Thursday, January 21, 2010

McGuire on copy editing

Tim McGuire, former editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and now of the Arizona State University Cronkite School of Journalism, has a good post on copy editing - and the ill-advised headlong rush to do away with all or large parts of desks. (See, for instance, the recent memo from the Strib's new editor cutting much of the copy desk.)

His is not a paean to the romance of copy desks, but a solid look at the reality that too many copy editors missed in past years - they are cost centers and the layer upon layer of editing had to be suspect in newspapers, which are essentially manufacturing operations.

McGuire says things must be rethought and redesigned - but he also finds fault with those who think all that copy editors do is the mechanical stuff. Some excerpts:

I am not a traditionalist on this subject. I don’t have a knee-jerk reaction to cutting copy editors based on the “way we’ve always done it.” That historical assembly-line approach had some serious problems. ...

Do not assume that copy editors must go. Copy editors are multi-skilled problem solvers. They have been getting the paper out at night for years, and they know more about how that paper gets to the streets than anyone. Ridding your paper of all those knowledgeable minds strikes me as folly. ...

Peer editing is going to be a must. Reporters are going to have to rely on each other for editing. Reporters are going to have to offer that context, expertise and judgment to each other. And, that is going to be easier said than done. ...

That means Training with a capital T is going to be required. In 2002 when I retired from the Star Tribune, training budgets were being sliced and diced. I hear they are a fond memory in some places now. That disdain for training has to stop now if a newspaper is going to successfully eliminate several reads in the copy editing system. Reporters and others are simply not prepared for the sophisticated enterprise called copy editing.
I still wonder, though, if such appeals to newspaper execs really are effective. For them, errors, even the risk of a libel suit, are a risk baked into the system. As I have written here before, this argument will not become a big blip on their radar unless the case can be made to libel insurers. They are the ones who quantify those risks and turn them into the scorecard execs understand - higher rates. I still don't see groups like the American Copy Editors Society effectively making that push with solid data.

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