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.