselves into the machine to die rather than let a deadline be missed and then say, If the bosses valued what I was doing they would reward me, but they are not rewarding me so I will do it again just to spite them.

My former colleague Steve Lovelady once described all journalists as shy egomaniacs, and many copy editors I have known fit the bill precisely. Just as often, copy editors say of top editors, "They have no idea what we do." Clearly Dean Singleton has no idea. But yes, we have all known non-copy editors who would look at a story with five major and 20 minor flaws and say, "Seems all right to me. What's your problem?" We often dismiss them as idiots, but over time I have come to see that many of them just don't see what we see, any more than I would see the problematic weld that could bring a bridge down. That, of course, is why you are supposed to trust experts -- but it's hard for many editors to not see themselves as experts in everything journalistic.

If copy editors are only seen as the people who lay out pretty pages and put wire stories in the paper and make sure that we use "who" instead of "whom," then yes, a case could be made for commoditizing that work and selling it overseas for the cheapest rate possible -- not a case I would support, but a case. And I'm sure there are papers that have copy editors who only do that, because I have twice worked for editors who essentially wanted that. There will always be journalists who feel that errors do not undermine larger truths, who see copy editing as quibbling, who just want to go home, who think "alacrity" means "reverently" because it must be what "alack" comes from.

But a good newspaper's copy editor needs to know to look up on a map the street that runs from my town to the Ben Franklin Bridge because it is variously known as Main Street, Camden Avenue, Maple Avenue and Federal Street. and to double-check in which town each name takes effect. That in Philadelphia neighborhood boundaries matter a great deal and in Indianapolis they matter barely at all. That Councilman Bill Green is not the same person as former Mayor Bill Green and that former Mayor Wilson Goode's first name is Willie but it would be a rare occasion when you published it. That Dunkin' Donuts has an apostrophe and that saying "it happened when customers were present" does not mean it happened in the daytime even though police said that. That one state in your coverage area calls the crime DWI and another DUI. That in one state General Assembly describes the entire legislature and in another it is the name for the House. That "the Fightin's" is what people call the Phillies and should not be changed to "the Fightings." That the district attorney's name is Risa Vetri Ferman and not any of the 25 ways you could get that wrong just by hitting the wrong key.

And a newspaper copy editor partly needs to know this from memory so that minutes do not have to be lost checking references -- but mostly a newspaper copy editor needs to know what can go wrong, what questions to ask, what experience has taught him or her. If you don't know Resa Veti Furman seems odd, why would you question it? If you don't think the weld would be problematic, why would you point it out? Oops, there goes the bridge.

The problem for copy editors is that their job consists of catching other people's slipups -- because to err is human -- and thus it seems unseemly to go around pointing out what we do. It makes others look bad, and it's a lot more fun to talk about investigations we want to do. But then owners and business managers look at pages and headlines and say, oh, that's all that copy editors do. The Times of India has pages and headlines too. Hey, let's save money!

It misses the fact that the reader expects the newspaper to be His Newspaper. And he lives somewhere that he expects the newspaper to know as well as he does. And the more we weaken that connection, the more the newspaper becomes dispensible, whatever form it is delivered in.

I expect readers in India feel the same way. There are entrepreneurs there, though, who will be happy to take our money to watch us further destroy ourselves. As long as the check clears.


Anonymous said...

Well said, David.

rknil said...

The alleged saves mentioned here rarely happen these days.

Today's copy editors have allowed themselves to become "copy editors"/designers. As a result, they don't catch the mistakes listed here.

Many years ago, copy editors needed to be fighting for what they were worth. They were too chickens*** to do this. Now they are the targets. This part of the article is true.

The best thing that could happen now is for ACES to be disbanded. It stopped working for copy editors long ago. Its alleged leaders need to be held up as the examples of failure they are.

Pam Robinson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pam Robinson said...

Well done, David.

One of the problems is that newspapers are too often run these days by people with zero interest or belief in their responsibilities to the greater community. If they don't believe in our mission, it's pretty hard to win the argument for keeping jobs whose main function is so invisible until it's not done. I've read about the sneering that comes from certain executives who simply reject the idea of that mission at the same time they send out borderline illiterate memos to staffers. Those guys are in charge now in too many places.
And you know, it's really too bad we didn't realize ACES had the ability to save the entire industry from going down the tubes. If only we'd known!

rknil said...

