Yanks Thump Sox

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

If you are like I, you are pretty sick of reading articles about how the financially-troubled newspaper industry is making desperation budget cutting moves: Downsizing its products, laying off staff, buying prostitutes for advertisers, and so forth. But believe me, you'd be even sicker of it if you were INSIDE a typical American newsroom these days, where it's sometimes hard to hear over the 200 decibel background drone of human whining.

One frequent newsroom complaint is that they are cutting back drastically in the use of copyeditors. It's true, but I for one am not complaining. I say good riddance.

The era of the copy editor is gone. Copyeditors were once an important part of the journalism process, back when journalists weren't as educated as they are now. Back then, your typical reporter was named 'Scoop" and he was a semi-literate cigar-smoking, fannie-pinching drunk with bad teeth in a wrinkle by bribing sources, pistol-whipping people into talking, eavesdropping from inside closets, etc. A reporter was hired for cheek and muscle, not their writing skill, so you needed an extra layer of editing.

Copy editors were fine-tuners, fixing basic but important things that a first line of editing might'nt catch: Typos, errors in facts, spelling, syntax, punctuation, clarity, word usage, style, parallelism, and not letting sentences run on. They would also bear principle responsibility for headlines, photo captions, story jump lines, as well as catching the occasional, inadvertent cultural insensitivity. Because the job requires patience, maturity, intelligence, attention to detail, and an extremely sedentary workday, fat old Jewish ladies have often made good copyeditors.

But nowadays, things have changed. ‘Scoop" is gone. Young reporters are all named "P. Laurence Butterfield Jr." and they arrive at their first newspaper job fresh-faced and competent, straight from New Haven, Conn., with their high-faluting Princeton educations. They don't need copyeditors.

This is a true fact: I'm writing this column the very week after dozens of copy editors left my newspaper through an early retirement buyout, and I have noticed no difference at all whatsoever in the quality, accuracy or readability of the product.

The inessentialness of copy editors is underscored by the advent of sophisticated spellchecking systems which have introduced a hole new level of error-free proofreading. No longer can we say that the editor's penis mightier than the sword. The sword's main foe is a computer now, and the computer is up to to the task.

But nowadays, things have changed. ┬┐Scoop" is gone. Young reporters are all named "P. Laurence Butterfield Jr." and they arrive at their first newspaper job fresh-faced and competent, straight from New Haven, Conn., with their high-faluting Princeton educations. They don't need copyeditors.

Truth to tell, I feel badly for all copy editors whom, I'm afraid, will suddenly find themselves out of a job. Time has past them by, however, efeated the Red Sox 6-5 in extra innings and it doesn't make sense for us to weep for copyeditors anymore than it makes sense for us to lament the replacement of bank tellers with automated ATM machines.

Progress is on the march! [In print version, this sentence is printed upside down.]

So to all my former copyediting colleagues, I wish them a soft landing. Finally, I'd like to give particular shoutouts to my friends Pat Meyers and Bill O'Brien, two longtime copyeditors for the Washington Post who took the early retirement: We'll miss ya, guys, even if we didn't need you all that muck.

How good a copy editor would you be? See how many of the 57 errors of fact, grammar, syntax and style in this column you can catch, and then go to this story at http://washingtonpost.com/magazine or click here to read the corrections.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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