Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Copy Editing: Who Are We, Anyway

With John McIntyre's blog moving to a new location, I did some cleanup of the copy editing links part of the blogroll. (I had outdated links to Andy Bechtel and Kathy Schenck as well.) And I added a link to another great copy editor's blog, that of Craig Lancaster at the Billings Gazette. I didn't link them in this post, because they're over in the blogroll.

Craig, in a post, raised the question: What exactly should we be doing?

Part of the problem copy editors face is that their jobs vary from paper to paper. Do they lay out some/all pages? Are they the "wire editors"? Are they expected to smooth out stories, or simply punctuate them correctly, or are they the first editor of record? Are they fact-checkers, or is that the job of the reporter or assigning editor? Do they proof pages? Do they manage the Web site?

It strikes me that one of the problems copy editors have is that at too many papers, their jobs consist of: Whatever no one else wants to do.

The majority of copy editors I have known combine a high level of skill, a perfectionistic streak, an incredible work ethic, and a combination of shyness and a sense that "if I can just keep my head down, maybe they won't give me even more to do." But as surveys have shown, such as the one that led to the founding of ACES more than a decade ago, copy editors are often the most alienated people in the newsroom -- not the most negative, not the most critical, but the ones most detached from what is going on elsewhere. In part that is their job -- to look at things with a fresh eye. In part that is the hours at a morning paper, which separate them from most of the reporters and top editors.

But in part it's because of the resentment many copy editors feel that things simply get dumped on them while others' roles (as they see it, and in many cases inaccurately) barely change -- that for all the nice-sounding words editors throw out about "last line of defense," many top editors see copy editors as somehow less than full journalists. (Real journalists, dad-gum it, they come up with story ideas and interview someone!) This it seems to me is why photographers can also get the short end of the stick, even though photos work wonderfully on the Web. Editors want to talk about cool stories that could be done, not about operational problems, and photographers, with their masses of assignments and cameras and interfaces, always have operational problems.
And some copy editors also feel that the less other editors know about what they do, the better -- a view held by some reporters as well, but which comes for the copy desk out of a latent fear that if asked, the top editor really would say, "No, I don't want you to change a word of any reporter's copy unless it's simply wrong, because I think what they write is perfect (or I just don't want them yelling at me)." Copy editors sometimes feel that they are saving the paper from itself in spite of itself, and take a certain pride in it.

So here is my challenge to copy editors, which I am going to take up myself (after the Indy 500, of course -- we all have our priorities). Go to the top editor in your newsroom and say: I'd like to talk to you about what you see copy editors' role as. Don't start off talking about staffing levels and page throughputs and all the "production" stuff we do. Most top editors are bored stiff by "production." So talk to them about what they see the job of a copy editor as a journalist. And ask them to put their thoughts down on paper.

Is the job of a copy editor to:

1. Edit grammar and spelling?
2. Fact-check stories? And check which facts? All? Some?
3. Trim stories to fit? (Or design the page to fit the stories?)
4. Make the writing of stories smoother (this is poorly phrased, you can do better)?
5. Work for changes to the story from the view of a typical reader?
6. Write headlines? (This is being increasingly put on the assigning editors or reporters.)
7. Write captions, or merely copy and edit caption information from wire and local photographers?
8. Lay out pages, using one's own news judgment? Or, lay out pages, using the news judgment of another person?
9. Proof some/all pages?
10. Update stories from watching for new information, or update stories as instructed, or edit updated stories, or whatever...
11. Pull and edit sports agate? Post lottery winners?
12. Post stories online?
13. Edit blogs?
14. Develop links?
15. Edit audio and video?

And on and on. Whatever you can think of, and also, "For everything in the paper/Web site/whatever," or just part of it. Don't assume that what you are doing now is what the editor wants or will say the job should be. It's just what you're doing now. Get the editor to say, yes, this is the job of a copy editor.

Because chances are, more than half of America's newspaper editors have never actually said, What is the job of a copy editor? They just have copy editors who do some job that they can say "last line of defense" about. They can tell you exactly what the job of a city hall reporter is, though. (The other less-than-half came up through the copy desk. But they sometimes forget, and sometimes feel they must prove to reporters that they are not copy editors at heart.)

