Stakes, Expectations Rise as Copy Desks Shrink

The stakes have always been high for copy editors, the last set of eyes to see a story before it hits the presses or the Web. Now, as copy desks nationwide shrink, the stakes are even higher.

Especially troubling for some is the controversial trend of news organizations outsourcing copy editing work. Recent news of the Orange County (Calif.) Register outsourcing copy editors has gained attention in the blogosphere and comes at a time when journalists such as The Washington Post‘s Gene Weingarten and The New York Times‘ Lawrence Downes are using words like elegy and death to describe copy editing.

Those in charge of hiring copy editors aren’t so quick to call copy editing a dying profession, but they know change is on the horizon. The future they envision for copy editors includes a merging of responsibilities, a greater focus on editing blogs and multimedia and an understanding that even with fewer resources, the basic fundamentals of copy editing still need to be upheld. Outsourcing, meanwhile, has reminded them of the importance of knowing a coverage area at the local level so they can catch mistakes that might otherwise find their way onto sites like “Regret the Error.”

Changes on the Copy Desk
The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, which The Poynter Institute owns, has consolidated its copy editors into a more universal copy desk throughout the past 18 months. Copy editors were once divided into separate sections of the paper. They now have to be more flexible by sharing editing responsibilities among the various sections. The sports section still has a designated team of copy editors.

“It certainly helps when staffing gets tighter to have more flexibility,” says Executive News Editor John Schlander, who recruits copy editors at the Times.

Schlander said the number of copy editors at the paper will likely decrease as the paper prepares to shrink its staff, but he doesn’t expect the cuts will be disproportionate to those made in the newsroom as a whole. Last year, 90 of the 440 full-time and part-time news staff members were copy editors, designers or a combination of the two. This year, they make up 82 of the 389 news staff members.

Schlander said that, increasingly, Times copy editors will be asked to do a more thorough edit of blogs and audio slideshows so that print and Web content are given equal attention.

The need for Web skills has changed the way that traditional copy editors are marketing themselves, says Eric Wee, founder and president of JournalismNext.com, a career site for minority journalists. Wee said he has noticed that up until a year ago, copy editors were in high demand, even when some newsrooms were cutting back. The number of copy editing jobs on JournalismNext.com has declined by about 30 to 40 percent, he estimated, while the number of online editing positions has increased by 30 to 40 percent.

Job seekers selecting “copy editor” as one of their interests make up about 10 percent of those who post resumes on JournalismNext.com. This is consistent, Wee said, with percentages in the past few years. Of the 2,400 job seekers who have posted resumes on Poynter’s Career Center in the last year, 25 percent listed “copy editing” as a skill.

“The difference is they’re now not just selecting copy editing by itself,” Wee said of the job seekers who post to his site. “They usually package themselves so they’re telling employers, ‘I’m a copy editor, but I can also be a content editor, a general editor, a proof reader, or a reporter even.’”

Schlander said the skills he seeks in copy editors are similar to the skills he has always looked for. “I would look for … a sharp copy editor with an eye for detail and an eye for the big picture. Somebody who’s versatile and flexible. And experience with the Web is definitely a plus. But really, the bottom line hasn’t changed that much.” In the spirit of helping copy editors to continue developing their skills, Schlander holds group copy editing critiques at the Times twice a week to review what makes a good headline, what recent story packages in the paper worked well, etc.


Knowing Coverage Areas at the Local Level

During a time when many news organizations are focusing their attention on local coverage, it doesn’t make sense to outsource copy editors who are not as familiar with the communities being written about, says John McIntyre, assistant managing editor for the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun.

“If it’s local news that newspapers have to offer readers,” McIntyre said, “they need to have local copy editors who know the areas, who know the streets that are parallel and those that don’t intersect, who know how local figures spell their names, who know the area.”

But it’s not enough anymore for copy editors to be able to save reporters from saying that Broadway and Fifth Avenue are parallel. They now need to handle Web production and page layout and design in addition to editing. McIntyre said he believes the added responsibilities reflect the unfortunate reality that accuracy, in some cases, isn’t as important as it once was.

“I think accuracy is jeopardized widely,” McIntyre said. “As newspapers have fewer copy editors, there is less opportunity to check for accuracy, and the level of accuracy is going to decline. It’s possible that the industry will just think that an increase in the number of errors is the cost of doing business so long as they say they are not losing circulation.”

It’s difficult to gauge whether the errors you’d expect a copy desk to catch are on the rise or decline, says Craig Silverman, author of the “Regret the Error” book and blog. Silverman noted that throughout the four years he has been tracking mistakes, the most common mistakes he finds are misspelled names, typos and misused words.

“For me there’s a bit of concern that we may see some things like misspelled names and typos starting to work their way into papers because there are less people manning the copy desks,” Silverman said. He pointed to an Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel column that the paper’s former public editor, Manning Pynn, wrote last year about the correlation between the paper’s shrinking copy desk and the increase of errors in the paper.

“When the Sentinel tightened its financial belt,” Pynn wrote, “… it lost a wealth of seasoned veterans, many of them editors. Those journalists not only wrote headlines and captions. They also scrutinized the work of reporters — correcting spelling, straightening out syntax, double-checking facts — before publication. With fewer people to do that now, less of that important work gets done, and the result is more published errors.”


Younger Copy Editors in the Classroom, Newsroom
The copy editing responsibilities that Pynn describes often go unnoticed, says Jan Leach, assistant professor at Kent State University who specializes in copy editing and ethics.

“When all is said and done, some copy editor has spent a great amount of time making sure [an article] is accurate, timely and grammatically correct, and it never says ‘lovingly and carefully edited by John Jones,’” said Leach. “Everybody thinks that the reporters write their own headlines. They don’t know that some poor editor had to do all the micro editing, or macro editing, in 15 minutes.”

Most of her students do not go on to be copy editors, but every semester, she said she identifies a student for whom “the love of the language is just Nirvana,” and who will decide to go into copy editing.

As a younger copy editor at The Dallas Morning News, Helen Humphrey, 29, has a lot of questions about the future of copy editing. As news organizations cut back, she said, she believes copy editors might assume responsibilities traditionally ascribed to originating/line editors and, by default, enhance their interaction with reporters.

Despite her worries about the journalism industry as a whole, she remains hopeful about the future of copy editing.

“There’s no question our industry as a whole is in trouble,” Humphrey said. “But whatever incarnation newspapers take in the future, I really can’t imagine that there would be no copy editors. Perhaps the copy editor’s job will be more [like] that of a line editor/originating editor, but I do feel pretty confident, maybe naively, that news organizations will always need editors.”

For now, this much is true: the stakes aren’t getting any lower. 

What is the state of copy editing in your newsroom — in print and on the Web?

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.