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, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Someone had blunder'd

One night some years ago, as I was reviewing the stories for the front page of The Sun, I saw on edition deadline that the deck head — the secondary headline — on the lead story wasn’t quite right. But, experienced copy editor and headline writer as I was, I also saw instantly how it could be improved. And, fumbling typist that I am, I introduced a typo into the revised deck before typesetting it.

Such a mistake would have been embarrassing any day. It was particularly regrettable on that occasion, because the next morning the American Society of Newspaper Editors opened its national convention in Baltimore. The managing editor was, predictably, furious, but — here is the advantage of working nights — by the time I reported to work in late afternoon, she had already savaged several persons and was no longer interested in me.

That memory came flooding back this morning after I read the deck head on the lead story in this morning’s Sun. The main head was fine: Ethics / changes / outlined / for city. But the deck:

Rawlings-Blake says
her bill will seek to
heighte public trus’

It would be pleasant to boast that nothing like that would have happened on my watch — you see, Tribune Co., you shoulda kept me. But, as I just wrote, something very like that did happen on my watch, at my hand. Working as a copy editor stimulates humility. We come to see that all of us are prone to error and that the only way to keep errors to an irreducible minimum is to check and support one another.

This is what the corporate executives who blather about reducing the “touches” between writer and reader fail to grasp. But that is understandable, because most of the people making those decisions have never worked the hours when the product is actually produced, or troubled to find out how it is done.* They have instead hired consultants to arrive at previously decided conclusions.

I don’t know who wrote today’s defective headline, how it came about, or why it wasn’t caught before the presses rolled. I suspect that his or her chagrin is immense. But the responsibility is not limited to a single editor or even the bare-bones copy desk staff last evening. Responsibility for errors like this at The Sun and other publications must also be laid at the door of the people who decided that the work could be done just as well by a drastically diminished and demoralized corps of harried editors.**

Put it in the simplest terms: When you eliminate the quality control, you also eliminate the quality.

*Early in his tenure as editor of The Sun, John S. Carroll took the trouble to spend a few nights at the copy desk, observing how the work was done, and he returned to his normal working hours with an enhanced sense of the importance of maintaining a top-drawer copy desk. In nearly twenty-three years at the paper, I never saw another editor or managing editor make that effort.

**Think that this is special pleading from me? Look at what Tim McGuire, former editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and now a professor at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State, wrote yesterday about the importance of copy editors. Here’s a taste:

I think just whacking a bunch of copy editing positions out of the system and expecting spell check to pick up the slack is a terribly ill-advised path. Copy editing is a subtle, nuanced art that goes way beyond spotting typos.


  1. NASA had a chief whose mantra was "faster, better, cheaper." NASA learned the hard way that you can't have all three simultaneously. The price of the lesson was 14 astronauts' lives and two multibillion-dollar space shuttles. Today, that NASA chief would be a publisher.

  2. "... When you eliminate the quality control, you also eliminate the quality."

    Fantastic! I second that!
    Thank you, John.

  3. Oh, yes... quality takes time and effort. But if copy editors don't see it as a very worthy investment then I wonder if we can live in hope that it will improve.

  4. Must be the crickets in the computer system. Ah, to be employed today at the Baltimore edition of the Chicago Tribune. Not a line I'd want to put on my resume.

  5. I must take issue with the McGuire piece and this idea that multiple reads are somehow "suspect" or excessive. The types of errors a piece of copy can contain are legion, and it's impossible to read for every single type of error on a single read. I wouldn't dream of reading something only once and deeming it fit for publication. Hell, I don't even spell-check just once--I spell-check before I even look at the piece, to get the stupid distractions out of the way so I can concentrate on the meaning, then I spell-check again when I'm done to make sure I didn't introduce any typos. You can't keep speeding up the process and reducing staff and expect anyone to be able to keep up. It's like that old Lucy episode where she's working on the assembly line that keeps going faster and faster--sooner or later your product ends up being trash.

  6. The suits cutting copy editors are gambling that quality can be cut without significant reductions in circulation and advertising. If the suits could put out a profitable paper with only one subscriber, they'd happily do it. If the suits could publish a profitable blank page, they'd happily do it. In other professions, do the lower-tier folks say they're in it for the people, while the upper-tier folks have no illusions?

    My best writing error -- "He always went for the juggler" -- was caught by an editor. I regret that it was. Today the error would have stayed in.

  7. Nowadays, if you complain to the higher-ups that you're stretched too thin on the job and could use some more help, the response is to send you to a class on time-management.

  8. Based on what I see in my own world, I think the strategy of those who count the beans is a little more subtle than "we don't need this." My interpretation is that they're saying is "We think we're paying too much for this." The idea then is to cut (and cut again, and cut again), and then to stand back and see where those cuts start hurting. Then (one hopes) they make adjustments to fix those wounds.

    It's really just a scaled-up version of something we're all familiar with anyway -- an editor is lost (retires, let's say) and management says "Let's see how well we can get along without a replacement." And maybe that goes ok, with some scrambling in the ranks to accommodate the change. Hmm, says management, look -- one less mouth to feed, and no obvious (to them) downside. If that worked, why not cut by 30%? 50%? How about all of 'em? Until, eventually, even they grok that they've gone too far. With luck (and with attentive management), maybe they get this before the product has become so shoddy that no one wants it. (We do not contemplate the scenario in which the consumer doesn't notice, or notice enough to make an impact on sales.)

    I have found that, as perhaps illustrated by the story about Mr. Carroll, that you can make people believe, fervently even, in the value of editing. But in my experience, it's like religion -- you make converts one at a time, and their epiphany has to be very personal. It's a slow and labor-intensive process.

    On the plus side, once you've made a convert, they're yours for life. :-)

  9. See my post about this here:

    According to a friend at the Sun, the subhed was correct in first editions but was, as with your error, introduced by a night editor.

  10. At least there wasn't a missing letter in the word "public."
    Wonder if the night editor is getting called out for having his/her pants on the ground.

  11. That. Was. Bad.

    I wonder just how much training goes into becoming a copy editor. In my years in the business (including a course in copy editing at an upper-tier J-school), the tools I developed myself were far superior than what little I was taught.

    Those tools include: a sense of paranoia (knowing that complex publishing procedures mean a mistake can happen anywhere); knowing that the urge to hit the Send button means I should, instead, check the article again (and this time slowly); reading the headline out loud to catch the (inevitable) subject-verb disagreement; specifically checking the proper nouns for correct display (Walmart where needed instead of Wal-Mart; k.d. lang if the newspaper wants it that way); double-checking sports scores when used in refers, and so on.

    All of these techniques came about because I let something slip past, and I vowed never to let that happen again. Yet, no one taught or talked about these things.

  12. ///Yet, no one taught or talked about these things./// If that class was indeed at an 'upper-tier J school,' I'd be surprised if those skills weren't taught and talked about. It's sometimes the case that no matter how hard something is taught, students don't listen.

  13. IMO, the "heighte public trus'" is not the fault of a copy editor but of the removal of the various safety checks that used to be built into the process, not to mention the built-in time delay required to put ink to paper. Being able to push a button and have content be instantly diseminated is the root cause of thsse sorts of problems.

  14. In days of yore, the horrendous deck head in the Sun would have been caught by a printer.

  15. Patrick K. Lackey is right. I was thinking about the days the printers would sound the alarms. In more recent times, even the guys/gals at the printing plant who were receiving the faxed pages would make that call across town to tell the newsroom staff what we got wrong.