A vivid photograph draws readers to the top of a newspaper page one morning.  On a front page packed with stories of conflict and mayhem, the photo presents a tranquil scene of green grass and blue sky.  Sharp colors stand out against gray text on newsprint.  A contemporary scene in the photo contrasts with the nameplate above it, the old English-style typeface of The New York Times.

In the foreground of the photo a golfer coils after a mighty swing. In the background, fans gaze at his form. The cutline explains that Tiger Woods is practicing for a major tournament. Words and visual elements -- the photo, typefaces, and design -- come together to produce a satisfying page. And the photo caption provides a bonus, a light touch for readers. Over the picture of Tiger, as if speaking for his observers and readers, the caption says, “Mind if we watch?”


Copy editors matter. They bring news elements together to make the whole more than the individual parts. They think about news packages, news pages and overall content and credibility. They guide readers through a news page with the skillful use of headlines, designs, photographs and illustrations. They ease readers through stories with careful editing to complement the work of writers and assigning editors. Copy editors enjoy enough distance from the news reporting process to serve as readers before stories leave the newsroom. And yet they are close enough to the process to influence the journalism.

Anne Glover is an example. As assistant managing editor for copy at the St. Petersburg Times, she sits in on news meetings. When editors consider a search for a decade-old picture of a suspect and his recent victim, Glover asks what messages readers might draw from publication of the picture. The comment expands discussion of appropriate story photos.

Too often, copy editors battle to have a voice in the newsroom. Their situation conspires to keep them on the periphery. Here are a few obstacles:

Their day begins as many reporters and editors prepare to end the day, keeping copy editors out of the flow of newsroom conversation; check behind reporters and editors and that can mean they raise questions and challenges or make changes that are unwelcome, even when the interventions clearly improve stories; Another part of the job is cutting stories to length, a move that draws little appreciation from the wordsmiths who produced the excess words.

In 1995, copy editors gathered at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a meeting called by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. As they vented, some copy editors said they are called, “trolls in the night, slashing.” They called for greater respect, and later formed the American Copy Editors Society (ACES).

Years later, when veteran copy editors gathered for a Poynter seminar earlier this month, they still expressed frustration about a lack of respect in newsrooms. But they also talked and wrote about their pride in their work.

They know that some of their best work is invisible. Writers and editors might admire the flow of a story without noting the deletion of an article, a change in punctuation, or the upgrading of verbs that helped the story flow.

Copy editors know that their work is also among the most read and influential copy in newspapers or online. Even television news turns increasingly to headline writers to produce news crawls across the bottom of the screen.

Copy editors know their work allows them to become artists as they select colors and shapes, as they seek contrast and balance. They play detectives as they search out obscure facts, and make sure every number is correct. They become defenders of the language as they insist on correct grammar and word usage.

John McIntyre, ACES president and assistant managing editor for copy at the Baltimore Sun, described copy editors as those whose headline writing skill “combines the mastery of Scrabble with the composition of haiku.”
Copyeditors do it all with a certain style.

The late John B. Bremner, the University of Kansas professor who raised the standard for student copy editors, described that style in his book on writing headlines, "Htk." He said, "The headline writer’s tool is not a hammer, but a chisel, the fine semantic chisel of exact language with exact meaning and exact dimension. The precise headline writer must learn to be fluid with solids. Into solid substance he pours liquid grace."


In time, copy editors, who have gone from trolls in the night to sitting in news meetings, might gain a place of respect with all who deal with words and visuals in the newsroom. Maybe one day, reporters and editors, photojournalists and illustrators will gather around the busy copy editor who skillfully chisels and shapes stories and pages. They will quietly draw near the copy editor and humbly ask, “Mind if we watch?”

Karen F. Dunlap is Poynter’s dean and a member of the Writing faculty. She led the Advanced Copy Editing seminar and is completing a revision of the text for copy editors, "The Editorial Eye" by Jane T. Harrigan.