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.


How to edit, old-school

Among the pearls (pardon the pun) from this Jeff Pearlman interview with longtime Sports Illustrated editor Peter Carry are these handy four rules of editing (I’ve put the most frequently violated rule in bold):

Rule 1: The best ideas come from the guys in the field (and Lord knows whatever other sources outside your office), so listen. Refine. Combine. Bad ideas result in bad stories, no matter who’s doing the writing. Rule 2: Listen and talk to the writer. Don’t nag, don’t hang over her shoulder. But do have a discourse. Challenge. Help the writer refine the idea. Rule 3: Read the damn story all the way through before you lay a pencil or a cursor on it. This seems like a simple matter, like medical personnel always washing their hands before they touch a patient, but you’d be surprised how often patients and stories get prematurely handled. Rule 4: Be gentle but be firm.

He also has some interesting tales of the old days, comparing the SI office to Mad Men.

via Peter Carry | Jeff Pearlman.


Why must writers become editors?

Good question that recalls the Mitch Hedberg complaint: “Hey, you’re a really good cook? Can you farm?”

And a few sound criticisms of the status quo:

If you believe that having four editors edit a story produces a better story than having one editor edit a story, I submit that you have the small mind of a middle manager, and should be employed not in journalism but in something more appropriate for your numbers-based outlook on life, like carpet sales.

via Against Editors.