Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bagpipes for the copy desk

(A quick reminder: Take a minute to contribute to my latest reader project, Ornamentation. And there's a new poll over to the right... pick your most annoying person of 2010. Probably should've been a longer list.)

Copy editors are the umpires of the newsroom -- they've done a great job if you barely notice they've been there.

Most everything that goes into our paper is edited at least twice. The first editor is what we call a "line" editor -- usually the reporter's boss. The second layer is the copy editor. The copy editor usually writes the headline, and always does the fine-tooth-comb editing to make sure street names are spelled right, dates match up, we're not saying DUI when we mean DWI. Copy editors know more about the city, state, region and world than anyone else in the newsroom. Copy editors have saved me so many times I lost count long ago. All reporters make mistakes -- it's inevitable on a constant deadline -- but a good copy editor is an All-Star catcher, snagging every wild pitch.

See, that's two baseball metaphors already. A copy editor would say we should cut it to one.

I say all this to set up this video from the Winston-Salem Journal. As newsrooms (like a lot of other businesses) have cut staff, copy editors at many papers -- including the Observer -- have taken the hardest hit. (Full disclosure: My wife works on our copy desk, which we call the universal desk -- our folks also design and lay out pages.)

Last Friday was to be the last day of work for the 18 people on the Journal's copy desk. So they brought in the funeral pipes.

As you see from the video, the reality in Winston-Salem turned out to be more complicated. The reality is complicated these days for every newspaper -- and every other business trying to survive and thrive in these strange times. That's not news anymore, I guess.

Mainly I just wanted to let you know about the greatness of copy editors. We don't notice them much. They deserve to be noticed.


Anonymous said...

Based on the number of spelling and grammatical errors I find in both the print paper and the web site on a daily basis, I seriously doubt the existence of copy editors at the Observer.

Brian said...

As someone who got dumped during MG's community paper consolidation, I can't say the layoffs (or the subsequent about-face) is much of a surprise. To the 15, no matter what stages they're at, I come to offer hope that a brighter light exists on the other side. In the meantime, I'll be praying for each of you.

Ann Doss Helms said...

Anonymous, we have a dwindling number of copy editors doing way too much work while their jobs constantly shift. And trying to backstop reporters who are also doing more work faster. But you're right, there's no doubt more errors are getting through.

Tommy, I join in your salute to copy editors. Though I can't help thinking "Ask not for whom the bagpipes play ..."

Anonymous said...

you are Tommy

Timothy Whitson said...

There will always be work for good writers. Unfortunately at this point in history, paper media is on the way out and the News business is in an awkward place. The internet has become the primary news source for many folks and so many "free" outlets are available that nobody has really been able to figure out how to effectively monetize it. I dare say the smaller "hometown" papers are doing better than urban areas because nobody else is interested in reporting the news that's important to small town folks. What suffers in this is the kind of good, investigative reporting that shines light on shady goverment dealings and brings needed change.

Anonymous said...

I will agree with other posts about the number of spelling and grammatical errors in the paper. If this is the job of the a copy editor, the job is not being done at the Charlotte Observer.

Anonymous said...

Some of the spelling and grammatical errors should be caught by a simple word processing program, are you still using typewriters and block printers over there?

Larry said...

Reading this newspapers is getting worse than going to a nursing home.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the new normal. The majority of the work at the Observer can be outsourced, even overseas. All reporters, etc. can be part-time, free-lance, community columnists, whatever you want to call it. Have 20% of newsroom staff be full-time employees with benefits, and the rest are part-time, or better yet, non-paid contributers. This paper can still be saved, but your comfortable lifestyles cannot.

Anonymous said...

Interesting the people that post here. As much as I have no idea how the Observer or any other paper does their business, I do know that when people work hard, take on the work of multiple employees as downsize/outsource/rightsize or whatever term is applied, it is a sad day. It is never a good thing when someone loses a job.

But to watch the way some dump on the work of others is truly amazing. It really does help one understand the level of garbage we have for human beings in this world.

