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Blessed Are teh Copy Editors

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Copy editors AWOL? The Washington Post was embarrassed this year when it placed the wrong gender symbol on Page One of its Express.

In a recent Lingua Franca post, I had reason to mention Rogue Riderhood, a character from Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend. Even though I had just perused the relevant passages, I wrote the name as “Rough Riderhood.” The mistake did not appear in the published post. That’s because a copy editor, Heidi Landecker, caught it and fixed it.

It wasn’t a rare occurrence. Heidi and her colleagues Mitch Gerber, Sarah Henderson, Charles Huckabee, Andrew Mytelka, and Don Troop regularly find and correct dumb and/or thoughtless errors like that, and in general allow me and other Lingua Franca and Chronicle of Higher Education writers to seem at least moderately knowledgeable and competent.

This comes to mind because of recent developments at The New York Times. Traditionally, there have been two groups of editors at the paper: first, “backfielders,” who come up with or approve the idea for an article, work with the reporter as the piece develops, then perform a big-picture edit, and then, copy editors, who sweat the small stuff and see the article to press. Under a new model, as a report on the Poynter Institute website put it, “desk editors will handle all aspects of a story, through various drafts to a completely copy edited version.”

Current copy editors are being asked to apply for the new all-in-one positions. According to an open letter the copy desk sent to top editors,  the paper will go from roughly 110 copy editors to “50 or 55,”  through a process of buyouts and, if necessary, layoffs. The letter protested:

we feel more respected by our readers than we do by you. We are living in a strange time when routine copy-editing duties such as fact checking, reviewing sources, correcting misleading or inaccurate information, clarifying language and, yes, fixing spelling and grammar mistakes in news covfefe are suddenly matters of public discourse.

Copy editors — “subeditors” in Britain — have faced a rough job market for some time. Back in 2008, Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post noted, “One frequent newsroom complaint is that they are cutting back drastically in the use of copy editors,” and went on to support the complaint in a pretty brilliant tour de force. If you haven’t read it, you should.

The trend has accelerated for two reasons. First, times are notoriously tough in the journalism biz, and copy editors might seem to occupy “nonessential” jobs that can be the first to go. Second, the move from print to online can be read as permitting a sort of no-fault approach to errors: When one pops up, just fix it! (You can assess the honor of a publication by the extent to which it acknowledges such changes at the end of the article in question. And while on the matter of honor, the Times laudably used to acknowledge every error in a corrections box on Page 2 of the print edition. Now that box is buried deep inside the paper, while the prime Pages 2 and 3 real estate is taken up with self-congratulatory features and silly little service pieces like “How to Be Mindful by the Grill.”)

But there are still consequences for making mistakes. First of all, print editions aren’t dead yet, and the appearance of minor factual errors and boo-boos such as the buy-a-vowel caption below (in The Philadelphia Inquirer) is not only embarrassing but has the effect of subtly eroding the confidence readers have in the publication’s coverage of important things. Today, when hard-working and professional journalists are being smeared with the broad brush of “fake news,” maintaining that confidence is more important than it’s ever been.

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Second, some — many — mistakes can’t be fixed with the mere insertion of an or change from Rough Riderhood to Rogue Riderhood. More essential to the story, they need to be dealt with by significant rewriting. They’re like the piece of string that, when pulled, causes the whole garment to unravel.

One can understand why the Times would be keen to consolidate apparent redundancies. However, there is no reason to assume that the skill of story editing will translate to the skill of copy editing. Or that one set of eyes will be as good as two.

You can argue, in fact, that the paper needs more copy editors rather than fewer. Consider this “Continued” line that appeared on Page A1 of the early edition on July 7:

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Either the Times was making a subtle comment about infinite loops or the story needed another pass through the copy desk.

 

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