Some years back I was interviewing an applicant for The Sun's copy desk who had just finished a one-week tryout at another paper. That paper had experienced a major scandal involving fabrication by a writer -- not that such a characterization singles anyone out these days. At the end of her tryout there, the applicant was taken to lunch by an assistant managing editor who asked her about her take on the uproar.
She said, "Well, as a copy editor, the first thing I would want to know is where the copy desk was in all this. Weren't the copy editors raising questions about this writer's work?"
"Yes, they were," he said.
Then he changed the subject.
In the endeavor to head off plagiarism and fabrication in news stories, and to ensure the reliability and accuracy of stories -- the fundamental credibility of the publication -- the ranking editors and the copy editors are on the same side. The problem is that the ranking editors don't always recognize this.
When the American Copy Editors Society presents workshops on structural editing at its national and regional conferences, a troubling comment keeps surfacing among the participants: "I wouldn't be allowed to raise questions like that at my paper."
When Frank Fee of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducted a nationwide survey of copy editors in 2003, substantial majorities of the respondents said that their papers do not reward copy editors for good story editing or catching errors, do not grant copy editors appropriate authority to shape content and quality, do not send copy editors to professional conferences in the same proportion that reporters are given such support, and do not hold copy editors in esteem.
Fee's research is backed up by another study, a survey of copy editors at 100 newspapers conducted by Susan Keith, now an assistant professor at Rutgers University. She found that copy editors are typically less likely than other journalists to be eligible for newsroom awards, are not often supported for training or outside conferences, and do not feel encouraged to raise tough, ethics-related questions about the stories they edit. Not surprisingly, the copy editors did not feel much optimism about prospects for advancement.
Apparently not enough has changed since the 1988 ASNE report, "The Disillusioned Gatekeepers," discovered similar attitudes to be widespread.
So the American Copy Editors Society, a professional organization of more than 900 members that has been working since 1997 to give copy editors a greater voice at their publications, is collaborating with Deborah Gump, the Knight professor of editing at Ohio University, to bring the top editors and the copy editors together.
Gump was the organizer of the previous Editing the Future conference in 2003 at the Freedom Forum in Nashville. Details of that conference can be found at www.editingthefuture.org.
In conjunction with the ninth ACES conference, scheduled for April 21-23 in Los Angeles, top editors are being invited to the second Editing the Future conference. They will gather on the evening of April 20 for discussion with a panel of ACES editors. The following morning they will meet to discuss how to uphold editing more effectively, and that afternoon they will meet jointly with the ACES membership for a wide-ranging discussion on how the two groups can better support each other.
The editors' group will be led by a distinguished panel: John Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times; Bill Keller, editor of The New York Times; Bill Kovach of the Committee of Concerned Journalists; Philip Meyer, Knight chair of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of the recently published "The Vanishing Newspaper;" and Rick Rodriguez, executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and incoming president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Information about the Editing the Future conference, including registration information, can be found at http://editteach.org/EditingtheFuture.htm. Information about the ACES conference can be found at www.copydesk.org.
No one is apt to be surprised by a list of some of the obstacles to more effective editing on the copy desk:
- The economic downturn of the past few years and the pressure on publicly held companies to maintain profit levels have pinched the staffing of newspapers across the country.
- The spread of pagination at newspapers has added substantial production duties to the copy desk without a matching increase in personnel. Peter Bhatia of The Oregonian told members of ASNE at the organization's national conference in 2004: "We must admit and acknowledge that we have shorted editing since we sent the linotypes off to the museums and brought the composing room into the newsroom."
- More subtly, the tendency at many publications to promote from reporting ranks rather than from the copy desk has yielded a leadership that has little experiential sense of what the copy desk does and how it goes about it.
But there are encouraging signs as well.
- Philip Meyer's new book, "The Vanishing Newspaper," presents some statistical evidence suggesting that quality of editing, as measured by satisfaction expressed by copy editors, correlates with increased home county penetration.
- Several major newspapers have consolidated authority over copy desks under a single editor to manage hiring, evaluation and coordination more effectively. Some papers, the Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and St. Petersburg Times, to name a few, have had an assistant managing editor overseeing the copy desks for years. More recently, The New York Times appointed Merrill Perlman director of copy desks, and The Washington Post named Don Podesta assistant managing editor for the copy desk.
- And the presence of ACES, with its national conferences and increasing number of inexpensive regional workshops, has worked unceasingly to improve copy editors' skills at our craft.
Nothing is easy anymore for newspapers. Technological challenges, financial pressures and an increasingly fragmented audience present formidable difficulties. But at bottom, as editors readily acknowledge, is credibility. If readers cannot trust publications to be accurate, to be clear, to be reliable, then not much else will matter. Copy editors are indispensable to that credibility, and its preservation will depend in some part on the willingness of editors to recognize, and make full use of, the energy, acuity and commitment of their copy desks.
John McIntyre, a copy editor for a quarter-century, is the assistant managing editor for the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun and two-term president of the American Copy Editors Society. He has also taught copy editing at Loyola College of Maryland since 1995. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Deborah Gump can be reached at email@example.com.