News Cycle

A look at the news, politics and journalism in today’s 24-hour media.

Copy Editors Are Journalism’s Unsung Heroes

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Every newspaper reader knows what a reporter does, and who an editor is. But they don’t know about copy editors, and the critical role they play in journalism. Washington Post metro copy editor Jeff Baron writes an inspired description of his duties in Sunday’s editions:

There’s more involved than running a spell check. The copy editor needs to be a critical reader: Is the story missing necessary background or other information? Is it fair? Is it libelous? Have crucial questions gone unasked? When the answer is yes, the copy editor is on the phone with the reporter or researching on the Internet to make things right, and to do it on deadline.

Copy editors are the peoples’ advocate in the newsroom. While an ombudsman might dissect stories and protect the readers from misinformation, they do it after the fact. Copy editors do it before stories get publish. They work with no fanfare and glory in order to make sure the reader gets the most accurate, fair and complete report of the news. Often they seem to reporters and editors to be nitpicking on deadline. Discussions about a seemingly minor point in a story often get testy. But you, the reader, deserves no less than the best.

A professor once told me it’s like buying stereo equipment worth thousands of dollars but only spending $10 on speakers. It will look impressive in your living room, but if you’ll have crappy sound. Well, newspapers can invest in editors and reporters (and they should), but without a high-quality copy desk, you’ll have a crappy newspaper.

And that’s what’s happening today in newsrooms across America. Copy desks are being slashed to cut costs, even outsourced to India in some cases. Copy editors are increasingly being asked to do more with fewer resources. The bean counters on the upper floors see them as an unnecessary cost to operations, and an easy target when it’s time to make some cuts. Eventually, your local newspaper’s quality will suffer with that thinking. This is not just a new technology vs. old technology issue. All this affects your paper’s ability to produce a high-quality website, not just the newsprint product.

The news information market is highly competitive. Crap is no longer an option.

I started my journalism career on the copy desk of the 50,000-circulation Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise. It was hard work, lousy hours, and even worse pay (I started at $4.15 an hour). But I loved it. And my experiences there, and at the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, catapulted me into a successful newspaper career in New York at Newsday. I am proud of my experiences on the copy desk, and I am even prouder of the relationships I had with my colleagues. The copy editors I’ve known are the people who made journalism the great profession it is.

Written by newscycle

August 25, 2008 at 10:48 am

One Response

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  1. HAVING SPENT OVER THREE DECADES-MOSLTY WITHOUT PRIME HOUR SLEEP-ON THE EDITORIAL DESK OF NUMBER ONE ENGLISH DAILY OF INDIA, THE TIMES OF INDIA,TO BRING OUT A CLEAN EDITION DAYS AFTER DAYS HAD BEEN A DAUNTING,BUT THANKLESS TASK.ONE MISTAKE HERE AND THERE,BY CHACE OR BY SOME OTHER’S DOING,YOU HAVE HAD IT.YES,I SHUDDER TO REACALL THE DAYS LONG GONE BY,ENV TO THIS DAY.RP NAILWAL,DEHRA DUN,INDIA 13OCTOBER 2009

    rajendra nailwal

    October 13, 2009 at 11:27 am


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