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/.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pulp Diction 2: The last copy editor

(Previously: 15 items or trouble)

At the old Sun building on Calvert Street the front door yielded with a rusty creak. Dust lay thick on the guard’s desk, and small birds flew through broken windows. Bundled stacks of the last print edition displayed the headline: SEE US ON THE WEB.

Windows were out on the second floor, too, and scurrying and skittering sounds preceded me as I rounded the corner into the main room. Row on row of cubicles stretched out, each with a computer terminal like a headstone, each with a sad little collection of photos, figurines, long-dead plants. It was like walking the deck of the Mary Celeste.

On a bulletin board near the old copy desk, dangling from a single push pin, a yellowed memo listed a set of banned holiday cliches. The office next to the bulletin board was empty except for a Webster’s New World College Dictionary missing its cover.

A quavering voice asked, “Who’s there?”

A stooped figure, brandishing a red stapler, rose from one of the copy desk work stations where he had been dozing on an improvised pallet of final-edition bundles. His hair was white, his beard untrimmed, his gaze wary. He wore a green eyeshade, and I recognized my quarry: the last copy editor. 

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I used to be a copy editor myself. Tell me how it all ended,” I said, with a sweeping gesture.

“Son, I started here when it was the A.S. Abell Company. Then Times Mirror. Then Tribune. When Tribune went belly-up and the Scavenger Group acquired the place, it was a new editor every six months. Each one came in, did a redesign, announced a new strategy to attract readers, and got bounced before his chair got warm.

“Last one was a fellow named White. Three-barreled name. Allen William White. Lasted a month and a half. They fired him for spending too much on farewell cakes for people leaving the staff.”

“And then?”

“Then they sent in this manager — name of Volponi — who walked into the newsroom, announced that the paper didn’t really need an editor, that editors were just vestiges of an outmoded nineteenth-century industrial model, and fired just about everybody.”

“So why are you still here?”

“See this?” He held up a battered Associated Press Stylebook. “At the end, they could only afford one copy. Kept it locked in the editor’s office. You had to file a form to look at it. When they were all gone, I snagged it. Now it’s mine.”

“So what?”

“See here?” He pointed to a table with a roll of leftover newsprint stretched across the surface. It was covered with writing in a small, crabbed hand. “Now that I’ve got it, I’m revising it, making it right. I’m fixing all the stuff those arrogant fools got wrong for years.”

He was a loony, but I had to humor him. “May I see the book?”

”You have to give it back.” But he handed it over, reluctantly.


It fell open to the VERBS entry. Someone had put a dot under certain letters with a red grease pencil:

“The abbreviation v. is used in this book to identify the spelling of the verb forms of words frequently misspelled.

“SPLIT FORMS: In general, avoid awkward constructions that split infinitive forms of a verb. ...” 


illuminati



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