Thursday, February 17, 2005

Does copy editing matter?

Tim Porter at First Draft has been parsing Philip Meyer's new book, "The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age." Tim's gotten to the chapter on copy editing. Meyer makes the case that happy copy editors make for a better quality paper, for which there is empirical evidence of greater home county penetration.

But, copy editors, don't go breaking out the bubbly yet. For as Porter writes:

What doesn't matter, though, to readership or much else, is how well copy editors do their jobs - at least the part of their jobs that involves ensuring accurate and grammatical copy ends up in the newspaper. ...

Meyer suggests newspaper editors must face "the possibility that they were powerless." It seems copy editors should consider the possibility that what they do is meaningless.

Already disrespected and defensive, copy editors are sure to consider such a statement inflammatory, but, given how radically different a copy editor's job is today than it was in pre-pagination days (especially at smaller newspapers) it seem reasonable to raise the question: What role should a copy editor play in a modern newsroom?

Porter suggests separating the manufacturing from the journalism -- paying less attention to the "type lice" and more to the content.

An admirable thought, but then there are the past credibility studies, especially the 1999 one for ASNE by Urban & Associates that says:

Both journalists and the public believe that even seemingly small errors feed public skepticism about a newspaper's credibility. More than a third of the public - 35 percent - see spelling or grammar mistakes in their newspaper more than once a week and 21 percent see them almost daily. (Read more ...)
So we have conflicting messages here. We also have the problem of translating editing into credibility into circulation/penetration. There are too many variables that can affect credibility for there to be a clean track.

The real problem is that in many places the pressures of production mean editors are not allowed to edit. Glen Bleske found that in his case study of copy editors at a 60,000-circulation Southern newspaper. Susan Keith, in a paper presented last year, referenced Bleske's and put it in the perspective of the larger question of copy editors as the last line of defense on ethics. See also the excellent summary of copy desk research presented at last year's ACES convention by Keith, Deborah Gump and Janice Castro.

For a bit more, see the Web site of Gump's Editing the Future conference, especially Bob Giles' speech on Why Copy Desks Matter.

So I don't think Tim's quite on target here. But I do agree that if editors are to do their full jobs, the manufacturing and editing need separating. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen and the comingling is probably going to become more common as technology allows formerly complex tasks to be simplified into user interfaces. The model on many "Web" desks, for instance, has been that one person does it all.


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