Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Why copy editing is Important

Are copy editors the next dinosaurs? Just saying

In 2008, the American Copy Editors Society invited comments from the public to give reasons why editing – or most ostentatiously ‘copy editing’ – was still important and relevant for newspapers and “modern content.” Society was convinced that “copy editing at America’s newspapers, a cornerstone of fair and honest journalism, is threatened now more than ever.”

Just not to startle you into splashing a typo across your Word, let us simply ignore the job loss figures all the way down to 2012.

The organization was not worried without reasons. Newsroom copy editors in the US, UK and Canada have been hit hard by a spate of buyouts, and layoffs in the print industry in the recent years since the US economy began lurching.

The American slump was acute. The New York Times even banned copy editors from placing their fingers in the buyout pie. Lawrence Downes, a Times editorial board member, even wrote that when copy editors disappear, no one would even notice.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics rattled off scary numbers at 400-job average decrease.

There are reasons. Take with a pinch of salt, for instance, proficiency levels. Thanks to better education, the quality of spoken and written English is far more pronounced and proactive now than it was two decades ago. The prized reporter is the one that does both stories and copy editing. Unlike 2-4 decades down the boulevard, most reporters today are empirical in expression and intolerant to traditions. 

I believe that the steady impetus of both quality education and the discipline offered by the harsh lessons of corporate vagaries have ensured those copy editors in the US no longer take up office space. A copy editor that also brings in scoops is any publication house's ultimate wallet-saver. 
I think I know what military fame is; to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers.”  William T Sherman
So is this the end of the copy editor and his hard-earned expertise in the way of quality language catering? 

Is it over for aspiring copy editors?

No, not at all, and not that I believe they are not, either. Alternatively, at least it appears to be just another bad company stock and poor marketing fortunes of the moneyed Media, not necessarily a rejection of the skill base. 

Another possible consolation you may take refuge in: the copy editors going out are those with what I call a ‘lesser skill quotient.’ It is something not many human resource reps will tell you. Newspapers retain only the more proficient ones normally. I'm just peddling a theory here.   

Look at it this way: the journalism industry in Asia and Europe is on firmer grounds, for now. Asian countries such as India are some of the biggest beneficiaries of outsourced copy editing manna from the US and the UK. The downturn in the western industries also means that the drought would leave Asian freelancers and contract copy editors looking at a collection of good cents on the freelance market.

The downturn still does not explain the likened economics of field personnel like news reporters, and off-station correspondents ejected by the recession in the industry. The business side aside, there is a world of paradigm to relearn here. The economics do not always dictate the indispensability of correct English. Besides the obvious task – brushing and flossing the fangs of our miscalculation – copy editors represent the finer pursuits of excellence to unambiguous and unprejudiced communication. 

They are the insurance to newspapers’ greatest virtue and most important selling point — credibility; a safety net no self-respecting, quality-conscious and credibility-retentive publication would afford to ignore. It is a good business sense.
This gracious announcement was seen pasted in the copy editing and news section of my organization during Christmas week, 2013. The delightful irony was not lost on the copy desk team.     
Why do copy editors and copy editing matter?

