By Deborah Howell
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Copy editors are the last stop before disaster at newspapers. They get neither bylines nor glory, nor the praise they deserve. They write headlines and photo captions and catch large and small mistakes, bad grammar, awkward sentences, misspelled names, math miscalculations, and incorrect Internet addresses. They ask whether a story makes sense, and they check any fact possible on deadline.
They do the kind of old-fashioned nit-picking that makes for better reading and more accurate stories. I have the good fortune to have Vince Rinehart, editorial copy desk chief, and his deskmates read my column and vastly improve it every week.
But they may be a vanishing breed. They're leaving The Post and the industry in large numbers because of shrinking newspaper revenue and the immediacy of the Internet. Chris Wienandt, president of the American Copy Editors Society, said that he is hearing from ACES members subjected to layoffs and buyouts that copy-editing is "dispensable. I'm concerned that cutting back on copy-editing will hurt the credibility of newspapers all around."
Budget pressure has forced a restructuring of editing functions at The Post -- and many other newspapers -- where there are supervising editors who edit stories before a copy editor gets them. In early 2005, The Post had about 75 full-time copy editors. More than 30 have left the paper to take buyouts or new jobs. There are 43 today; that's about a 40 percent loss. There's also a pool of part-time copy editors.
Copy editors are a different sort of journalist. Listen to Bill Walsh, National copy desk chief: "A lot of the time, the drawing-out-sources-and-ferreting-out-facts gene and the tighten-it-and-polish-it-up gene aren't contained in the same person. But the job I do is important, for all sorts of reasons. You know how maddening it is when you buy a new electronic gadget and find that it's just not user-friendly, that obviously nobody bothered to let a user not involved in the original design test it out? Well, in addition to all the points of spelling and grammar and style and consistency, that's the copy editor's role: to make sure the story makes sense to somebody who doesn't already know the story."
On morning papers, copy editors almost always work at nights and often on weekends and holidays. Before computers arrived, they sat at horseshoe-shaped desks and, yes, often wore green eyeshades. The copy desk chief sat in the middle and was called the "slot." The editors were on the "rim" and were often called "rim rats." The names stuck.
There's a healthy tension between editors and reporters. Some reporters think their prose is golden. Copy editors, even more skeptical than reporters, may muse: You think this story is in English? They take pride in catching errors. Reporters sometimes complain of an error inserted into stories by a copy editor, there are far more stories about reporters' goofs caught by copy editors.
Jeff Baron, a Metro copy editor, wrote a note on the craft. It said: "The copy editor needs to be a critical reader: Is the story missing necessary background or other information? Is it unfair? Is it libelous? Have crucial questions gone unasked? When the answer is yes, the copy editor is on the phone with the reporter or researching on the Internet to make things right, and on deadline. We have to be alert to ambiguities; if even five in a hundred readers are misled or baffled by the phrasing of a sentence, we have failed."
Philip Bennett, The Post's managing editor, said that copy editing remains "essential to our credibility, but as with many things in journalism, it needs to evolve with changes that are transforming our business. As we move from being a nightly assembly line to a 24-hour news operation, all editors will have to take on broader and overlapping responsibilities." Bennett also said that before recent cutbacks in the size of the newsroom, The Post had almost as many editors as reporters, and "it's vital to us to keep as many reporters as we can contributing original journalism, even if it means we have fewer editors."
Don Podesta was the assistant managing editor for copy desks until he took a buyout a few weeks ago; he recommended that he not be replaced for budgetary reasons. He also supported changing the editing function. "We may have been ruining the bread by overkneading the dough," he said. Wienandt, business copy chief at the Dallas Morning News, disagreed. "It's undeniable that the more examination a piece of copy gets, the higher quality it will be when it gets in the paper or online."
Reporter Dana Priest, twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, remembers National copy editor Jennifer Morehead catching a mistake in an important series on health care for immigrant detainees. "My attention was diverted to a dozen other details in the lead, and she caught the one thing that I breezed over.
"Throughout my 22 years at the paper, copy editors have frequently interrupted my family dinner or my goodnight reading with the kids, and those rereading front-page proofs have woken me up, often after 11:30 p.m., to ask to change the smallest of things. I can only hope I have remembered to thank them each and every time, even as I've tried to fall back to sleep. They are meticulous and pride themselves, as they should, on catching the mistakes of those of us who make much more money and get much more credit for the collective daily work known as The Washington Post."
Foreign news reporter Nora Boustany remembers writing a story about an archaeologist, Ricardo Eichmann, and a copy editor asking her if he was Adolf Eichmann's son. He was. Boustany is ever grateful that the copy editor prompted her to go back and find out.
Another task for copy editors, writing headlines, is also changing. Headline writing is an art. Write a good one and no one may notice. Write a bad one and everyone notices. Writing a good one is a lot harder than some readers -- or reporters -- understand. But the clever headline with a cultural reference or a sly pun is not as valued on the Internet, where it's important to be able to search for key words.
Funny man Gene Weingarten did a column playfully saying good riddance to copy editors; of course, it was filled with errors. Some readers think they can spot the loss of copy editors. Reader Robert Tiller of Silver Spring complained recently that a Weekend article referred to "principle" when "principal" was meant, and to "hocking wares" instead of "hawking wares." Weekend editor Tracy Grant said the copy editor was working on several sections at once. "At some point, we have to shrug and say, as much as we hate it, this stuff is going to happen because people are doing a lot more with a lot less."
Having fewer copy editors worries sports columnist Mike Wise: "The utter lack of people on the desk who yearn to fix our messes and make decent copy readable is, industrywide, appalling. The advent of writers' stories going directly to the Web site is even more frightening, even in blog form. Beyond the misspellings, you need that one or two good reads -- and that one good-taste editor -- to catch you from falling on your face. About the only thing we have to stake our reputations on in this industry is integrity, and when not enough people have your back on the desk to ensure that you get everything imaginable right and that your tone doesn't undermine your credibility, it really rips at that integrity."
Top Post editors decided there were too many editors changing copy, which can be tracked on computers; they said they found up to a dozen changes -- not all made by copy editors -- and felt the process as it existed was expensive and unnecessary. Now usually two editors -- an assigning editor and a copy editor -- read copy on the National, Business and Foreign desks.
My plea would be the same as that of reader Lindsay Thomas of Dayton, Ohio: "I appreciate that The Post has made some difficult decisions recently and probably has more to make in the future. . . . I hope copy-editing remains a priority for the paper."
Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or firstname.lastname@example.org. A longer version of this column appears on washingtonpost.com.