As a tyro on the copy desk of The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1980, I entered a scorned subculture.
At many U.S. newspapers the copy desk functioned like those places of internal exile in the old Soviet Union. It was the place where reporters fetched up after their legs or livers gave out. Newspapers didn't fire people, but shuttled them about until they reached the place where they did the least damage to the operation, and there they stayed. The copy desk was management's last resort.
It was an article of faith among reporters that were it not for the interference of copy editors, American journalism would see an efflorescence of English prose not seen since the reign of the first Elizabeth. A reporter at The Enquirer once explained to me that the process his work underwent on the desk was "running it through the dull machine." As it happened, I was familiar with his oeuvre, notable mainly for mixed metaphors and non-Euclidean uses of the comma.
In search of a paper of greater sophistication, I secured a position on the copy desk of The Baltimore Sun, where a reporter described the process his work underwent as "running it through the Dullatron." This artist was given to the construction of metaphors so grotesque that he was known on the copy desk as "the Purple-izer."
It was also at The Sun that as head of the copy desk I once reported to a supervisor whose little, oft-repeated joke was to call the copy desk "a necessary evil."
For the record, when it was not being used as a dumping ground, the copy desk attracted smart, irreverent people for whom gallows humor constituted morale. It offered, as Robert Gottlieb describes in Avid Reader, happiness "as part of a relatively small group of congenial, like-minded people with whom I shared a common goal." We knew what the others thought of us, but there were no secrets from us because we saw what they had written. And we worked to hide their shame from the public.
In the 1990s editors at the American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized that newspaper copy editors were widely neglected and demoralized, and their efforts encouraged the founding in 1997 of the American Copy Editors Society (now ACES: The Society for Editing), of which I was a charter member. The goal was to increase recognition of our obscure craft and raise standards.
Within a few years, a handful of major newspapers appointed assistant managing editors to oversee news, features, and sports copy desks, to codify standards, and to recruit, train, and mentor copy editors. For one brief shining moment it worked.
Then, over the past twenty years, the bottom fell out of the paragraph game, and the sharp-pencil people concluded that the copy desk was evil (read: expensive), but not necessary.