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Paul Cipywnyk

Mourning the Demise of Newsroom Copy Editors

I was fortunate to get my initial on-the-job training in journalism in the days when writers worked with desk editors, copy editors and proofreaders. At least three sets of eyes perused every story after it had been written, and sometimes four or five. Three or more brains worked on massaging and polishing copy and checking facts. After publication, there were regular “post mortems” to discuss how heads could have been snappier, first paras tighter and so on.

These days, many positions have disappeared, job descriptions have broadened and it appears that stories often go straight from a reporter’s fingers to a website.

Let me share an example of workflow from the late 1990s at a major media company in Tokyo, Japan. One of its services was a nightly newsletter of top stories translated from Japanese into English that was faxed to clients. The newsletter would be finished around midnight or 1:00 a.m., so that clients had it on their desks when they arrived for work in the morning. Space was tight, so it was crucial to condense the key points, sometimes from Japanese reporters’ rough drafts, sometimes from already polished articles in Japanese.

There were two or three Japanese editors who chose stories and assigned them to a pool of several translators. Also on the team were three native-English-speaking copy editors who worked in a “wingman” fashion, with two taking on first edits of completed translations and then passing them to the centre person, who did another edit. That edit went back to a Japanese editor who checked for accuracy, occasionally sending a story back with comments for another round of edits.

Then the completed texts went to a layout person, and most of the other staff were done. But one native-English copy editor and one Japanese desk editor would stick around until midnight or later for a final proof of the newsletter after layout.

Once a week, all available staff would gather for an hour to review the previous week’s output. Staff took care to maintain a non-judgmental atmosphere, yet everyone had an opportunity to point out errors, suggest stronger heads and offer cleaner, tighter takes on body text.

Can you imagine this level of staffing dedicated to a four-page newsletter these days? Even back then, with premium business clients, it wasn’t profitable and lasted just a few years. But it was a great place to learn!

While I haven’t worked in journalism for over a decade, I do have contacts in the local press. As a long-standing volunteer streamkeeper who is comfortable with being on either side of a lens, mike or notebook, I’ve become a go-to subject expert on neighbourhood environmental matters. Ten years ago, it was common for local papers to send out a reporter and a photographer on an assignment. As budgets tightened, reporting and photography were done by the same person.

To keep up with the times, eventually the job became reporter-photographer-videographer. The penultimate stage was all of the above, plus editorial writer. And now? Well, a few months ago that paper went under, so the final stage is no job at all.

Now errors and typos pop up with dismaying frequency even in major media. For a while it was fun to gleefully point out such flubs with refrains of “where was the copy editor?” But the response has increasingly become a glum “we no longer have copy editors.”

So where is this going? How did you learn to edit? Are formal education and workshops enough without on-the-job training and mentoring? I’ve focused on journalism, but how do editors of all sorts start out and develop their skills these days?

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Previous post from Paul Cipywnyk: Is Editing a Deadly Profession?

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5 Comments on “Mourning the Demise of Newsroom Copy Editors”

  • Rosemary Shipton

    says:

    We’re thinking along the same lines, Paul. My next post will tackle the questions you raise. In the meantime, I hope many other readers will join the discussion.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    Formal education and training are most definitely not enough. Classes and seminars equip would-be editors with the theory, but the practice is where they really learn the trade. (And find out how often a document gets one review by an editor, if any.)

  • I agree with the previous speakers: education and training will certainly not fit the bill when you’re on the job. You need to have practical experiences. Some of these include working with more seasoned language professionals, journalists, videographers, and so on. They are the ones who can walk you through the steps of writing or editing a column or larger article. Unfortunately, training is slowly disappearing from the radar due to layoffs and, frankly, a lack of time and resources. The result? You get hired, but you’re going to have to learn the tricks of the trade yourself. Another result? Professionals now have several responsibilities on their plates (as I have seen in many job postings these days). I can only imagine the stress they go through every day!

    To answer the other questions, I received editorial training through composition classes as well as a translation certificate in universities (some classes zeroed in on writing techniques and standalone English editing, while others focused on concordance reading). Because I haven’t had a lot of in-house experience, I’ve had to learn the editorial ropes through projects individuals or clients would send me. Project managers would then provide me with feedback by e-mail or phone (yes, most of my work comes from remote locations). As for developing editorial skills, I can only suggest that young professionals like myself pair up with more seasoned folk and talk openly about the editing field. What are the advantages of working in-house? as a freelancer? What’s a typical day like in the office? Having frank conversations can help beginners discover what it’s like to work on the job. Another way to acquire skills is to work in-house—but as we’ve seen from your text, Paul, this is becoming a scarcer commodity these days, and not just in newspaper offices. No wonder linguistic quality suffers so much.

  • Mario Bartel

    says:

    Hmmmm, the situation of that photographer/reporter/videographer/editorialist sounds awfully familiar…
    Well said Paul. The demise of copy editing in newspapers is just another of the shortsighted suicidal decisions made by the newspaper industry in the guise of financial expedience. It’s made even worse by centralized production hubs where editors vetting copy and building papers for mastheads across the country have little idea of the local landscape, miss the nuances that can connect a story or headline to its readers.
    Spelling errors, editing mistakes, wrong names not only hurt the integrity of the publication readers are supposed to trust, they also disrespect those readers; they send a message that quality control isn’t important, that readers will consume whatever crap is pushed their way because «hey, it’s the local newspaper.»
    Don’t even get me started on their wrongheadedness about pitching photographers overboard…

    • I’m with you when it comes to quality control—or lack thereof, Mario. Believe me, I see a lot of bad writing out there, and it’s not just in newspapers.

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