Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Only another copy editor would understand

Reacting to my mordant “Horoscope for editors” post (sample: The people who carried your company into bankruptcy will be given bonuses. You will be told to take a five-day furlough), one reader commented:

... and yet he wistfully longs for his days on the copy desk.

God, I miss them. What you must understand is that even in the best of times, copy editors fought a daily desperate rear-guard action, clawing their way to some increase in clarity and precision against unforgiving deadlines, obtuse colleagues who never troubled to understand the details of production (or, often, syntax), balky equipment, and asinine directives from on high. Every victory, however minor, was a hard-won triumph to be savored, every defeat a spur to greater effort.

To you, you writer, we were impediments to the full flowering of your “voice.” To you, you civilian, if you had heard of us at all, we were a bunch of nerds, certifiable obsessive-compulsives who cared about things that you would not even notice. To you, you sharp-penciled bean counter, we were, and are, disposable “non-core” staff.

But among ourselves, we were comrades who took to the field on Saint Crispin’s Day, and when we gather to nurse our beers and talk about lost glory, we few, we happy few, will strip our sleeves and show our scars, saying, “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”

A pity you weren’t there.

Unstable core

I am not persuaded that the Internet reduces our attention spans or that the 140-word bursts on Twitter make our thinking superficial, but you see things that make you wonder.

This morning I came across a retweet from one Tom Gara in Abu Dhabi opining, “Outsourcing copy editors and other non-core jobs is inevitable and a good thing for newspapers.” Mr. Gara was referring to a decision by the management of the Toronto Star to eliminate seventy-eight editing positions and outsource its copy editing to Pagemasters North America.

The asininity of proclaiming that editing is not a core function takes one’s breath away.

No one disputes that newspapers, struggling to stay afloat in stormy waters, have to make difficult decisions. Any business that does not manage to keep its costs within its revenues is going to sink, but that does not mean that just anything can be thrown over the side.

We have heard the “non-core” talk even in relatively prosperous times. Of course you can eliminate the library staff. Reporters can just add routine research to their daily workload. Of course you can sack the editorial assistants. The editors can answer the phones all day; and if the reporters are busy, the editors can keyboard datebook copy.

Now, of course, you can jettison the editors and copy editors in favor of some distant corps of editing units who do not know your staff or your area. You will merely multiply embarrassing errors of fact, publish slack writing, and alienate your most loyal customers. Evidence of the first two phenomena will be evident each day on your pages, evidence of the third in the accelerating decline of your circulation.

Unfortunately, difficult decisions are not necessarily good decisions.

*The editor responsible for the Star’s decision is Michael Cooke, former editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, a newspaper that has not been a byword for excellence in management.