The reasons are obvious. 
  • First thing first: Until the apocalypse comes, there will always be something to write about, and writers will always have to need a copy editor sitting in the second chair.
  • English will always need copy editors for the sake of the language itself. For a language that even ‘native speakers’ grapple with in their course of expressing an idea, writers need copy editors to ensure that the message is delivered to the reader the way the writer originally intended. 
  • Correct English is not enough – clarity, style, presentation, and even aesthetic weight are what copy editors add to content. In spite of the newspaper corporate going for mammon, they still do not dare run the risk of losing readership – and credibility – on the altar of circulation. That is where copy editors come in.
  • The copy editor (and relatively, the proofreader) is the last line of editorial defense against shoddy Grammar. They are the guarantee against typographical bloopers that ambush even the most acquiescent reader. They are the "verifiers" against inaccurate or biased details. Copy editors raid dubious statements, watch out for discrepancies, cut out anything that looks even remotely 'foreign'. They are quality-guarantee.
  • Fred Vultee of American Copy Editors Society: “Editing is central to the process of professional journalism; we’re attentive to threats to the roles of reporters and visual journalists so they will be attentive to similar threats to the value of what we contribute as editors.” 
  • The copy editor is the bridge between the writer and the reader. What credibility could a newspaper or publication house possibly gain if their book contained misspellings, grammatical errors, incomprehensible passages, or muddy ideas. How does the author protect his investment and ensure his credibility as a writer? The copy editor ensures a bulwark for the author from the pitfalls of language. 
  • Copy editors offer publications' a safety net that ensures quality and credibility. They “catch” most of the problems that come with words and sentences, presentation and narration, grammar and semantics attributions, design and content, and ideas and intellectual engagement. They are issues only a reckless author or reporter would drop while beating a breaking news, or for the author, churning out a bestseller. The copy editor is the PR manager there. 
  • The work of the copy editor is something that always manages to elude the hallowed attention of the reader. His work is unappreciated and largely invisible – until the reader runs into a typo. That is the only time the credibility and skill of the editor come into question. That is the only time one feels a need for good copy editors. Copy editors, still.
The copy editor stands in for the reading pleasure of the reader, adds to the intellectual vagabond’s literary experience, and perhaps even stands in to provoke critical curiosity in him just by making a sentence look good. The editor reshapes, clarifies and strengthens the value of the content. That's quality assurance.

Proficient copy editors will not go out of business any huff soon. Curiously, according to reliable sources, the apocalypse is at least 100 billion years away. What do you think?

©2012 Al Ngullie ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This article contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval systemwithout express written permission from the author / publisher.


  1. We took a bad hit for the crumbs in 2009, and the worry is still there. NYT laid off half its staff editors, the Tribune barely even had anything resembling copy editors, and the Glob had half its more Harvard-type correspondents pitching in. Funny thing being, the whole layoffs are in the north. the recession doesn't seem that pronounced elsewhere.

    Say, there's Cox Media again. They have a restructuring plan to 'consolidate' their copy editing and design sections in Dayton, at the Daily News, and in West Palm Beach (the Post), which meant job losses at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Austin American-Statesman. I don't really get it. Why is the layoff more on copy editors, when their pay packets are taken in more by the executive and the army of reporters - many of whom are nothing more than hype hoggers and no real journalism talent?

    1. CMG's statement reeked:

      "Cox Media Group is committed to the long-term future of our business. Over the past year, we asked our four major newspapers to identify best practices and opportunities to consolidate business functions — without compromising the investigative and in-depth news our audiences demand. Today, we shared those recommendations with our employees.

      Many of the changes will be invisible to our readers, yet they will help all four papers remain competitive forces in their communities for years to come. We expect the changes to be implemented over the next 18 months, and will update employees throughout the process."

      'Consolidation' was a nice little excuse to fatten up the publisher of course who lounge in the designer's cabin and wave his wand around and pretend copy-editors weren't needed at all. Just so that they might actually look a bit of a player in the big market.

    2. @Stefanie I think NYT was expected. The publication was taking in bad returns for its circulation. When 1.2 million of its print circulation retired during 2008-2009, it was forced to rethink its market strategy. The layoffs were not concentrated on the editing desk. Of course that is not to say it gave anyone a chance to continue with his soda and fizz but I think it was the market in general -- US, UK and Canada -- that had begun suffering from the then-increasing recession. But then, that is not the issue here.

      The layoffs have calmed a bit. It is a small consolation. Maybe the upcoming media market in Asia and Africa would at least absorb some perks from outsourcing in the US and UK. Aside from that, the market appears to be stabilizing for copy editors - if only all of them took up a 'subsidiary' - like learn some designing skills or throw in some news reporting credentials for the CV's sake.

    3. Surly you aren't meaning it's not copy editors but designers who are now losing their jobs? OKAY my joke was lame. But seriously, we have this guy on the GZTT, who pitches his take on the Capitol -- and takes his hand at the CS6. Now, isn't that more than a burgerstand could take if his job as a reporter was worth $ 20 per page? I'm going to go for the burger. CNN can sell its Mitt Romney office for all I can hoot. NYT is still tops. But hey, that's my opinion.

    4. You can pop the quetsion if you land a raw deal when the zanier editors walk in with fat CVs that have only reporting credits. $20 hour is from the prehistoric age. Seriously, why rush the market? Check out Elance and O-Desk. There are more jobs for copy editors there than there are in north America.