Operate without copy editors at your own risk

Word is spinning around the Internet of two divisions of Media News Group that plan to move copy editing to the “content-generation level.” What does that mean? We don’t know for sure — developments in Denver await a formal meeting, those at Bay Area News Group seem to be more public knowledge — but it seems to be along the same lines as what was done when the rim editors were laid off in Minneapolis and what San Diego’s new owners called “not having a traditional copy desk.”

Steve Myers of the Poynter Institute is reporting today that BANG – which consists of the Oakland Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, and a number of smaller titles – and the Denver Post are expected to cut copy editors and “shift” their responsibilities to front-line editors or reporters.

We admit, the decision of how to keep the doors open during these tough times isn’t an easy one. Cutting editing may seem like a no-brainer since you can’t have content to copy edit if you can’t afford to pay any reporters.

To us, it seems a bit of a no-brainer that you’ve wasted all your pay on reporters, editors, photographers, newspapers and websites if you put out content that people don’t understand.

Editing has value — a value that is real and can be measured. Fred Vultee’s research has proved that.

Instead of stamping our feet in frustration, we thought we’d tell you what value you’ll be losing if you cut your copy desk:

1. People will not pay for crap — or at least not enough to keep you in business.

2. A libel suit for a carelessly written story can cost more than a copy editor’s salary.

3. Copy editors are more than gatekeepers. They provide the ability to “connect the dots” among the work of hundreds. They ensure your content reinforces your brand.

4. Readers never forgive publications for misspelling their names.

5. Copy editors can ask the question a reader will likely ask before publication, saving the editors time, resources and apologies.

6. Copy editors are the masters of display type: headlines, summaries, refers, captions, eblast subject lines, Twitter and FB posts.

7. Headline writing is a specialized skill, and headlines can make or break a story in print and online.

8. Reporters think like reporters. Editors think like editors. Copy editors think like readers.

9. Reporters need to focus on reporting. Editors need to focus on directing reporters and shaping the story. The time reporters invest in copy editing, writing headlines and writing display type will dilute that focus.

10. Most importantly, copy editors are your final, objective gatekeepers. They are the ones who are outside the content-producing process who can tell the emperor he’s not wearing clothes. Trust me. You do not want the public to see your content when it’s naked.

11 Responses to “Operate without copy editors at your own risk”

  1. CJ

    Great article! I noticed two errors while skimming it that you may want to fix:

    No. 3: The comma after “gatekeepers” should be changed to a semicolon.

    No. 6: “Headlines” should be lowercased.

    • Gerri Berendzen

      Thanks. (We took a slightly different route to the fix on No. 3)

  2. spllchk

    Am so glad this has been said, while I deplore the fact that it has to be said at all!
    One quibble: “Most importantly”? Really? To shamelessly plagiarise (from the Purdue Univ. site), “importantly” is an adverb and thus modifies a verb. “Important” is an adjective and thus modifies a noun.

  3. John Johnson

    I’m learning to write and I do fiction. But I have been an avid reader for all of my life. My first daily was the Wall Street Journal and it was always delivered by mail, a day late. Interesting thing was that what was in the news column was always still timely and to the point. Without comparison I knew nothing better. Years later I took a history class where we, each day, compared the Baltimore Sun to the Washington Post. That’s when I learned about editors and proof reading, but the over riding thing I learned was that newspapers were not truthful. How could one paper print “The Store Burned” and then the other “Firefighters Save Burning Building”? No editor can fix that and they’re still doing it now on cable news. If copy editors are the last line of that, then good bye!

  4. JZ

    I don’t know about other papers, but where I work, copy editors also spend at least half of their time not “editing” but laying out the pages — you know, all that work we absorbed when the composing room more or less went away?

    So that’s going to become a bigger percentage of the work for whatever remains of these desks.

    The “desk” is going to be just a few InDesign monkeys.

  5. Ted

    The problem is at many of these newspapers the copy editors hardly copy edit. They mostly design pages for the print paper and give stories a once over, if anything. With the focus shifting away from print, it is only logical that some of these designers (still called copy editors) are on the chopping block.

    The other problem is that so many copy editors have been hesitant if not unwilling to learn new skills and transition. While reporters, editors, sales and others have jumped on board the wave to digital, many copy editors still snicker at the web.

    • Holly K.

      Ted, I tried for years to get cross-trained on our online system, and even offered to come in on my own time to learn it, and it never happened. I was consolidated out of a job in 2010 and now work in another field.

    • Gail

      Don’t attempt to speak for all copy editors. We’re not all a bunch of grizzled old luddites. Some of us were early adapters to new media and still we were canned because we were looked at as a list of expendable copy editors and nothing else.

  6. carol bidwell walkey

    just what i’ve been saying in the three-plus years since i got laid off. ever since, i’ve read what’s left of the l.a. daily news with dread — well, sometimes with glee — at the mistakes, misspellings, wrong locations, wrong tenses, wrong words and general sloppiness. that was what we did, and we WERE the readers’ eyes and ears. it’s up to the reader — if there are any — to figure out a garbled story on his own.

  7. tom Mangan

    When my copy desk at one of the more respected papers in the country shrank from 40 to 13 in the course of two years, I understood that as far as newspapers were concerned, copy editing as a craft had become irrelevant to their business needs.

    You can chide them all you want about the importance of copy editing but it will not matter. They simply don’t care anymore.

    ACES needs to unhitch its wagon from this industry for good.

  8. Mike Cassidy

    As you say, there aren’t a lot of good choices as newspaper revenues continue to plummet. But there is no question the quality of BANG papers and websites will be further degraded by the elimination of 10 to 12 copy editors.
    I write for a BANG paper and I can’t tell you how many times a copy editor has saved my bacon with one of those night-time phone calls.
    The Mercury News became a sloppier paper (and website) a couple of years ago when a number of copy editors were laid off and the rest were moved out of the building to a combined copy desk handling at least three metro paper (at reduced pay).
    This will be another step down in quality. I appreciate the loyalty of our readers and advertisers, who have been willing to accept a lesser product, but I have to think their patience is growing thin.