Responsibilities Rise as Copy Desks Shrink

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Mallary Tenore/Poynter Online

My editor asked me to write an article about “the future of copy editing” last week after hearing talk of copy desks shrinking nationwide. She said she thought I would be especially interested in the topic, given that I am going to spend the next year copy editing for Poynter Online and News University. (I’m going to keep freelancing on the side, but my primary duties will revolve around editing.)

I agreed, but wondered how I would approach the article. “Future of” stories can be tough to write because you have to approach them with a clear focus so you don’t end up with a simple round-up of people’s guesses as to what the future will be. I didn’t want to write an article that was preachy or not grounded in research and reporting, so I made some phone calls and spent five days talking with copy editors, top editors and others for the story. It took me longer than usual to find a focus for the piece, and it wasn’t until after I wrote the first draft and sat down with my editor that I realized what I wanted the message to be. I conveyed this message in the nut graf of the story:

Those in charge of hiring copy editors aren’t so quick to call copy editing a dying profession, but they know change is on the horizon. The future they envision for copy editors includes a merging of responsibilities, a greater focus on editing blogs and multimedia and an understanding that even with fewer resources, the basic fundamentals of copy editing still need to be upheld. Outsourcing, meanwhile, has reminded them of the importance of knowing a coverage area at the local level so they can catch mistakes that might otherwise find their way onto sites like “Regret the Error.”

The stakes are no doubt high for copy editors, who are the last folks to see a story before it gets published. If a mistake slips through, the copy desk is usually blamed. Now, there are fewer people to blame, but greater responsibilities to be had. Copy editors are being asked to do page layout and design in many newspapers, meaning their sole focus is not editing. Some copy editors I talked to for the story said they fear that accuracy could be jeopardized with fewer people to catch mistakes.

Outsourcing copy editors is another risky undertaking, they say, because outsourced workers won’t know the communities being written about. I’m learning more and more that to be a copy editor, you have to know a community as well as, if not better than, reporters do. Copy editors need to know how to spell city council members’ names, and they need to know which streets run parallel and which ones intersect. They realize the value of such details. It’s their careful attention to detail and accuracy that make copy editors such valuable assets to the newsroom. They’re the unsung heroes of news operations, the folks who never get a byline but who “save” reporters and editors from making themselves look silly or careless.

In reporting the copy editing story, I found that many copy editors don’t think the newsroom understands all the work they do. John McIntyre, assistant managing editor for the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun, alluded to this in my interview with him when he asked: “Will copy editors find it within themselves to immerge from their customary anomyinity and make a persuasive case for the value of what they do? If not, then they’re going to lose out.” I didn’t have room for this quote in the article, but it struck me as an interesting question.

I raised a question yesterday in the comments section of my piece about the dialogue that copy editors and reporters have — or don’t: “I’ve talked to a lot of copy editors at mid to large-size papers who say they have little interaction with reporters when editing their stories,” I wrote. “Sure, assigning editors talk with reporters, but it seems like it would be smart for copy editors to do the same. Maybe then more people in the newsroom would better understand the work they do. What’s the conversation like between copy editors and reporters in your newsroom?” Feel free to join the discussion in the comments section of my story by clicking here.

The responses I’ve gotten in the comments section of the article and in personal e-mails has made me realize just how passionate copy editors are about the work they do, and how much they are trying to ensure that the value of their work will not be undermined in the future. My article didn’t reveal what the future of copy editing will be, but I hope it at least provided readers with a sense of where the future is headed. As the kicker of my article says: For now, this much is true: The stakes for copy editors aren’t getting any lower.

I’d like to continue writing copy editing stories and am open to your ideas. What questions do you have about copy editing that you’d like to see me pursue?