O copy editors, we hardly knew ye

Jim Romenesko’s column is a town hall for newspaper folks and other journalists. Today’s was about a HUGE headline error, the most embarrassing kind because it’s literally also huge. A Louisiana paper misspelled Louisiana… in theory because the page itself was designed and typeset in Des Moines, Iowa. Newspaper megacorp Gannett has taken to dismantling its local copy desks and having a lot of work done remotely and digitally in “design centers” where the staffers might mean well but are less familiar with key place-names than a local desk would be.

I speak from experience. When I was working as a copy editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (and the Atlanta Business Chronicle, and CNN, and Atlanta 30306, among others), that was my briar patch, and I had no special editing training beyond the AP basics. But when I moved to Poughkeepsie, Dutchess County, in slightly upstate New York, it was a whole new ball of place-name wax and I had to stay on my toes while also being closely backstopped. Eventually, you just come to know the proper spellings and variations jump out at you.

Sure, even an Iowan should know there’s no second S in Louisiana. But it seems very likely that a Louisianan would be more likely to notice the unfamiliar shapes of a prominently misspelled version of their home.

This of course led to a spirited discussion on the Romenesko page, with almost all contributors bemoaning the corporate and cultural forces that led to the destruction of copy editing as a viable career. (Certainly killed mine — I like to say “I didn’t leave journalism; journalism left me.” I’m now plying my wordsmith skills in the tech department of a major media monolith. It’s not exactly the same as newspapering, and though I’m now thrilled to have sold out so completely, all my love and support goes to those still battling to make a living in publications.)

However, as is always the case, there’s at least one contrarian who just has to make the opposite point of the majority of the group. In several posts, a woman took a very odd combo position of “who cares?”/”why are you so indignant?” while demonstrating a bunch a disregard for the severity of the mistake and coming off totally self-righteous. Really weird in this forum.

I tell you all this because really she’s a microcosm to me of the attitude that already has made copy editors an endangered species, and to a larger degree, ever-increasingly threatens to wipe out “journalistic integrity” as a meaningful concept. So I spoke to that when I spoke to her:

Sure, people make mistakes. But a copy editor’s entire job is to catch those mistakes. Eliminate the copy editors and, sure enough, there will be an increase in published mistakes. This is a serious problem destroying publications’ credibility throughout our entire industry. Your aggressive nonchalance about it is offensive to those of us who care about journalistic integrity at any level. Any published mistake — let alone a huge headline — is absolutely worth talking about, especially among ourselves. And yes, someone should catch a lot of heat for it. Feel bad for that person, or chain of people, if you want to. I do, too. But to pretend this isn’t a big deal contributes to a widespread corporate culture that diminishes and disrespects the role of copy editor, resulting in thousands of jobs permanently eliminated. This kind of mistake is strong evidence for the counterargument: Cutting costs often means reduced quality.
The only reason I can fathom you making this argument here (repeatedly) is that no one edits your copy before publication, and you’d like the world to pretend that your inevitable human errors don’t matter either. After all, shit happens, right?

The link at the top will go directly to this column, and I’m sure there will be many more comments along these lines. If you’re interested in eavesdropping at a metaphoric deathbed, you might like to visit it.


About amywinns

Semi-snarky, semi-sincere, occasionally ranting, always paying attention. Feminist who can work a skirt and crack a joke. Grammar nerd who is also fun at parties. Mid-career writer/editor with 15 years’ experience in newspapers & magazines who now helps developers at a major media corporation communicate with the suits who write the checks. Pro-women, pro-family, pro-choice, pro-workingclass, pro-entrepreneur, pro-farmer. Like every other bourgeois Brooklynite, I choose local/organic/raw food — mostly vegetables — whenever possible/reasonable/affordable but I’m not a smug asshole about it. Hometown: Atlanta. Weird hobby: lindy hop. No pets, no kids, no thanks.
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