Monday, February 27, 2023

The question

Gather around, children, and let the Old Editor tell you a story from the Before Times about how copy editing is more than messing with commas. 

It was a Friday night at The Baltimore Sun, and the copy desk had finished with the daily edition and turned its attention to the Sunday sections for the advance press run. 

Two copy editors came to the Old Editor to announce a problem with a story scheduled for a Sunday section front, a story written by a reporter with more than two decades' experience at the paper, moved to the copy desk by the department head. 

Actually, more than one problem. The structure, if anything so chaotically organized could be said to have a structure, deposited the summary sentence identifying the focus of the story in the eleventh paragraph, after which the story proceeded in a completely different direction. 

But the touchy point was that one source accused four persons, by name, of actions that appeared to be criminal conduct, without any supporting evidence. And the accuser, the story said, had been called, by anonymous sources (!), senile.

 "What do you want to do?" the copy editor asked. The reporter and assigning editor were unavailable, deadline was looming, and there was nothing on hand to replace the dubious story on the Sunday section front. 

"Cut everything that is libelous and publish the rest," the Old Editor said. "It won't make much sense, but our readers are used to that."

If we had published that thing as sent to us in Sunday's editions, on Monday the principal concern in the publisher's mind would have been how many zeros to put to the left of the decimal on the settlement check. Instead on Monday, the Old Editor took the story as submitted into the editor's office and said, as they say on Law and Order, "Please read the highlighted portions." 

The two copy editors who raised the alarm were given citations by the publisher, and the reporter and assigning editor were invited into the editor's office for a little chat. 

(I used that story, with substitutions for all the proper nouns, for years in my editing class and workshops. Many jaws dropped.)

Mike Waller, The Sun's former publisher, came up through the ranks, including the copy desk at the Louisville Courier-Journal in its glory days. He used to say that copy editors are there to ask questions, and the most valuable question a copy editor can ask is "Are you sure you want to do that? Are you really sure?" 

Today at publications that determined copy editing to be an expensive frill, there's no one to ask that question.