And there goes Pam again, doing what she does best -- picking at semantics, rather than addressing the problem.

But you know something? When I reread my post, I don't see anything claiming what she cites. My main point was, and still is, that copy editors were too lazy and gutless to fight for their worth back in 1999 and 2000 when they might have won.

People like Pam and John McIntyre just can't admit they're wrong. That's why they're bad leaders. They are FAR more damaging than the people sending out "borderline illiterate memos."

Anonymous said...

I’m not exactly sure what Pknil thought ACES could do, or wanted ACES to do. We’re not a union. We’re not a labor group. We cannot, and could not, go into newsrooms and tell managers give us this, or else. If the industry made an institutional decision to make us designers and copy editors, and we said that’s not what we wanted, in nonunion shops, which I dare say are most of us, we would have been shown the door. And we’d have been out of work. And the policies would have stayed the same.

We do still make the sort of catches David describes. And we make them as we edit blogs, design pages and sometimes edit video or code Web pages. I know people in this line of work who have so much to do that they’re afraid to leave their desks to use the restroom.

We’re all afraid of the future. We’re all afraid of layoffs. Some of us have been laid off. This is reality. Copy editors aren’t the only ones pushed out, either. Reporters and managers of many stripes have also been let go or bought out.

This staff shrinking is happening in many industries. The economy’s really struggling. This is reality.

ACES exists to support people who are trying their best can to make newspapers and magazines and all the other things we work on better. And we’re here to stand for each other. We let each other know what’s going on in our newsroom. We share resources for doing our work better. We let each other know of job leads, or trends. We try to let the higher-ups know what we’re doing. We support each other.

I believe in John and Pam and ACES. They helped get us started, standing up for people who, as Pam said, are often unnoticed. The group is trying. We have scholarships, and seminars, and programs, job boards, and discussion boards.

Together we’ll face the future, as scary and unpredictable as it may be.

rknil said...

An anonymous post referring to "Pknil" -- exactly what I expected from an ACES member.

The above post is a great summary of the incredible fear and gutlessness of today's copy editors. There are no solutions presented or even the hope of solutions; simply "We can't do anything, so we won't even try."

The catches are not made. All one has to do is look at the printed newspapers.

After that half-truth/outright lie, the previous post has many, many more references to fear. This is hardly the way to perform a job that copy editors keep claiming calls for challenges of written material. Deskers have rolled over for measures such as no-edit policies. They have done precisely what is described in this column, and yet they are STILL unable to realize how self-defeating they have become. It's very, very sad.

But it proves one thing: The only thing ACES has to offer is fear itself. There won't be any solutions coming from that group or its alleged leaders. Best to ignore them and to stop paying dues. Then the group can disband, which it should have done years ago. Copy editors have to grow backbones; they can't do this with a non-functional organization.

Anonymous said...

Scared and gutless. Hmmm. That's not a whole name Rknil is it? And clicking on your name won't out you either.

Once again, you don't say what sorts of solutions you want, or what ACES got wrong. How exactly did ACES fail you? Once again We are not the Teamsters. Nonunion shops, I'll reiterate, mean workers don't have the hammer.

And the catches are made. You wouldn't notice because things are right.

We're still fighting. Are you? I mean, other than with us here? What do you want us to say? Calling people names without offering suggestions. Who's gutless now?

Here's some advice. If you're so sure what ACES needs and hasn't delivered, join us. Work with us. Tell us what you want. Help make it happen.

And the catches are made. You don't notice the mistakes aren't there.

And we're not going away.

rknil said...

"That's not a whole name Rknil is it?"

Lame. Picking at semantics -- typically gutless ACES response. Hey, at least you got the name right the second time around, though. Maybe that could be ACES' new slogan: We get facts right on the second pass!

Once again, we have an entire post where someone does nothing other than cry: "We COULDN'T do anything about those problems!" Did you try? No. Did you hide under your desks and expect to be noticed? Yes. Sad. Very sad.

I've told you what I want -- some sign that ACES is relevant. You show me some indication that I wouldn't be throwing my money away.

And the catches are not made. I wonder what would happen if someone archived examples of mistakes. Oh, wait ...


Also, those examples don't include all the ones I saw while I watched alleged copy editors fumble through their night shifts. They couldn't do skyboxes. They couldn't handle cutlines. They didn't know what sections of articles to question. And on and on and on. Sad. Very sad.

