You may have seen a piece by Lawrence Downes in The New York Times noting that the Newseum is devoid of any reference to copy editing. If you did, and if you looked further, you’ve discovered that there’s no mention of copy editing on the Newseum’s Web site, either — at least there’s none that I’ve been able to find.
Wow. I knew we worked in anonymity, but this is extreme.
In his blog, “That’s the Press, Baby”, ACES board member David Sullivan chooses to look on the bright side: “Maybe the entire Newseum is a silent tribute to copy editing.”
“Are the exhibit captions correct, spelled right, done to style? Are the quotes properly attributed? Do the exhibits make clear why they are there? Do the brochures have the right verb tenses? If so, the whole building is a tribute to copy editors. I haven’t been yet, but I hope copy editors’ work is seen everywhere in the Newseum the same as it is seen in newspapers every day — the anonymous thing in the background that lets the reader (or visitor) concentrate on the content and not question the professionalism or credibility or relevance.”
We certainly hope that’s the case. But copy editing, for all its anonymity, deserves better. How is it possible that the people responsible for such memorable pieces of journalism as “Ford to City: Drop Dead” or “Sick Transit, Inglorious Monday” or “Headless Body in Topless Bar” go utterly unrecognized in an institution dedicated to educating the public about journalism?
But copy editing isn’t just snappy, eye-catching headlines. It’s also knowing the difference between 14th Avenue and 14th Street or between Oak Lawn and Oak Cliff; it’s spotting the fact that the lead of the story is flat wrong or that it’s down in the 14th paragraph or that nothing in the story supports it. It’s asking where the nut graf is and constructing it if one doesn’t exist. It’s a lot of other crucial functions that would make for a very, very long list.
These aren’t things we do occasionally; these are things we do many times a day. A publication that underestimates the value of its copy editors (or worse, doesn’t have a clue as to what they do) is doomed to embarrassment at best, and at worst, destruction of its credibility — its most valuable asset. A museum that overlooks the existence of copy editing is giving the public an incomplete picture of one of its most important institutions.
Copy editing needs not only to be recognized; it needs to be celebrated. With that in mind, the ACES board has written to the executive director of the Newseum to suggest that the Newseum set up an exhibit explaining the role and contributions of the copy editor — and to offer the organization’s resources in putting together such an exhibit.
The letter was published online by The New York Times. What’s next? We’ll keep you posted.
LETTER TO THE EDITOR, THE NEW YORK TIMES:
The members of the board of the American Copy Editors Society were amazed and alarmed to read “In a Changing World of News, an Elegy for Copy Editors,” by Lawrence Downes (Editorial Observer, June 16), about the Newseum’s failure to document the place of copy editing in journalism.
We disagree with Mr. Downes in one regard: Copy editing is not going away.
Copy editors, as Mr. Downes notes, toil in anonymity. So perhaps, as David Sullivan, a member of our board and a journalist at The Philadelphia Inquirer, commented on his blog, the Newseum silently salutes copy editing:
“Are the exhibit captions correct, spelled right, done to style? Are the quotes properly attributed? Do the exhibits make clear why they are there?”
He adds, “I hope copy editors’ work is seen everywhere in the Newseum the same as it is seen in newspapers every day.”
Copy editors are the people who bring coherence to content so that the public can understand and evaluate it. Over the past decade, our organization has trained copy editors and emphasized their role in journalism. We expect to be doing that for years to come.
American Copy Editors Society
Fort Worth, June 19, 2008