John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mr. Sullivan's challenge

David Sullivan, following the lead of Craig Lancaster, raises the issue of what copy editors’ duties should be at our remaining newspapers. He points out, rightly, that those duties have long been defined as (a) things that no one else at the paper wants to do, (b) things that no one else knows how to do, and (c) things that no one else wants to know how to do. And he thinks it’s time copy editors asked for a job description.

You civilians out there for whom copy editing is a mystery, you should know that the high command at most newspapers shares your mystification. Nearly all of them used to be reporters — getting into top management from the copy desk is like winning the Mega Millions lottery: It happens to a few people, but don’t count on its happening to you — and virtually none of them have any practical knowledge of how to produce a printed page. Or, for that matter, a Web page.

So follow Mr. Suullivan’s advice. The top brass is uttering all that cant about reinventing the newspaper, to disguise that many of them haven’t a clue how to accomplish that and are so terrified as to be on the verge of losing sphincter control. If they are reinventing the paper, they should face what that reinvention means for the copy desk. Otherwise, they’ll redefine beat structures for reporters and talk about reporters as bloggers and photographers and videographers, and they’ll ignore the copy desk except to assume that it will take on anything that is left over.

Approach them. Ask what exactly they want. How much fact-checking are you expected to do? What level of errors is acceptable? (Everyone knows that reducing the editing means more errors, and readers have already twigged to that.) How much time for formatting for print and how much for formatting for the Web? What skills are you expected to master, and what training for them is being offered? Just what, with a reduced staff, are they willing to sacrifice? What cooperation can be expected from the other departments? You ought not to be rude, but you have to be persistent.

Cheap advice from me, you may say; I’m out of the fray. But if I still held responsibility for copy editing at The Sun, I would be in the editor’s office trying to clarify the expectations and nail down the details.

If you don’t stand up for yourselves, it’s unlikely that anyone else will stand up for you.

Some catching up to do

The past week has been a little hectic, what with my son’s graduation from college, my wife’s family in town for the great event, and a one-day stay in St. Joseph’s Hospital.* So there’s a little catching up to do.

Item: At Fritinancy, Nancy Friedman devoted a series of posts last week to seriously ill-judged brand names: Blellow, ngmoco:) [yes, with a damn emoticon], Infegy, and Shiva [shoes, if you can believe it]. The Recent Posts menu on the right side of her main page has the links.

Item: I saw in this morning’s Sun that the venerable David Herbert Donald has died. His biography of Abraham Lincoln is one of the books that you ought to have read. Gore Vidal consulted him in writing the novel Lincoln.

Item: Language Log has offered up a series of great posts over the past week: Geoffrey Pullum’s noticing an apparatus labeled INERT REACTANT on the Enterprise in the latest Star Trek movie, Mark Liberman and Benjamin Zimmer commenting on words that people find appealing and words that people find disgusting, the peculiarities of British tabloid headlines. See for yourself.

Item: If you have the time, the comments on Elizabeth Large’s post, “The top 10 most controversial restaurants in Baltimore,” are a hoot and a half.

Item: Some readers have found themselves unable to post comments on this blog. One, Adrian Morgan, posted about the problem on his own blog. He has since discovered that he can post comments if he comes to this blog through Internet Explorer, but not through Firefox.

Though the comments here are moderated, apart from that, I’ve made the blog as open to comments as Blogspot software permits. Should you have trouble posting comments, send me you comment by e-mail, and I’ll post it myself.




*Mild chest pain Monday morning. Doctor could find no cause, recommended that a gentleman of my age should take no chances. Spent Monday night for observation at St. Joseph’s and underwent a stress test Tuesday morning. No problems found. Back to Plymouth Road at noontime, just as J.P. was completing work on a tangy rice salad.