Note that semicolon up there in the title. You see how beautifully I deployed that? I learned punctuation as a copy editor, a job that I took at Spin 14 years ago. There, I first changed like to such as and made bands its rather than theys. I mastered the en dash and the difference between prone and supine.
Prettying up the writing of other journalists, much like answering their phone calls, is a job that isn’t making it through the recession at many publications. Here at City Paper, we used to have a receptionist. We also used to have two copy editors. You will no longer find those job titles on our masthead.
At big papers, many copy editors are older and wear cardigans and go home to their cats, so they are perfect candidates for buyouts. This has been bad for accuracy. Example: this recent utter fiasco at the New York Times, where the error-prone critic in question used to have a single copy editor assigned to her, an arrangement that was not renewed when the copy editor got promoted.
Or this bit of weirdness in today’s Post: The lede of this story describes contestants in a beauty pageant who are waiting to hear who has won. The time is “[l]ate into Monday night, or shall we say in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.” At the end of the piece, the author sets another scene. “It’s 11:43. We have sat through three hours of smiles and glitter and acts.” It is time to find out who won. But 11:43 p.m. on Monday is not the wee hours of Tuesday morning! There’s probably a reasonable explanation for this—-I’m guessing that the announcement didn’t happen in the following 16 minutes. A fresh-eyed person might have asked about this dissonance between the piece’s top and bottom.
But the job of being a fresh-eyed person is increasingly not being filled, and those who are left are often overwhelmed.
Yes, money is a factor here, but those of us who are copy editors must own up to some of the responsibility for this situation. I can’t tell you how many meaningless arguments I’ve had over copy changes, minor things that I should have backed off from but couldn’t let myself. Example: “the fact that,” a phrase I hated more than the tortuous fixes I devised for it. Copy editors can get way too hung up on this sort of thing and alienate the very people who have to figure out how to staff their publications with a lot less money. Suddenly, copy-editing begins to look like a relic, like when businesses hired people to do nothing but type.
That responsibility, of course, eventually became diffused across offices. Likewise, journalists will have to take ownership of their own spelling, grammar, and factual integrity. They’ll also have to figure out how to dodge people following up on a press release.