Friday, January 22, 2010

Watch Your Count

Lots of buzz about how some newspapers are making another slash to the throat, in immolating their long-established copy desks. (The now-infamous Minneapolis memo largely killing the copy desk has led to comments by editing guru John McIntyre and newspaper management consultant Tim McGuire; and the Washington Post ombudsman continues the tradition of on the one hand, chastising the Post for cutting back on copy editing, while on the other hand saying, But what can be done ... this is the price of the Internet.)

As McIntyre and McGuire note (and as TTPB has also noted in the past), part of the problem is that many editors really have no idea what copy editors do. In their minds, reporters write stories, something happens, and the paper comes out -- so maybe the "something" isn't very important. (This view particularly appeals to those editors who, as reporters, didn't like their copy being changed. They aren't the majority, but I've worked for two.) But part of the problem is that what copy editors actually do has changed dramatically over the years, while for reporters some of the "how they do it" has changed -- more use of data analysis, less sitting in routine government meetings -- but the "what they do" is essentially the same: They talk to people and write stories.

"The Paper" by Richard Kluger talks about the old New York Herald Tribune night desk and its leader for decades, Everett Kallgren, who was known as the Count because of a vague European connection but who also always would say to headline writers, "Watch your count." Kluger writes, "The surest measure of the seriousness and thoroughness with which a newspaper was edited in the pre-television age was its headlines." This was also the end of the era when newspapers were rated among America's best to some degree on the strength of their editorial pages. Major local investigations didn't move the meter much back then.

The production process of newspapers was totally different then, with hot type and composing rooms. Slot editors (the ones in charge of a copy desk) were in part responsible for making sure the Linotype operators in the composing room were kept busy but not overloaded. Thus, in the beginning of the cycle went down the fillers and timeless wire and local copy. The closer one got to deadline, the work shifted to breaking news.

In those long-gone days, on-deadline stories might go to the composing room in takes as they were written. There was no way a 25-inch breaking story could be set in type by one operator, then proofread and corrected in the composing room, if the entire story went down at once, and still make deadline. You would send it down take by take. That meant the slot had to make sure all the takes of the story went to the same copy editor, who would check to make sure there were no people without first references, and that the location of the news didn't move from North Broad to South.

Slot editors kept a log of what went down to composing and who did it also because the makeup editor, working in composing, would have to reorder headlines. (Back then headlines were assigned by the originating editor or the news editor based on what they saw as the importance of the news, and the makeup editor's job was to fit them all into the available space, somehow. Often only the tops of pages were "dummied" with a specific story; the rest of the page was marked "Fill" or something.)

If a story with a 2-36-2 could only get in the paper with a 6-42-1 because of ad configurations, the makeup editor -- whose job was to put the pages together, not know what all the stories were about -- sent a note back to the copy desk, and the slot gave it to the rim editor with the new head order, which then went back to the typesetters, proofreaders, etc. The same happened for large papers between editions when breaking news meant moving things around.

The slot's log also was checked against the paper to see what didn't make it -- some of the contents of each day's paper were a mystery until it was printed, as they had been set in type days earlier -- and what was still there for the next day. When the paper came off the presses, copy editors checked it to make sure that the right headline was on the story (errors here more often than you might think), that an entire take hadn't been left out or the story failed to end, etc.

Writing headlines back then was an adventure, because there was no computer to count them. You counted each letter according to its weight (m's 1 and a half, l's a half, etc.) and then matched it against the count for that headline that was written in a book or on a piece of paper. The slot then double-checked your count, because it was so easy to get it wrong, and a headline that didn't fit could make the paper late. Even at that, old papers show lines of headlines all jammed together. Part of the reason for using capital letters at the start of every work was to let you jam the words together if the headline was too long.

Much of what copy editors did was tied to the wire -- grabbing the copy off the AP or UPI tickers, hanging grafs, chasing with new ledes, and the like. At a paper like the Count's Herald Tribune, all local copy went through the copy desk; at smaller papers, the city desk moved all of its own copy, with headlines. It had to be a very large and very editing-intensive paper for the copy desk to actually "edit" local copy; newsrooms were not as large then as they became in the 1970s and onward, and city editors were the gruff old green-eyeshade guys of legend back then, whose job was to tear your 20-inch story apart and send it down as three paragraphs. (As the Count often would say, "There's no story that can't be cut.") The cult of the singer-songwriter journalist had not yet arrived in most newsrooms, and the mission was to get in as many stories as you could, so being writerly was saved for the local Nellie Bly and everyone else learned staccato AP-style writing.

Copy editors were often called "copy readers" back then, and many of them were reporters whose feet were tired but who had served the newsroom well in their younger days. Many newspapers didn't hire anyone as a copy reader; you moved your older folks onto the desk when they got tired of the grind. They knew the names of all the local politicians and the spellings of all the weird street names, and it was assumed that nearly everyone knew basic English. If they missed some after coming back from lunch at the bar, there was always a typesetter or proofreader in the composing room to catch the mistake.

For all the importance of accuracy and good language, a large part of the copy desk's job was to be the interface -- though no one would have used that word then -- between the writing produced in the newsroom and the vast mechanical beast that turned it into a newspaper. Then came cold type, computerized page makeup, direct to plate output -- while at the same time, into newsrooms came a growing group of young journalists who weren't copy boys turned into obit writers turned into copy reporters farmed out to the desk. They truly wanted to be newspaper copy editors from the start. There had always been some of these -- but I can remember from the incredulity that I encountered out of college trying to get such a job, at newspapers in Anderson and Hammond and LaPorte, that in many places, this Just Wasn't Done. Next: The professionalization of copy editors.

(P.S.: If you never read McGuire's post on editors vs. publishers, check it out here. There are editors who actually want to throw copy editors over the side, but many others find themselves having to do so simply because they work for people who have no belief in editorial quality, and in that situation, you have to choose which definition of quality you're going to defend the longest.)

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