Copy editors going the way of the dodo

Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten has a hilarious piece making the case for copy editors, who are rapidly becoming an endangered species in newsrooms across the country.

Here’s how newsrooms have typically worked:

  • A reporter writes a story. Presumably, they read it, too. (In my experience as a copy editor, that’s not always the case.)
  • An assigning editor reads it, looking primarily for major holes in content or structure.
  • A copy editor reads the story also looking for the same errors as the assigning editor. The copy editor also looks for spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors.
  • A second, more senior, copy editor (called a “slot”) reads it again.
  • Front page or controversial stories get an additional read or two.

A large chunk of Post copy editors have left in recent weeks. The Post is testing eliminating one of these layers of review.

Weingarten makes the point that a lack of copy editors will mean more errors in stories. That’s undoubtedly true. His deliberately exaggerated column has 60 errors in it. But his column proves that the work of copy editors adds little value.

Here is the unedited list of errors in the first paragraph:

  • Opening line should begin “if you are like me,” not “like I.”
  • No hyphen in “financially troubled.”
  • “Downsizing” should be lower case.
  • “Budget-cutting” should have a hyphen.
  • Syntax requires moving “desperation” after “budget-cutting.”
  • “200-decibel” should have a hyphen.

These errors don’t detract from a reader’s understanding of the story. Most readers don’t care about such nits or even know that they’re errors. Some of the errors that copy editors correct are so widely accepted that the fixes can come across as elitist or errors themselves. In college, a friend came up to me with a copy of The Daily Northwestern, complaining that the paper had left the “n” out of restaurateur.

Sure, there are professional scolds who will write, call or email about these errors. But I’m surprised that those people haven’t keeled over from heart attacks watching what text messaging is doing to our language.

It’s not the job of a newspaper to be the guardian of the English language. Newspapers are correct to focus their increasingly dwindling resources on areas that add value. They should spend more time on the big picture and less time picking nits.

Wiengarten writes “it doesn’t make sense for us to weep for copyeditors anymore than it makes sense for us to lament the replacement of bank tellers with automated ATM machines.” I’ve talked to a bank teller maybe twice in the last 10 years. And both times they added very little value.

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About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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4 Responses to Copy editors going the way of the dodo

  1. Mark says:

    There are newspapers experimenting with auto-copy-editors–I kid you not–basically really sophisticated spellcheckers that can eliminate a layer or two, or more, of copy editors.

    I’m a big proponent of the value of copy editors, but I think in a lot of ways they’re a relic of an industrial age. A lot of what they do, at least from a stylistic and formatting standpoint, can be handled by a smart version of Microsoft Word.

    There’s no substitute, though, for the smart, experienced copy editor who can catch a hole in a story that the reporter and assigning editor missed.

  2. I agree that there is value in smart, experienced copy editors. Proportionately, way too much time is spent on things that add marginal value. (Fixing who/whom, data/datum, etc.)

    They’re spending too much time worrying about the nits and not enough on “does this make sense?” “is the premise of this plausible?”

    Given a finite set of resources, I’d focus those resources on identifying holes in stories and adding value to content through tagging and adding semantic data.

  3. Jan Fehler says:

    “…lament the replacement of bank tellers with automated ATM machines.” Hello? The point was “automated ATM machines” is stupid. That’s automated automated teller machine machines.

    Also, you don’t think they need a copy editor for “penis mightier than the sword”?

  4. Those particular errors wouldn’t bother me a whole lot, no. As I said, the number of errors in the column was deliberately exaggerated. I know all about the SAT Test and other such redundancies. As a former copy editor, I would’ve caught most of those errors. But I’m a former copy editor. Most typical readers would read right over the ATM one and probably chuckle over the penis.

    There will be more grammatical and punctuation errors in news stories with fewer resources in copy editing; that’s a given.

    My general point is that if you have to allocate scarce resources, you should allocate them toward making sure you’re delivering interesting, accurate content.

    Newspapers had been living in a world where they had monopoly profits and could afford to strive for perfection. They can’t anymore.

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