Monday, November 9, 2009

Fading Star

I hadn’t planned to write on the The Toronto Star memo that was marked up by a copy editor, given its wide currency on the Internet, but so many readers have mentioned it, apparently expecting my wholehearted approval, that I am sharing my misgivings.

The thing that immediately strikes the reader about the memo from the publisher, John Cruickshank, is its imbecility. Look at the cant: “structuring around the core capabilities that drive the business, and leveraging these core capabilities across new and emerging platforms.” In common understanding, “we are going to save money by cutting staff and neglecting our moribund print product while hoping that something else — we don’t know what — will turn up that will make money.”

The memo goes on to talk about outsourcing the copy editing. Again in common understanding, “we are sacking the people who know how to do the work and sloughing it off onto people who may be less skilled and may not know the area or the audience but who will work for less. Our goal is to cheapen the product and hope that readers will be slow on the uptake so we can harvest a little more profit before the roof falls in.”

This memo is an epitome of the dumb decisions that the newspaper industry has been making for the past several years. Keep in mind that when these measures — cutting the physical size of the paper, reducing the staff, limiting the coverage, degrading the quality — fail to produce improvement, the next action is to repeat the failed efforts. Thus: imbecility.

Unfortunately, the copy editors being heaved over the side have not been the most effective advocates for their cause, which leads to my second set of misgivings.

The comments on Mr. Cruickshank’s memo are a rhetorical gesture rather than serious editing, but still: Instead of marshaling objections in an orderly form, it is a scattershot markup of everything that the copy editor can imagine to be objectionable. Some of them are inconsequential, particularly the objection to a split infinitive, which is not even an error.

It would be heartening to look at this markup as a doughty defense of truth and beauty and accuracy and clarity and the copy editor’s indispensable role. But, unfortunately, it is also possible to look at it as representing the copy desk’s tendency to quibble endlessly, without perspective.

I want to make it clear, though, that my sympathies are entirely with my fellow writers and editors at The Star whose careers are being cruelly cut short by an industry that has lost its way and lacks a vision for preserving the craft.


  1. This happens at every publication that has copy desk staffing problems. How did this one get to be Internet Famous? A sudden, inexplicable turnabout in how the public feels about newspaper employees? I thought they wanted us all to burn in Hell.

  2. I saw that memo a day or two ago, and when I noticed the markup on the split infinitive, I thought of what you might have to say about that. Thanks for not letting me down.

  3. Great find. Another side effect of the "death of old media" that most people aren't aware of. I know, despite my best proofreading, my blog is full of unintended typos.