Sunday, December 31, 2023

A chronicle of time wasted

Despite having vigorously defended the work of copy editors for decades, I concede that not all that we were called upon to perform had the best effect. Here's a recollection. 

When I began work at The Baltimore Sun in 1986, the grandees who ran the paper liked to ape The New York Times. One consequence is that The Sun, like The Times, used courtesy titles on second and subsequent reference to everyone except the long dead and notorious criminals.*

The staff understood the house style and generally followed it in local copy. But the copy desk was obliged to supply courtesy titles in wire service copy. That meant that copy editors working on national, foreign, and business copy had to supply Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., military rank, ecclesiastical titles, and the like in every Associated Press and Reuters story that came over the desk. It was busywork that may well have gone unnoticed by most readers, but it was our house style, a mark of our sober dignity. 

In the 1990s there was a short-lived vogue for consulting actual employees about how the work might be better carried out, and I heard that in the pressroom a number of suggestions came up that improved efficiency and productivity. Even the copy editors were included in this START (Sun Teams Achieving Results Together) program. 

Among the proposals the copy editors produced: Eliminate all courtesy titles, except in direct quotations and in obituaries. With a Jove-like nod, John S. Carroll, the editor, said, "Yes." And thus Sun house style remains, in secula seculorum

The Sun eliminated the copy desk in 2019, and there is no longer busywork of that kind, or work at all. 

*I digress: Determining eligibility for those two categories was a point of nearly endless discussion on the desk.