For those of you with a quick and inappropriate comment, I only hope your spouse rolls over tonight as unfulfilled from a session with you as your words leave the rest of humanity.

Tommy, nice work.

Anonymous said...

6:31, why not look at the root of the problem: why is the Observer laying off all of their workers?

There business model is failing. Some will say that the newspaper industry will go the way of the dinosaurs,m but look at the Wall Street Journal, 9 straight years of subscription gains! The Observer's far left viewpoint is targeted to the liberals, who make up 20% of the country. Why not sail the middle course for the majority? Foxnews leans right and has the highest ratings on cable, more than CNN, CNN-HN, and MSNBC combined. Their model works. But the Observer is driving towards a cliff, and instead of stopping or turning, they have stomped on the gas and have stuck their arm out the window to flip off the world as they sail over the edge.

Anonymous said...

7:20, you are a fool. Just because you don't agree with everything in the Observer, you condemn it. And just because FAUX News takes your right-wing viewpoint, you praise it. Yea, that business model -- called sticking your nose in the rich people's ass -- works just fine. But our country is far worse off for it. We need to keep middle of the road news sources -- read "mainstream media," you idiot -- strong and thriving. Unfortunately, that might not happen -- but you won't know it until you live in a dictatorship. And then, friend, it will be too late.

rknil said...

Several things:

* The idea that liberals are destroying newspapers is a serious reach. I disagree with many liberal tactics, the main one being their belief they are so much smarter than "the other side." That being said, newspapers are idiotic when they say things like: "If we are angering both sides, then we must be right." Maybe, but there's a better chance you're just wrong about more things.

* For those who don't know, newspapers stopped hiring real editors for copy desks some time ago. The post makes reference to a desk designing and laying out pages, and those are the tasks many faux journalists obsess about during their shift. As a result, copy gets skimmed or not read at all. If you are seeing a lot of mistakes, then that is likely the cause.

* To the person who said all the work can be outsourced: Bullshit. Even if you could cut the staff down to 20 percent full-timers (and believe me, there are some publishers who would love to do that), the rest of the staff would probably be of poor quality. Newspapers know they are always going to have trust-fund babies and other nitwits who think they "have ink in their veins" and will work for peanuts (thus destroying the wage scale and creating many problems), but sensible people are not going to hang around long for low pay. This is another reason why newspapers are constantly losing good people.

* Another dirty little secret: Many newspaper writers cannot write. The crap many of them turn in is amazingly bad. There are many reasons for this, but a lot of bad articles get handed off to the desk.

To summarize: Personal politics have not destroyed newspapers. They have been wrecked from within by idiotic hiring editors and drooling design dolts who never should have been hired to start with. Want to have some fun? Next time you see an error, look at the staff box for someone with a title of AME of presentation. This person will be the head of the drooling design dolts. Pass along the error to him/her and ask for an explanation.

Lynne Stevenson said...

Tommy, I bet that you have to possess at least master's degree to work as a copy editor there at The CO. I have a BA degree in English, appeared several times on the Dean's and President's Lists, won the 2005 Fiction Award while I was at Francis Marion University in Florence, SC.,and am a member of The Sigma Tau Delta English Honors Society. Wonder if these credentials would hold up in an interview? For the record, Spell Check and Grammar Check don't automatically catch everything on computers...Nothing beats a good ole Funk and Wagnals...

rknil said...


Not sure if there is sarcasm in your post, but many newspaper people used to bend over backward to scream and yell about how a degree is meaningless. Execs seem to dislike education or intelligence, likely for many reasons.

I don't know if the Observer requires a master's degree, but I don't recall seeing that in ads years ago, when newspapers still hired and still advertised.

I do know someone who responded to a few Observer ads, and I still recall the last response the person got. It was pretty arrogant and off-putting.

Now I hear the Observer is pretty messed up, so I think the paper did that person a favor. Based on the examples I've seen and the criticisms here, I'd have a hard time believing the Observer was hiring the best people when it was slamming qualified applicants.