Finally, I made suggestions. One of those was for ACES to divest itself of its behind-the-times, nonproductive leaders. Until that happens, I have no interest in participating. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

I agree that living and working in the town you're covering is crucial to copy editing. In addition, the subtleties of language are lost on people who may not be native speakers or who don't speak the dialect of the area your newspaper covers.

I think people forget that editing is more than just fixing grammar and following rules. A lot of judgment goes into it, and a lot of it comes from a native intuition. "Does this sentence sound weird to me?" and "How would I say this out loud?" are both questions I ask myself when a sentence is technically correct but could be better.

Someone in another part of the country (or in another part of the world!) might have very different ideas of what is considered normal or right when it comes to the subtle nature of language.

rknil said...

""Does this sentence sound weird to me?" and "How would I say this out loud?" are both questions I ask myself when a sentence is technically correct but could be better."

Now if only U.S. copy editors asked those questions.

Example: There was a column a few years ago where an event that could not possibly have happened yet was described in the past tense. It never happened. This was incredibly embarrassing for that paper, as well as others that used the column.

No copy desk changed the column for the better.

Recent editorials have said something happened when it did not. Why? Copy desks didn't check the pages.

Newspapers said George Bush won the 2000 election on election night. Copy editors didn't question this decision.

A paper in this neck of the woods said 25 percent of Americans have HIV and don't know it. No copy editor questioned this headline.

The list could go on and on. The bottom line: Today's copy editors aren't fixing the terrible mistakes. They're getting into the paper and destroying credibility. The alleged leaders aren't fixing the problems.

It's time for the alleged leaders to step aside and for ACES to disband. We need people with solutions. Simply saying: "We COULDN'T have done anything" is cowardly and gutless. It's unacceptable.

Davisull said...


I do not want to get involved in this back and forth except to note that my newspaper said Bush Won and everyone was preparing to go home when a copy editor who was monitoring the Florida Secretary of State office online said to the managing editor, "Um, before you go, you need to see this, I think our headline is wrong."

And as a result, we lifted and put in "Too Close to Call."

You are certainly entitled to your feelings about ACES and while I disagree, let a hundred flowers blossom. But ad hominem arguments tarring all copy editors as failures do no one any good, least of all those of us who, like yourself, believe in what copy editing should be. Because, just as there will be copy editors who did not do something, there will be copy editors who did do it.

The fact that copy editors may not do what you wish as often as they should, or do not have the proper support from management or, as you would see it, the proper professional leadership, does not mean that they do not do it at all, and their individual efforts should not be denigrated simply for not reaching an ideal as a profession.

rknil said...

I'm not sure how one example of someone doing their job translates into COPY EDITORS ARE DOING GREAT!
How many newspapers ran the wrong election headline? How many newspapers ran the Mitch Albom column unedited? Biq question: How many copy editors even READ the column? How many copy editors even read more than the first two or three paragraphs of the articles they're paid to read and edit? At this point, I say, "Scoreboard."

Also, there would be no need for the "ad hominem" arguments and other stilted prose if anyone would bother to listen to any argument against the status quo. Alleged ACES leaders have shown time and time again they are incapable of responding in any fashion other than the following:

(1) We're AFRAID!

(2) We CAN'T change anything!

And so on.

My points stand. I've seen far too many examples of bad copy editing that is then defended by lazy, gutless editors who don't want to address any problems. Then they try to pass themselves off as good managers.

It's sad. Very sad. And it's been allowed to continue for far too long. There's simply no way someone can do a copy editing job properly if they run from or avoid every single conflict. ACES encourages that strategy, and it's beyond weak. You even make this point in your column; are you now backing off it?

You say one thing I agree with: At one time, I wanted copy editing at newspapers to be done properly. I've given up on that happening. Too many unrelated tasks have been merged into the desk, and too much bad, lazy, weak leadership has allowed that to happen. Today's copy editors are like Brundlefly after it combined with the machine; they can only slither forward to ask Geena Davis to put them out of their misery.

John McIntyre said...

A response that's a little too long to run comfortably in the comments section:


rknil said...

Bravo, John. Now if you only had the backbone to make those points to the industry ...

But let's set you straight on a couple of points.

"No daily newspaper, the production of which involves a large volume of prose created and edited by dozens of people on deadline, can be error-free. (It seems odd that the commenter appears not to understand this.)"

The typical straw-man argument the ACES defenders have mastered.

