Thursday, January 21, 2010

Someone had blunder'd

One night some years ago, as I was reviewing the stories for the front page of The Sun, I saw on edition deadline that the deck head — the secondary headline — on the lead story wasn’t quite right. But, experienced copy editor and headline writer as I was, I also saw instantly how it could be improved. And, fumbling typist that I am, I introduced a typo into the revised deck before typesetting it.

Such a mistake would have been embarrassing any day. It was particularly regrettable on that occasion, because the next morning the American Society of Newspaper Editors opened its national convention in Baltimore. The managing editor was, predictably, furious, but — here is the advantage of working nights — by the time I reported to work in late afternoon, she had already savaged several persons and was no longer interested in me.

That memory came flooding back this morning after I read the deck head on the lead story in this morning’s Sun. The main head was fine: Ethics / changes / outlined / for city. But the deck:

Rawlings-Blake says
her bill will seek to
heighte public trus’

It would be pleasant to boast that nothing like that would have happened on my watch — you see, Tribune Co., you shoulda kept me. But, as I just wrote, something very like that did happen on my watch, at my hand. Working as a copy editor stimulates humility. We come to see that all of us are prone to error and that the only way to keep errors to an irreducible minimum is to check and support one another.

This is what the corporate executives who blather about reducing the “touches” between writer and reader fail to grasp. But that is understandable, because most of the people making those decisions have never worked the hours when the product is actually produced, or troubled to find out how it is done.* They have instead hired consultants to arrive at previously decided conclusions.

I don’t know who wrote today’s defective headline, how it came about, or why it wasn’t caught before the presses rolled. I suspect that his or her chagrin is immense. But the responsibility is not limited to a single editor or even the bare-bones copy desk staff last evening. Responsibility for errors like this at The Sun and other publications must also be laid at the door of the people who decided that the work could be done just as well by a drastically diminished and demoralized corps of harried editors.**

Put it in the simplest terms: When you eliminate the quality control, you also eliminate the quality.

*Early in his tenure as editor of The Sun, John S. Carroll took the trouble to spend a few nights at the copy desk, observing how the work was done, and he returned to his normal working hours with an enhanced sense of the importance of maintaining a top-drawer copy desk. In nearly twenty-three years at the paper, I never saw another editor or managing editor make that effort.

**Think that this is special pleading from me? Look at what Tim McGuire, former editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and now a professor at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State, wrote yesterday about the importance of copy editors. Here’s a taste:

I think just whacking a bunch of copy editing positions out of the system and expecting spell check to pick up the slack is a terribly ill-advised path. Copy editing is a subtle, nuanced art that goes way beyond spotting typos.