Friday, May 1, 2009

That little band of heroes

I’ve been a little distracted over the past few days, and it’s only now that I can get around to reminding you that the American Copy Editors Society is in the middle of its national conference, this year in Minneapolis.

Far from a bunch of creaky old grammar carpers in green eyeshades and sleeve garters, the members are increasingly savvy about electronics. Anyone unable to attend can follow the conference on a Web page or through Twitter.

They are a doughty bunch. About 250 of them showed up this year, I suspect mostly at their own expense, for a comprehensive and concentrated training in the craft. You cannot match the range of expertise anywhere else. And they are doing this in the middle of a recession, with the faltering newspaper industry discarding their members like desperate mariners heaving the cargo overboard.

Twelve years ago, I was at the first national conference, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Copy editors at that time were, in addition to being anonymous, frequently disregarded and often scorned in their workplaces. Thanks to the founders, Pam Robinson and Hank Glamann, and to the support of some influential figures among the nation’s editors, copy editors found a voice and a platform.

The collegiality, the training, and the morale-building provided by this organization have helped to improve the level of editing at newspapers, magazines, and electronic sites.* It is a bitter irony that just as copy editing was beginning to come into its own, larger forces have questioned the utility and value of editing at all.

I know from thirty years of experience that writers, even the best ones, benefit from editing — need the perspective of that independent set of eyes on their work. And they are getting less and less of that benefit every day, to their cost and to yours, readers.

Newspapers organizations — print-electronic hybrids — are struggling to find a model that will sustain them. Electronic-only journalism is in flux. Organizations like ACES will have to find the means to sustain their mission, and nothing is certain for them. It is not a hospitable landscape.

But for today, and tomorrow, in Minneapolis, two hundred and fifty editors, among them people I have known and respected over the years, are fighting the good fight. I invite you to read what my colleague and friend David Sullivan has to say about this gathering.

And, from a distance, I urge them: Keep the faith.

*As the observant may have noticed in this paragraph, now that I am free of the shackles of Associated Press style, I am reverting to the Oxford comma.