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.


  1. Mr. McIntyre,

    Today I submitted my college thesis, a tome entitled, "Copyediting: Endangered Species, or Already Extinct?" In it, I included commentary from both your and David Sullivan's blogs. Changing the attribution from "Baltimore Sun copydesk chief" to "former Baltimore Sun copydesk chief" was the revision that I most hated to make.

    I salute your work, sir -- people do listen, do read, and do care.