From Lawrence Downes at the NY Times, a lament for the passing of the newspaper copy editor. Downes visits the Newseum and discovers it has “nothing about the lowly yet exalted copy editor”:

Copy editors are the last set of eyes before yours. They are more powerful than proofreaders. They untangle twisted prose. They are surgeons, removing growths of error and irrelevance; they are minimalist chefs, straining fat. Their goal is to make sure that the day’s work of a newspaper staff becomes an object of lasting beauty and excellence once it hits the presses…
As newspapers lose money and readers, they have been shedding great swaths of expensive expertise. They have been forced to shrink or eliminate the multiply redundant levels of editing that distinguish their kind of journalism from what you find on TV, radio and much of the Web. Copy editors are being bought out or forced out; they are dying and not being replaced.
Webby doesn’t necessarily mean sloppy, of course, and online news operations will shine with all the brilliance that the journalists who create them can bring. But in that world of the perpetual present tense — post it now, fix it later, update constantly — old-time, persnickety editing may be a luxury in which only a few large news operations will indulge. It will be an artisanal product, like monastery honey and wooden yachts.

He ends by saying “if newspaper copy editors vanish from the earth, no one is going to notice.” Maybe no one else will, but I will, dammit. (Thanks, Bonnie!)


  1. John Emerson says

    OK, but if all copy editors vanish from the earth, you won’t notice, because you will have been raptured with the rest of them.

  2. Talk about “left behind”: a world where you can’t trust any reference books.

  3. Monte Davis says

    NYC, circa 1985: a bridge game between my parents (then about to retire from careers in journalism and PR) and my brother and me (then 10-15 years into similar careers). We were talking about some egregious goof in the Ted-Bernstein-less Times, and my mother said to her bairns:
    “The good news is that you two can produce very clean copy first time out, which is getting rare and makes editors love you. The bad news is that at this rate, soon there won’t be any editors left who know the difference.”

  4. Bob Helling says

    @jamessal: I don’t think we will see book copy editors vanish in our lifetime. From what this says it sounds like the very reason for the loss of newspaper copy editors is that newspapers aren’t being read like they used to be. Oh, I think I get your point now, that online resources are fast replacing reference books. That may be so but I sure hope not. In any case the reference books themselves should still be as trustworthy as always.
    I am sorry to see the copy editors disappearing, but I’m more a part of the problem than the solution. I get all of my news either online or on the radio. At least I still read the online edition of my local paper rather than scan the blogosphere. The blogosphere, this blog notwithstanding, is altogether too hip for me.

  5. “But in that world of the perpetual present tense — post it now, fix it later, update constantly”
    Isn’t that a linguification?

  6. jamessal says

    I think I get your point now, that online resources are fast replacing reference books.

    I was just being silly, actually, running with John Emerson’s rapture reference. Sorry to have confused.

  7. araucaria says

    My copy editing radar beeped when I saw “persnickety” – that’s a new one on me! We say “pernickety” in this neck of the woods (Scotland), and indeed the three dictionaries I consulted say it’s originally a Scottish word. But no mention of persnickety. Is it a mistake, or is that normal US English?

  8. I was sitting at my desk one day–I was an $80,000-a-year copyeditor (I swear on a stack of style sheets)–and the head editor came in and said, “From now on you editors are going to have to proofread all copy you work on three times before you release it back to traffic…” “Whaaaa?” I replied, “I’m not a proofreader…I’m an editor…editors don’t proofread…that’s why we have proofreaders.” “According to the new Chicago Manual of Style copyeditors now, in this new age of desktop publishing, have to do their own proofreading.” “____ the Chicago Manual of Style, we don’t use that here.” “It’s the electronic publishing age. So from now on you proofread your copy three times.” “What are the proofreaders going to do now sit and talk on the phone all day like they already do?” “They will do the final proofread on the final proofs once you’ve signed off on them.” I started cussing! She shushed me with, “Also, you’re going to have to stay with your jobs until they’re completed.” “What does that mean?” “That means if your copy isn’t coming out until 9, you have to stay here until 9 to give a proofread.” “Why do we have a night editor and proofreader? I thought that was their job. Sorry, let me guess, they’re talking on the phone all night–don’t want to be disturbed.” “No, they’re too busy with their own assignments; you’re now responsible for your work all the way through until everything is set and on disc.” I really cursed then (I remember when an editor’s cursing was respected). I became a crude whiner and cruder complainer and an inveterate bitcher and constant moaner–and, sure enough, soon, I was called on the carpet and fired. The big shot who fired me said though he’d appreciated my work for the past 12 years it seemed now I wasn’t compatible with the new job responsibilities–so I was fired! End of my editing career. I just refused to regress after building up my editing skills back to the worthless disrespect of expecting me to be a mere proofreader. And believe me, when I first started in the profession, I was a proofreader! Never again, I said, the day I was made a copyeditor. I stuck to my guns. Now I’m living on chicken feed–BUT I’M FREE from having to correct the errors of people who always think they’re right–editors, remember the phone calls from the writers, “Are you sure about this change you made here on my copy?”?
    All Hail, again, to all expurgated copyeditors!
    Ur fiend,
    I salute all you old-time copyeditors. Somebody recently said to me–over a pint in an Irish Pub (familiar copyeditor hangout)–“They’re gonna need us again when the electricity goes off!”

  9. Is it a mistake, or is that normal US English?
    The latter. I remember how surprised I was to discover that the “correct” form was pernickety.

  10. Scary thought – that the ability to copy edit worldwide might soon rest in the hands of the few who write programmes for computer operating systems. Who said quality control was important, anyway?

  11. Ken Portnoy says

    A comedic take on the end of copy editors from Gene Weingarten at the Washington post recently.

  12. John Emerson says

    Hat and I have talked about the poor editing of Cambridge and Oxford University Press books. The books as written still can be great contributions to scholarship, but readers will keep bumping into odd, careless, depressing mistakes.

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