February 05, 2010 / by Katrina M Mendolera

Copy editors: the disappearing gatekeepers

Only about five years ago, John McIntyre oversaw approximately four dozen editors as copy desk chief at the Baltimore Sun. By the time he was laid off last year, there were six.

Just last month, Baltimore Magazine detailed a recent blunder featured prominently on the front page of the Baltimore Sun. The headline read: “Ethics changes outlined for city,” followed by this subhead: “Rawlings-Blake says her bill will seek to heighte public trus’.” Indeed, this incident lends credence to McIntyre’s remark that he has witnessed an increase in grammatical and factual errors since his departure. “I think their decision to eliminate editing so that they can keep reporters is shortsighted. Writers benefit from editing and so do readers,” McIntyre said. “I just see a steady decline in the quality of what is being published.”

Over the last year, reports of newspaper inaccuracies and mistakes have been plentiful. News organizations and blogs have provided the gritty details while some reader representatives like Edward Schumacher-Matos at the Miami Herald have addressed discontented readers’ concerns through editorial. Over at the Washington Post, ombudsman Andrew Alexander has been relatively vocal about the amount of errors that have been making their way into the pages of the Post. While the newsroom had more than 900 full-time employees 10 years ago, today they have a total staff of about 650 – copy editors specifically have declined to 43 in 2008 from 75 in 2005. Add to that the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s recent announcement that they would be cutting 27 employees, 18 of which are copy editors, and you have an epidemic.

While it’s common knowledge that newsrooms have dwindled in all departments, copy editors have frequently drawn the short straw. McIntyre said he believes that copy editors are often the first to go because those in a position of authority don’t understand the function. “They imagine that copy editors are just spell checkers and processors, they don’t understand that copy desks do substantive work,” he said.

The role of a copy editor has long been quality control and consistency. “That’s why journalists have AP Style, that gives consistency and consistency is good, readers like it,” said Emilie Davis, professor of journalism at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and co-author of “Think Like an Editor: 50 Strategies for the Print and Digital world.” “Style brings order out of chaos.”

With the significant downsizing taking place in newsrooms nationwide, it’s probably safe to say that stories aren’t getting as many reads as they once did, noted Davis. In a Miami Herald article, copy desk chief Jeff Kleinman admitted that where once stories were read two to three times before making it to print, they now are edited once or twice.

Meanwhile, readers have taken notice. In November, Alexander referenced complaints received from outraged customers. “I’d like my 75 cents back,” one reader reportedly wrote in. “There is no excuse for such a shoddy product. It’s completely unprofessional; more errors than one would see in a high school or college newspaper.”

Displaced Indianapolis Star copy editor and current journalism professor Renée Petrina has a philosophy on reader loyalty which she calls the “picket-fence theory.” “The coveted suburban families that read your paper notice errors, especially errors in the story about little Tyrone’s elementary school football team. Next thing you know, they tell their neighbors while chatting at the fence or the mailbox. And word-of-mouth is the strongest kind of advertising – good or bad – that newspapers can get,” she said in an e-mail interview. Meanwhile, McIntyre believes that increasing errors have caused some readers to give up on newspapers altogether.

While Davis doesn’t believe that the role of a copy editor is any less important today than it was when she led Gannett News Service’s copy desk, newsrooms have changed. “It doesn’t mean the role has gone away, but maybe the label has gone away,” she said. In the digital world, every journalist has become what she termed a “multi-job” journalist. As copy editors continue to disappear, reporters and editors should be trained to think like a copy editor. “They’re [copy editors] trained to visualize, they’re trained to memorize things. They’re trained to know what they know and look up what they don’t know. They’re just trained in a totally different way.”

Back at the Washington Post, director of communications Kris Corratti noted in an e-mail that the old copy editing model no longer fits the “realities of the 24/7 newsroom.” Instead, copy editor roles have transformed to include more stories, blogs and Web photo captions. “The operation was restructured in the fall and there was a shakeout period when there was an increase in typos,” she said. “But we are pleased with how well the structure is working now.”

As newsrooms become more digital and job functions become less distinctive, it’s obvious that some newspapers need to take a step back and re-evaluate how responsibilities are being dispersed. “More people should know the role of a copy editor, since every one is a multi-job journalist,” Davis said. “Rather than hold onto a position, more people need to know what that person does and recognize the importance of that role.”

— Katrina M. Mendolera

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