The long slow death of the copy desk

My first journalism job was on a copy desk. I still think it’s great training for anything else you could do in journalism and other careers. Some megablogs (Bleacher Report) have actually recognized the value of having experienced editors around. Some have not.

Sure, I would’ve reorganized things a bit. It was a shock for me to go from my student paper, where the first copy editor went over the story with the reporter, to an isolated desk where we had little interaction with the people who wrote what we were editing. (And this was in the days before cell phones, so we couldn’t always reach reporters with questions.)

But we were the last line of defense against serious errors. That was a big responsibility.

My fellow News & Record alum Lex Alexander always appreciated the desk folks, and reacts to news of the Bay Area News Group’s massive swipe of the ax with typical righteous indignation.

I would, though, point to one factor — a copy desk spends a lot of its effort making things fit on the printed page. Copy desks usually overlap with page design, which is why an artistically lacking guy like me wound up doing “design” work. We fight to make stories fit to the precise line, and we struggle to make headlines fit. (Damn you, page designers and your one-column, 40-point headlines.)

Trimming the paper and doing more online should free up more resources to edit. Not just trim stories to fit and struggle with headlines.

If that means the line between “assignment editor” and “copy editor” gets blurred, that’s OK. I liked direct interaction with reporters, and I got a little bored arguing arcane points of AP style and comma usage.

But readers are noticing that their newspapers are a lot sloppier than they used to be. And it’s not a good thing.


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