The real argument, though, is that today's copy editors could be doing far better if they weren't being "copy editor"/page designers.

"The same point counters the commenter’s apparent assertion that scandals have occurred because copy editors were too stupid or negligent to stop them. I know of cases of plagiarism, for example, that were identified and scotched on the copy desk at The Sun and never made it into print."

Wow. In other words, they did their jobs.

But I am aware of many examples of copy editors falling down on the job. Those were cited previously. John has no response to these, likely because he knows many of today's copy editors are not even reading the articles they're paid to read and edit.

"Even so, my colleagues at The Sun and other newspapers, their challenges rising and their ranks thinning, come in to work every day and sit down at the desk determined to root out error and increase clarity as comprehensively as circumstances will permit."

In other words, they'll keep doing the same things the same way, and then they'll offer excuses.

John McIntyre's argument is the same condescending nonsense that accomplishes one thing: It proves ACES is hopelessly behind the time. Its leaders are without concept or clue.

ACES needs to disband, and there needs to be an open denunciation of the people who have failed to lead. The idea that copy editors will continue to cower gutlessly under their desks and that some mysterious being will someday come through and save them is flat-out silly.

Either do the job the right way and defend it, or get out of the way.

Finally, the pointless responses and insults from people such as Mark Dodge Medlin (who has proved himself to be completely ignorant of the Hearst/Pulitzer "yellow journalism" era and who knows how much else) are yet another example of how today's copy editors have hopelessly lost their way. The ignoramuses and the out-of-touch elitists have done nothing other than alienate the copy desks from the business side of the newspaper. If this is the approach that is somehow supposed to earn respect for the desks, then it's time to print up the "Kick me" stickers and start slapping them onto the backs. (John likes to wear his on the front.)

Unknown said...

"ACES needs to disband, and there needs to be an open denunciation of the people who have failed to lead. The idea that copy editors will continue to cower gutlessly under their desks and that some mysterious being will someday come through and save them is flat-out silly."

Perhaps you posted this elsewhere (please forgive me) but what if anything should replace ACES in its stated mission*? Or is the mission unworthy?

* "The American Copy Editors Society, a professional organization of copy editors, is dedicated to improving the quality of journalism and the working lives of journalists. Our main purpose is to educate our members — and others in the news business — in ways of improving the standards of copy editing and increasing the value the news industry places on our craft."

rknil said...

Glad you asked that.

My response would be that ACES is not fulfilling its mission. I'm not sure it even tries.

Case in point: Let's go back to the example mentioned earlier with the future event written about in past tense. No copy editor improved this copy.

The paper that allowed this problem to originate apparently had no-edit policies, meaning that even if copy desks had read the text they're paid to edit, they wouldn't have been allowed to make changes. The people who allow/ignore/wink at/fear trying to change these no-edit policies were allowed to be functioning members of ACES.

When people within the organization are actively undermining the goal of the organization, then the organization doesn't have much value.

I know, I know:

"We're AFRAID! We CAN'T change those things!"

Also, I didn't realize until recently John M. had flattered me with another post, but I will respond to one part of it. If he thinks I'm somehow jealous of or inferior to someone like himself -- a living, breathing caricature of everything newspapers do not respect about copy desks -- then I simply have to laugh.

John is big on literary quotes, so I'll conclude with one: "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." -- T.S. Eliot

rknil said...


Today's copy editors aren't catching the big mistakes.

They're getting through. They're destroying the credibility of the publications.

No credibility for the publications = no credibility for ACES. It should disband. It's taking dues and giving nothing in return.

rknil said...

Newspapers are slashing jobs again.

Will copy editors continue to cower gutlessly under their desks? Or will they do something to address the problems?

I assume they'll choose Option A and then whine about how unappreciated they are. Wouldn't want to switch horses midstream ...

People like Pam and John McIntyre just can't admit they're wrong. That's why they're bad leaders. They are FAR more damaging than the people sending out "borderline illiterate memos."

ACES should disband. People don't have the money for this nonsense.

Anonymous said...

About the statement:

"Example: There was a column a few years ago where an event that could not possibly have happened yet was described in the past tense. It never happened. This was incredibly embarrassing for that paper, as well as others that used the column.

No copy desk changed the column for the better."

That's incorrect. A copy editor in Wisconsin did catch the mistake to which you referred and the column ran in the correct tense in that newspaper.

A small quibble in a larger rant, but isn't that why we are copy editors?

rknil said...

"That's incorrect. A copy editor in Wisconsin did catch the mistake to which you referred and the column ran in the correct tense in that newspaper."

Nope, you're wrong. First of all, the change you're thinking of took place in Minnesota, not Wisconsin. Also, it wasn't a change for the better; that's why I phrased my statement the way I did.

(I realize this is a gray area, and today's copy editors and newsrooms don't handle gray areas well.)

There was no "correct tense." The players didn't appear at the game, so the entire reference was incorrect throughout. If anything, the change the Minnesota copy editor made only made the column worse.

The correct way to handle the issue would have been to get the attention of a higher-up, if one would have been available from under the desk or in an office, and to have the column spiked. Then the syndicate that sent it out should have been contacted. None of these things happened because copy editors are too lazy and gutless to do these sorts of things.

Now for today's example:


Terrible. Today's copy editors aren't reading the articles. They're simply blasting away.

To summarize: Today's copy editors need to learn how to handle gray areas. They need to realize they can't do their jobs by cowering under their desks and waiting for the mysterious Somebody Else to come in and appreciate them.

ACES has proved it's totally incapable of addressing these issues. It needs to be disbanded, and its years of failure and inaction need to be held up as examples of what not to do.

Anonymous said...

It's ironic listening to you guys discussing the possibilty of oursourcing. Over 15 months ago I left my job as a sub-editor (copy editor) on a national newspaper. Today my work is being done by a combination of lower-paid sub-editors in an outsourced Irish firm, even less-well paid sub-editors in France and I have no doubt there are plans to move the sub-editing to one of the company's subsidiaries in Asia in the future. I am watching standards dropping in captions, intros, sometimes even headlines, and the gradual dumbing-down of an industry I was proud and honoured to be part of in my first 20 years in journalism. The criticism you make of your ACES organisation are like a re-run of the arguments I heard over and over again, with regard to our union, the NUJ, which proved itself to be nothing but a toothless talking shop in the end. (I realise ACES is not a union, by the way!).
I am currently researching a thesis on sub-editing and the death thereof, in my opinion. All contributions are welcome to me at cronin.siobhan@gmail.com
In the meantime, please guys, stop bickering, get your heads together, and fight for quality journalism.

Anonymous said...

That was a test: I meant 'criticisms' (plural), of course! Maybe I should have taken that job in France, after all ...!

rknil said...

Just to clarify:

It's not my ACES organization. It has never spoken for me and it never will. Its leaders have proved time and time again that they work for no one other than themselves. People within the organization openly undercut its goals by protecting odious techniques like no-edit policies. They do this because they are gutless and self-serving.

In regard to the rest of your post: I have little doubt those standards will erode.

As examples, I offer some recent things I have yet to enter into the archives:

* An AP cutline reference to Michigan State as the Wolverines. This was allowed to run in the paper. Far too frequently, today's copy editors fail to edit the unedited cutlines their newspapers purchase from AP.

* A headline that said a sports league spokesman was a player who had been fined. Apparently this CE didn't bother to read the brief, and no one proofed the page properly.

* A recent "correction" in a once-major paper that botched the context and the team name. Apparently someone tried to write a correction without getting the details.

rknil said...

Lots of copy editors are getting whacked at Gannett papers around the country.

ACES has done nothing to preserve these jobs. Its membership is dwindling, and its alleged leaders are still fiddling.

It's time for ACES to disband. It's a powerless organization.

rknil said...

John M. is fiddling over at the Gannett blog. Good to know the alleged ACES leaders are so helpful in a time of need for copy editors.

Anonymous said...

Sorry rknil, I wasn't suggesting ACES was YOUR organisation - meant that in a collective sense as in all of you 'over there across the big pond called the Atlantic' ! No more than I can say the NUJ is MY organisation any more. Thanks for those examples. Finally got to watch the last series of The Wire last week and had a good chuckle at the special feature on journalism and the Baltimore Sun on the DVD. That said it all, really!

rknil said...

U.S. copy editors seem to like The Wire. They enjoy watching it before another shift of cowering under the desk and allowing big mistakes to get into the paper.

BTW, ACES promised after last year's convention/fiasco that it would take some sort of action to help its membership. Short of a couple of badly written essays proclaiming "We're important!", there's been little to nothing.

Crickets chirp. Rome burns. The ACES leadership fiddles.

Time for ACES to disband.