Who needs copy editors?

News item: The New York Times is eliminating its stand-alone copy desk, and the copy editors are protesting. So am I.

I discovered the unmatched satisfaction of copy editing when a cub reporter on the Fort Lauderdale News in the 1960s. The News had hired me fresh out of college, placed me in its South Broward bureau in West Hollywood, Florida, and assigned me to cover local government, police and general assignment in several small towns. One night after a full day of filing stories, I made my way to the main newsroom in Fort Lauderdale to deliver a roll of film and was invited to grab a chair, slide up to the large, horseshoe-shaped copy desk and write a few headlines. My love of copy editing took off from there. Years later, teaching the craft became my specialty on the faculty of the School of Journalism at the University of North Carolina, where I taught it for 22 years and coached professionals on the side.

In the days before news coverage became an around-the-clock electronic affair, newspaper copy editors toiled into the wee hours correcting errors of fact, grammar and style, writing headlines and photo cutlines, policing copy for libel, and designing pages. Copy editors served as the readers’ last line of defense. Readers, for the most part, were unaware of the labors of these dedicated servants of accuracy. Their names did not appear anywhere in the paper. Bylines were reserved for the writers.

In an earlier time, readers enjoyed several layers of such protection. Copy submitted by reporters first went under the critical eye of the assigning editor, next the copy desk, then the Linotype operator who converted the typed words into metal type. Years of experience equipped these typesetters with vast knowledge of the area’s history, and they routinely corrected misspelled names of political leaders and other errors of fact along with grammatical and punctuation goofs that had made it past previous editing safeguards. Finally, skilled proofreaders had a go at the copy before it went into the page. Downsizing changed all that. As the bean counters took over the newsrooms, and use of electronic media grew, editing protections were considered expendable and were eliminated.

In their letter of protest to the Times‘ top management, frustrated copy editors said that eliminating the copy desk would jeopardize the paper’s credibility and authority. “We worry that the errors and serious breaches of Times standards that copy editors catch each day will go unnoticed until we are embarrassed into making corrections.” Executive Editor Dean Baquet concedes that the free-standing desk is being eliminated, but said, “We are not, as we have said repeatedly, eliminating copy editing.”

I certainly hope not.

Historically copy editors have been the overlooked, unappreciated and often underpaid professionals in the widening fields of journalism. This led to the creation in 1997 of ACES, the American Society of Copy Editors. That year, my colleague Bill Cloud and I invited newspaper copy editors from around the country to the UNC campus for a weekend of discussions about the challenges of their craft. An informal lunchtime gripe session led to the creation of ACES, whose stated purpose is to foster support and awareness of copy editors, primarily in newspapers. The group conducts annual national and regional conferences and workshops. Many of its members work for The New York Times. The organization also offers scholarships and job training and runs a job bank.

Many years ago, I was honored to participate in a conference at Columbia University in New York. News media leaders and educators gathered to address changes in the practices of journalism and journalism education wrought by an accelerating computer age. On the last day, we summed up by agreeing that as media and forms undergo inevitable changes, the world’s population always will need someone to ask the right questions to gather the information we need to conduct our lives and make informed decisions, someone to put this information in an accessible form, and someone to edit it for accuracy and clarity.

That last step is crucial. That’s copy editing, and we all need it.

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