Note: This post also appears at the Web site of the Committee of Concerned Journalists.
Copy editors are always concerned — about style, grammar, accuracy, headlines and a host of other issues. Now they have a new concern that’s more ominous than a comma splice or misspelled word. The changing media landscape threatens their livelihood and role in the newsroom, with some news executives questioning the need for copy editing at all.
The uneasy questions about the future of editing came to the fore recently with comments by two media leaders:
- In Europe, David Montgomery of the Mecom newspaper group said copy editing (or sub-editing, as it’s known outside the United States) could be done away with altogether. “Sub-editing is a twilight world, checking things you don’t really need to check,” he said recently.
- In the United States, Joseph Lodovic, the president of MediaNews Group, floated the idea that newspapers save money by consolidating copy desks. “I think copy editing can be done centrally for several newspapers,” he said in a Bloomberg News article.
The response from copy editors has been quick and eloquent. They have argued that editing is as essential as ever, especially on the local level. Their work, after all, speaks to one of the cornerstones of journalism: the discipline of verification.
“By living where we work, we notice things,” wrote Lisa McLendon, the deputy copy desk chief at the Wichita Eagle, in a response on the American Copy Editors Society’s Web site. “We know which stores have opened and which restaurants have closed. We know what interests our friends and neighbors. We think about local issues as residents, not just as journalists.” (John McIntyre and Doug Fisher, among others, have also written persuasively about this issue on their blogs.)
I would extend McLendon’s idea and ask news executives this: If newspapers and Web sites are getting increasingly local in their coverage to survive, shouldn’t we also have copy editors become increasingly local? Instead of consolidating copy desks, why not have copy editors work more closely with reporters, not only in the main newsroom but also in newspaper bureaus?
That’s exactly what The News & Observer, the regional paper in Raleigh, N.C., did in the 1990s. As part of a push into nearby Durham and Chapel Hill, the N&O sent copy editors to the bureaus. I was one of them, working in the then-threadbare Chapel Hill office with an assignment editor and a half-dozen reporters. The advantages were significant:
- I was able to work side by side with reporters whose prior interaction with copy editors consisted of phone calls from the Raleigh newsroom. I handled all of the stories that came out of the bureau, writing the headlines and rewriting them as needed between editions.
- I became the face of copy editing to reporters and the assigning editor. They congratulated me on a job well done, and on occasion, questioned why I edited a story a certain way or wrote a headline the way I did. They called me with a late update or correction to the stories rather than trying to track down an anonymous editor in Raleigh. Most importantly, they knew who was editing their work and writing the headlines for their stories. My physical presence in the bureau built relationships that created a collaborative environment. “I find that I am much more confident about the process when I know who will be copy editing and when I know that that person is familiar with my beat and my work,” said Jane Stancill, a reporter who covers higher education at the N&O.
- I became an expert in local copy, knowing the names and places that popped up in stories such as the country road that had a funny name. This helped me detect and correct fact errors in stories that may have been overlooked by an editor unfamiliar with the area. I also understood the context of stories better and was able to make sense of incremental developments in long-running stories.
- I was a fill-in assignment editor in the evenings, letting the Raleigh office know of breaking stories. This came in handy, for example, when a school board member abruptly resigned in a resume-padding scandal. I was able to notify editors in Raleigh in time to get the story on the front page for the edition that went to Chapel Hill readers.
My time as the copy editor in the Chapel Hill office was among the most rewarding of my career, and reporters liked the arrangement as well. “The closer collaboration is definitely the way to go,” Stancill said. “In my view, it can only improve the work of both the reporter and the copy editor.”
The real beneficiaries, of course, were the readers. Effective collaboration, wherever it takes place, between writer and editor creates a better story and a more informed readership. As stated by the Committee of Concerned Journalists, “journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens.” Diminishing the role of the copy desk and divorcing editing from reporting are betrayals of that loyalty.
Now that I have moved from newsroom to classroom, my bureau experience informs my teaching. In my editing classes at UNC-Chapel Hill, local stories make up a substantial portion of the assignments. In one course, students edit stories written by their fellow students who are covering the town of Carrboro, N.C. Their work is published on a news Web site called The Carrboro Commons. These students will become the “hyperlocal” copy editors of the future — if news executives give them the chance.