Monday, January 25, 2010

Watch Your Count, Part II

When I got out of college and decided to work for newspapers despite my degree from the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, I didn't know that my wanting to work on the desk without spending years as a reporter was a trendlet. I just knew that I loved editing and working to put out the Ball State Daily News, while I didn't much enjoy interviewing people, and didn't want to have to wait until I was in my 40s to do what I liked.

So, of course, my first job was as a reporter. But I was lucky -- there was a completely unexpected opening on the desk within months, and I was moved into the job, with a lot of hemming and hawing about how normally this wouldn't happen and of course I didn't have enough experience as a reporter.

As the years went by, I found more people like myself, and by the time I was interviewing people for copy editing jobs or internships, I had found many more -- people who loved the news, loved newspapers, loved the language, and usually were either too shy or too nonaggressive (which are not the same thing) to want to spend years as a reporter. They wanted to work as editors, and a lot of them wanted to be copy editors.

Thankfully, by the 1990s the newspaper business -- thanks to pagination taking so much of prepress out of the composing room and putting it into the newsroom -- had jobs for people like us.

But the job kept changing as technology whipped ahead. The wonderful old mechanisms for getting copy to and from composing, like the conveyor belt with hooks at the Chicago Sun-Times and The Inquirer's pneumatic tubes, fell by the wayside. The copy logs became less important. Physical dummies disappeared, along with the rubber stamps and time recorders that marked their priority and progress, and lots of local-color things that had grown up over the years. (At The Inquirer, page dummies had to be drawn using black, blue and red pencils to indicate different elements.) And more and more, the job became more laying out pages and less editing copy, particularly with pagination.

But at the Flint Journal and The Inquirer I noticed a difference between younger and older copy editors. Many of the older copy editors were of the "copy reader" style -- your main job was to write the heads and check for obvious errors of grammar or a lack of names, but not to go off "challenging the copy" too deeply. And the older reporters and city editors did not take kindly to our doing so. We of the younger school thought it was our job to kick the crap out of the copy if it needed it. In part, this was because the crusty old city editor had been replaced by today's assigning editor. But we took seriously our role as "last editor and first reader." If a sentence didn't pass our muster, even if it was grammatically correct, we took it out or demanded that it be rewritten. If the story didn't meet our standards, we held it out of the paper and kicked it back. If an adjective was superfluous -- death.

We had to, because we had memorable ledes such as this (very close approximation, but not work for word): "Like his namesake, Robert E. Lee loved to fight. But while the Confederate general devoted his energy to harassing the Union army, Lee, of Somesuburb, spent his time beating his wife."

Or the story that had no lede, to which we were told: "The absence of a lede is a lede."

Or the 25-inch story to which a reporter responded to a challenge with "I spent so much time getting one side of the story, I forgot to get the other."

These are low-hanging fruit, but these were stories that had made it to the copy desk. We saw ourselves as copy editors the way Tim McGuire or John McIntyre describe them, not just as people who caught spelling errors and wrote headlines. We wanted to be the consciences of our newspapers, the heart of how they were viewed by the readers. We saw ourselves -- as most journalists see themselves -- as inspired maquis bringing forth the truth. We just pointed our lances internally.

Unfortunately, some of our editors -- and, I would venture, most of our publishers -- saw us primarily as people who got raw copy set into type, whether it was sending flimsies back to composing or paginating the front page. Some of them just didn't care what anyone did as long as it made money, but more of them, particularly on the business side, felt that one editor should catch all this stuff, so why did you need all these layers of editors? People read most of the stories in a minute or less anyway. But times were good, so they didn't start questioning it until newspaper revenue failed to bounce back after the 2001 recession.

Then, they started asking. And then, everyone started being able to publish online without going through a copy desk. Including their own newspapers.

And then it became apparent that what copy editors and their advocates wanted to do wasn't what most newspapers had really hired them for. It was just that you couldn't get a machine to do all this mechanical stuff yet, spellchecking and formatting and toning and such, and since you had to have people to do that, gosh, I guess they might as well edit the stories and write headlines, too. But in the end, they were hiring lots of copy editors (as opposed to the handful they had before) because they were cheaper than printers-added-to-proofreaders-added-to-engravers.

Next: And who's right?

1 comment:

Steven Swain said...

Former architecture student, eh? So am I. I should have figured you were by the way that your posts work. They're highly considered, well-researched and almost thesis-like, no doubt in part from your history of copy editing, but also in part because you went to architecture school. Interesting.