Uncovering the Pride, Work of Copy Editors

By William G. Connolly


Both the scriveners of the rim and the suits in the front office–not to mention newspaper readers everywhere–owe a lot to Pam Robinson.


Since 1997, she has demanded and won a voice for the soldiers who battle in the wee hours to protect accuracy, fairness, clarity, and common sense. As a co-founder and the first president of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), Robinson has "changed the landscape for copy editors," says Lynn Louie of the San Jose Mercury News.


More than anyone else, Robinson, whose day job is acting as Newsday’s link to the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, has made copy editors visible. She has extolled their qualities, demanded their rights, explained their genius, and maybe, most of all, created a structure in which they can gather, marvel in their diverse sameness, and collect energy for the midnight travails to come.


The process began when the Human Resources Committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors organized meetings in 1995 at the University of North Carolina to identify the problems besieging copy editors and in 1996 at the University of Kentucky to discuss solutions.


Around that time, Robinson created Editors Ink, surveying copy editors about their work situations and posting the results on the Web. Some of the people she talked to had been involved in the first two ASNE meetings, and she was invited to the third, at the University of Kansas.


Merv Aubespin of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., the ASNE committee chairman who proposed those meetings, remembers that "Pam was vocal."


It is no accident that some friends know Robinson as "Pambo" (which rhymes with "Rambo"). She is, we shall agree, vocal. "She has stubbornness," Aubespin says. "But she also has the ability to stroke people at the same time. She can make you laugh."


The other ACES co-founder, Hank Glamann, now of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, recalls the Kansas meeting. "There was much enthusiasm but little organization," he says. He and Robinson decided that there should be a formal society, something not contemplated by the ASNE panjandrums.


"She was primarily responsible for pulling together the constitution and the bylaws," Glamann says. "She almost single-handedly created copydesk.org," the ACES website.


Gene Foreman, who followed Aubespin as ASNE committee chairman and is now a professor of journalism at Penn State, says, "She is a great organizer and a tireless worker. She is passionate about copy editing and copy editors. It was her vision and sheer willpower more than anything else that made things work."


Beryl Adcock, then at The Charlotte Observer and now in Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, remembers another important aspect of the Robinson administration: "Pam insisted from the start that copy editors run the organization. Input from managing editors and other higher-ups was welcome, but they were not to decide the direction of the group."


Well, yes, copy editors decided. But they had a leader. Oh, did they have a leader.


Robinson organized and got ACES members to conduct surveys on the working conditions and lifestyles of copy editors, on how they were hired, and on what their problems were at smaller papers. While Lynn Louie worked tirelessly on the planning, negotiating, and logistics for the group’s annual conferences–can you imagine 500 copy editors in one place?–Robinson arranged the programs.


"She knew whom to talk to, who were the top people in any field," Lynn Louie remembers. "Much of what ACES has accomplished, Pam is responsible for. The rest of us helped, but most of it was in her head."


Not that ACES was a one-woman show. At the beginning, there was Bill Cloud of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There was Glamann. There was Louie. There was Anne Ferguson-Rohrer of The Washington Post. There were Janet Cleaveland and Melissa McCoy, John McIntyre and Thad Ogburn, Mary Frances Monckton and Chris Wienandt and Gene Zipperlen, among others.


But mainly, mostly, always, and everywhere, there was Pam Robinson.


She recruited Maurreen Skowran, now of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., to create a headline contest for society members. "She gave me enough room to do the job," Skowran says, "while staying close enough to guide and encourage me. She recognizes what needs to be done. But she also recognizes that individual people make things go. And she remembers those people as people."


Remembering people as people is a large part of Robinson’s leadership style.


"She’s eager to get others involved and let them be more visible," says Louie. "She doesn’t yearn for the spotlight but shares it with others so they can learn and grow. She was always matching young people with potential mentors."


In Skowran’s eyes, Robinson "values people individually and collectively and makes people feel important." As a newcomer to copy editing, Skowran recalls, she went through difficult periods, sometimes concerned about repetitive-stress injury, sometimes frustrated in an unsatisfying job. When things seemed bleakest, Robinson would be there with needed but unsolicited advice.


"She inspires ‘followership,’ " Skowran says. "She never seems to sleep. She is an amazing woman."


She’s a leader.

  • Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell is a Poynter Affiliate who most recently led Poynter’s entrepreneurial and international programs and served as a member of its faculty. Previously, Bill headed Poynter.org for 10 years.

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