Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Copy Editing: Aux Armes

Steve Yelvington, an acknowledged guru of online news, steps forward to defend Tribune Co. from Charles Apple's attack after the layoff of copy and design editors. (And I feel the need to enter the lists. Meanwhile, 99.99 percent of readers of Tribune Co. papers have no idea who Steve Yelvington, Charles Apple or TTPB are, and I only include that 0.01 percent because some staffers may be aware of them. Of these little fights do we think journalism trends are made. Readers could give a flying fig.)

Yelvington spends much of his time arguing against what he terms "wire editors," and noting that replicating their function at 1,000 different newspaper sites is not going to help save the news industry. There is little argument with this. But Yelvington -- as with many before him -- seems prone to confuse the job of "copy editor" with that of "wire editor."

My career suffered from this once before. At The Flint Journal we had a period where we had Metro copy editors, of whom I was one. Then editors changed amid hard times that have never left Flint, and an editor arrived who saw "copy editors" as the people who put together wire pages. Local pages in his view were done by the assistant metro editors, who also assigned the reporters. No further steps needed, to the reader's dismay.

When I worked briefly on Knight Ridder's project to provide some centralized wire pages to its smaller papers, it was clear that some with my former employer also saw the role of copy editors as being to cull the wire and produce A-section pages. Tribune's effort seems to be to do away with two things that hindered the KR project -- the lack of common type fonts and ad stacks -- by ordering all its papers to have common fonts and ad stacks. It's a bad move, I think, for reasons stated here earlier, but they did at least realize that they had to address the question head-on.

This is an old and outmoded definition of copy editors, one I would not bother to knock down except for Tribune's actions and Yelvington's further discussion about features editors, whom he also sees as passe. To him, a features editor appears to be someone who is responsible for filling the back of the book sections with largely syndicated content -- AP, or a garden column from NEA, or whatever. As he notes, the Internet offers far more depth on any subject than a newspaper could ever offer.

But features editors I know are not people scanning for the equivalent of Copley News Service fillers and negotiating with UFS salespeople over bridge columns. They are assigning local writers, increasingly freelance ones, to do local stories about -- well, gardening, or food, or entertainment. Yelvington says he worked as a copy editor -- but it seems to have been a long time ago.

Finally, Yelvington acknowledges why copy editors have been needed, but says that in an era of fewer copy editors, reporters who can't write well are going to be as outmoded as wire editors. This is the Jack Shafer fallacy -- that reporting staffs of the future are going to be composed of flawless wordsmiths whose writing will tumble into pre-formatted spaces in print or online, with little benefit of human intervention. Yelvington seems to acknowledge a disconnect here, but closes with: Well, it just has to happen. Because the Link Economy says it does. Sorry. Don't really know how.

Being a wire editor (or a reporter or copy editor) is a job. It has skills that can be taught. But talent cannot be taught. Facility with the language, the sixth sense to know which "facts" to check, expression in a few words that can be easily understood by readers -- again, there are skills, but these are talents, not jobs. Some reporters are terrific writers. Some, OK. Some are so-so or worse. Many of them are wonderful at developing news leads, getting sources to talk, knowing the mood of the moment, but not good at stringing a sentence together.

The newsroom of the future will have many different jobs than it has now. It will need to sharpen different skills. The talent of the people who come to work will be as varied as before. The shortcomings presented by the shortfalls of multiple talents and skills sets will always need to be addressed. The God of Newspapers didn't make copy editors to lay out 236-2s; that's just what he employed them to do. He made copy editors to make copy better, approachable, intelligible, and well presented. They are journalists, not mechanics. Yelvington's critique belongs to a green-eyeshade world of hot type, not to the copy desks of today.

And what do those copy editors do? As Lisa McLendon notes on the ACES Web site:

"We know journalism is changing, and we're changing with it. We're learning multimedia, social media, SEO, XTML. We know that today, being current with technology isn't enough -- so we're moving forward with it. ACES is at the forefront of training copy editors to integrate traditional duties with new technologies.

"But the means of delivery is one issue; quality is another. To stand out from the oceans of poorly written, error-riddled chatter, rumor and commentary on the Internet, news organizations must maintain their quality standards if they want to maintain their reputations as credible sources. Traditionally the fact-checking, question-raising, prose-clarifying and typo-fixing was done by the copy editors. Now, it is still done by the copy editors."

So, copy editors, here's the thing: You need to talk to your top editor and say that he or she needs to get on board that copy editing is an editing job and not a "production" or "manufacturing" job. And that editor needs to talk to someone on the business side, where they break down tasks into numbers so they can compare with other papers.

If your editor says he or she thinks it is a "mechanical" job, well, then you know.

Copy editors traditionally are not good at politicking, and we were told often how we would always have jobs, and we believed it. Now, we have to justify ourselves. We can do this, but it requires forcing the issue.


winjaw said...

I think you hit this dead on - there's a big difference between the old "wire editor" and a copy editor. As a long-time journalist, copy editors were my bane, but also saved me countless times.
The idea, as Yelvington puts forth, that only journalists with perfect copy will make it in the future doesn't hold water - that person does not, and will not, exist.
I worked with Steve for a long time, but think he missed the mark on this one.
Here's my take as a journalist on the continual hacking of copy editors - http://justflipthedog.com/2009/05/13/when-the-last-copyeditor-leaves/

rknil said...

Again, you're way too late in suggesting this.

This battle needed to have been fought 10 years ago.