And then, at the end, ask something like this:

Given what you have just defined as the role of a copy editor, how many slugs/stories/pages/columns/online tasks -- whatever makes sense in your location -- do you the editor think a copy editor should be able to handle in a day's/night's shift? Don't argue the point. Don't provide your own recommendations. Don't parse the thing into 15 subsets. Make it simple. You can make some nod that "Given that stories range from major investigations to police briefs, from wire copy to freelance book reviews," whatever. But make it one number, two if you have to because it can be hard to make audio and video equivalent to other work.

Half of the editors at this point will probably say, "Um, I don't want to say that." Because they will know what you are up to. They will want to say, "As many as there are." Make it clear you are not going to beat up on them. You just want to know what their expectation is. If they want to say "80 slugs," they say 80, and you don't start screaming, "Dammit, Jim, I'm an editor, not a bricklayer." If you're doing 80, then you're doing what the editor wants. If the editor says, "I don't want my reporters' prose ever touched," then you know to stop doing it. You may need to make a note to yourself to find another job once there again are other jobs to find.

But whatever, quietly and nonconfrontationally, then, a week later or so, give the editor the actual number of slugs/stories/whatever a copy editor is now handling. EVEN IF IT'S LOWER THAN WHAT THE EDITOR THINKS SHOULD BE DONE. We have to be honest. And let the editor say, hmm, I guess my figure was off, or, hmm, you guys can do more than I thought, or whatever. This is not an argument. (If the editor says, I don't think you should be doing sports agate, and you are doing sports agate, of course, point this out. The editor may have no idea how sports agate is being done.)

This will not save copy editors from being laid off or reassigned. It doesn't discuss "quality," which we copy editors love to discuss but which unfortunately is not quantifiable. It may put copy editors in the same category as reporters. Any top newsroom editor knows what beats the newspaper is covering vs. what beats it wants to cover, and bases its staffing assignments on that compromise. This may gives you the ability to say, well, then, what do you, the editor, want us to give up, the same way you give up covering X county courts? (And then, if the editor says, "I don't want you to proof pages," then you have to stop proofing pages.) But it may make the editor also take full responsibility for what happens on or to the copy desk, instead of saying, "Well, what can I do? I have to have feet on the street." It's a lot easier for the editor to say that if he or she really has no idea what the copy desk does or how it is done.


Lourdes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rknil said...

It's way too late for this.

It needed to have been done at least 10 years ago, but spineless jellyfish like John McIntyre and Pam Robinson were encouraging copy editors to keep their heads down.

They deserve the blame for the current mess. They are the copy desk equivalent of Enron, AIG, and Countrywide (no offense, Pam) rolled into one.

Brian Cubbison said...

It could have been said several times before, when copy editors absorbed the work of composing rooms, then page design, and at the beginning of the transition to online. And it probably was, although not always in such a detailed and forceful way.

It also varies from newsroom to newsroom. Some newsrooms are healthier than others in their relationships among departments.

David is right that copy editors have sometimes created a canon that seems to be isolated from the goals of their organization. In the coming months, as newsrooms dramatically reshape themselves, it's important that copy editors synch up with the goals of the organization.

It's easy for online gurus to say that if copy editors have open minds and pick up on new skills, they'll have a role in the future. I've said such things. But copy editors want to make the point that they're open now and no one's training them. The stubbornness often comes from elsewhere. The counter to that is to not wait for someone to train you; it's something you need to do for yourself.

The big-picture answer might come from outside the newsroom and its traditional process. It might come in unrecognizable roles in non-obvious places. I was struck by how many of the questions relate to the traditional print process. Those of us who know what a slug is might stop to consider what long-ago technology gave us that term. How does it all fit into databases, Google maps and networking?

I think what David has done is important, even at this late stage, to cut through the assumptions that both sides might operate under: That copy editing is righteous but only copy editors understand it, vs. copy editing is production ("manufacturing") that should be centralized whenever possible in favor of more boots-on-ground news gathering.

rknil said...

At the risk of turning this into an intelligent discussion, I'll say that not all copy editors isolate themselves from the organization.

People like John McIntyre thought lectures about etymology were useful throughout the newsroom. (They weren't.) He was a caricature of everything modern newsrooms did not want, but that does not mean all copy editors have lost their way.

Many of them have. They allowed copy editing to become visualwordstuff. They don't know how to edit, and organizations will lose nothing by ditching those people.

Unknown said...

The copy editor needs to know enough about the technical side of publishing (printing, web design, etc.)

Copy editing services