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