Editing is everything.
At least, that’s what I tell my students because it’s the truth. Don’t we all tell our students the truth, at least the truth of the elephant part that we are touching?
I tell my students that there is joy, power, and totally awesome responsibility in editing, in the fact that there is nothing that does not need an editor.
But that truth, that total awesomeness of editing, has now become its curse, and here’s why:
Journalism will always be a home for people whose job is to be the first line of defense for the audience. We call them copy editors, but that title has never done them justice. They are the only journalists in the process of producing news who have no stake in its publication: They didn’t assign the story, and they didn’t create the text or the visuals. They are, to use a word often only copy editors use correctly, “dispassionate.” They are there for the sole purpose of protecting readers from the insults of our mistakes.
These journalists have a special respect for the language, so the audience doesn’t suffer an “enormity” when “enormous” was called for. They cultivate engaging writing, so the reader won’t pray for the eventual period. They aren’t afraid to ask a reporter to recheck the facts, so people don’t show up for a meeting an hour late. They even dare to challenge assumptions, so that all sides of a conversation can be heard.
Publications will hire staff according to how they measure their value in the marketplace. If the publications see themselves as societal watchdogs, they hire journalists skilled in investigative reporting. If they brand themselves as cultural mavens, they hire writers who can speak to the generation paying the tab.
If they think their paying audiences know the proper use of “comprise,” they also will invest in staff members who don’t insult the customers.
A newsroom gets to decide how—or whether—to compensate for the loss of audience protection that results from fewer editors.
But the classroom has no such option. We still must teach editing because, well, editing is everything: It’s not just grammar, usage, style, punctuation, content editing, and editing for legalities and fairness. It’s also headlines, cutlines, design, visual editing—and doing it on deadline, across all platforms, leveraging all media tools, and without mistakes.
The question, then, is not whether to teach editing but how to revamp curricula so the awesome essentialness of editing is not lost in the dust being kicked up by frantic newsrooms scurrying to cut costs.
A few years ago, many in the journalism industry finally took the hint that it was time to break out of the organizational silos that stifled creativity in their newsrooms.
Maybe it’s time for more schools in journalism education to take that same hint. Maybe it’s time to rethink our approach to teaching the craft so that editing—which touches everything—is part of everything we teach.
If editing remains a single, optional, one-semester course, as it is at many schools, what do we think will happen when copy desks disappear in the newsroom? Does the result honor journalism education’s obligation to future readers? Is that the truth we wish to impart to our students?
Hmm. My elephant says no.
Deborah Gump most recently served as professional-in-residence at Middle Tennessee State University and directed the Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies.
… I suspect that when a lot of higher-ups in journalism first target a copy desk for layoffs, they’re thinking they can afford violations of AP or Chicago style. Who cares if you write “seven” or “7”? I agree with them on that point. But they may not be aware of the irreplaceable skepticism that good copy desks apply, rescuing factuality and reputations every day.
I’ve been a copy editor for about seven daily newspapers. At the smallest ones, where journalists are less experienced and standards might be shaky, all that was expected was to enforce AP style and write serviceable headlines. At the biggest ones—Sacramento Bee, Orange County Register, Los Angeles Times—we naturally enforced style, but our most important job was to interrogate the story, to address the content: factuality, context, organization, fairness, libel, and so on. In midcareer, after I took the Philadelphia Inquirer’s copy editing test, the desk chief said he was looking for “much more aggressive editing” and channeled me in-house to the Philadelphia Daily News, a tabloid with muscular plain English that really knew how to have fun with headlines. (I didn’t regret it.)
But the converse can be true: I’ve seen and worked for small publications with sophisticated copy desks, as well as large ones where laziness prevailed. (“It’s clean enough, I guess.”)
How important are copy editors? The answer is, how much credibility and readership do you want or are willing to settle for if jobs must be cut?
“The more eyes, the better” is an editing mantra. It’s shocking to learn, from published surveys, how many major news outlets let reporters ship their stories straight to the Web.
The current question seems to be, “How little editing can we get away with online?” After all, a correction to a live story can be uploaded immediately once caught. “We didn’t really get it wrong because we corrected it half an hour later.”
I think raising the lows is more important than raising the highs. It’s great to have a clever headline, but when the story misspells the mayor’s name, which will people talk about? If resources are thin, concentrate on keeping the lows high.
Mike Grundmann is an assistant professor at James Madison University.
… Are copy editors in Sacramento going to know about local nuances or geography in Fresno when editing stories for the Fresno Bee? I would say not.
Copy editors are most valuable because they provide eyes on stories as a reader would. They have not been involved in the story from its conception, so they are in the best position to recognize flaws that the reporter and assignment editor miss because they’ve become too close to the work. Assignment editors often rise from the reporting ranks and have not been trained to look at a story the way a copy editor does.
… As for employment possibilities, today it’s necessary for editors to have multiple arrows in their quivers. A job seeker trained just in editing is at a disadvantage when competing with journalists who know how to work with multiple storytelling platforms.
Mark Ludwig is an associate professor at Sacramento State University.
We don’t have to give up accuracy in the name of immediacy. We can have both, and editing plays an important role in that.
… I think copy editors who have skills beyond traditional story editing and headline writing will have a better chance of keeping their jobs and getting new ones. That means being comfortable with blogging, social media, and other new forms of communication.
Andy Bechtel is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina.