City Desk

Disappearing Media Jobs: 1) Copy Editor; 2) Receptionist

Note that semicolon up there in the title. You see how beautifully I deployed that? I learned punctuation as a copy editor, a job that I took at Spin 14 years ago. There, I first changed like to such as and made bands its rather than theys. I mastered the en dash and the difference between prone and supine.

Prettying up the writing of other journalists, much like answering their phone calls, is a job that isn't making it through the recession at many publications. Here at City Paper, we used to have a receptionist. We also used to have two copy editors. You will no longer find those job titles on our masthead.

At big papers, many copy editors are older and wear cardigans and go home to their cats, so they are perfect candidates for buyouts. This has been bad for accuracy. Example: this recent utter fiasco at the New York Times, where the error-prone critic in question used to have a single copy editor assigned to her, an arrangement that was not renewed when the copy editor got promoted.

Or this bit of weirdness in today's Post: The lede of this story describes contestants in a beauty pageant who are waiting to hear who has won. The time is "[l]ate into Monday night, or shall we say in the wee hours of Tuesday morning." At the end of the piece, the author sets another scene. "It's 11:43. We have sat through three hours of smiles and glitter and acts." It is time to find out who won. But 11:43 p.m. on Monday is not the wee hours of Tuesday morning! There's probably a reasonable explanation for this—I'm guessing that the announcement didn't happen in the following 16 minutes. A fresh-eyed person might have asked about this dissonance between the piece's top and bottom.

But the job of being a fresh-eyed person is increasingly not being filled, and those who are left are often overwhelmed.

Yes, money is a factor here, but those of us who are copy editors must own up to some of the responsibility for this situation. I can't tell you how many meaningless arguments I've had over copy changes, minor things that I should have backed off from but couldn't let myself. Example: "the fact that," a phrase I hated more than the tortuous fixes I devised for it. Copy editors can get way too hung up on this sort of thing and alienate the very people who have to figure out how to staff their publications with a lot less money. Suddenly, copy-editing begins to look like a relic, like when businesses hired people to do nothing but type.

That responsibility, of course, eventually became diffused across offices. Likewise, journalists will have to take ownership of their own spelling, grammar, and factual integrity. They'll also have to figure out how to dodge people following up on a press release.

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  • just sayin

    You need a colon-oscopy. That ain't no semi.

  • just sayin

    I need a semi-colon-oscopy and a copy editor, quickly, please.

  • IMGoph

    i hear you, andrew. good editors in many fields are being written off as a luxury. my employer is no exception.

  • Chickenbot

    You and your fact-checker wife should ride off into the sunset now.

  • Dave

    This was a wonderful post, AB. You really revealed a lot about yourself (in a good way) by telling us about the copy editing arguments you regret.

    As someone with experience in this, there is nothing more pointless and self-defeating than going to the mat over a miniscule detail in your copy. And yet, for a certain kind of person - me, you, many others - it's frustratingly irresistible.

    Why do we do this to our coworkers and ourselves? I wish I knew.

  • pelham

    Good point, Dave. When I worked on a rim years ago, I had a policy of correcting minor grammatical errors only if I could do so unobtrusively and elegantly. When I couldn't but was sufficiently disturbed by the error, I would politely run it by a senior editor or the writer. If he/she objected, I would leave it.

    But to make a more general point: While it's true that some copy editors fall into that category of persnickety homebody cat owners, there's an enormous range of personalities and abilities on almost any newspaper's rim.

    I've worked at several big papers and can truthfully say that, almost without exception, the most capable people I ran across were copy editors. There are super-competent, fiercely loyal, sharp-eyed people on every desk who are supremely well-informed on a broad range of subjects, have unparalleled integrity and an unmatched passion for journalism.

    Seems improbable, I know, but consider this: Copy editors usually work through the night. Unlike senior editors and reporters, they're not around to play office politics during the day, which, I believe, is the surest way to mush up one's mind and compromise one's principles. Copy editors have to read everything that goes into the paper (something most senior editors seem to have a great distaste for) and don't have their egos wrapped up in any particular piece of copy. They're the paper's greatest and best-informed critics--and as such a valuable resource that goes unused. (I've often wondered what senior editors and reporters would think if they could simply hear the groans of dismay that sometimes greet their lovingly crafted prose when it hits the rim. If people being paid to read this stuff do so only reluctantly, why should we think the end users, the readers, will be thrilled with it?)

    If someone in the upper echelons at most papers would simply begin paying attention to their rims, they'd find a gold mine for promotions (of course, this assumes they care more about the product than stroking their own and their dayside buddies' egos). If an executive editor or managing editor were to have spent a few years rimming, I can almost guarantee that the newspaper he/she would put out would be a good deal livelier and sharper than the dull-as-dog-poop papers we see in so many markets today.

  • Jerome

    So true! A wonderful book about this dying art: University of Chicago manuscript editor Carol Fisher Saller's The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself). As I've said about it before, good advice for copyeditors is just good advice for life in general.

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