Wick Communications

Reporters with clever signs

In Editing on 29 Jun 2017 at 4:21 pm

On Thursday, dozens of journalists walked out of the New York Times building for a coordinated “15-minute coffee break” that was really a solidarity protest with copy editors. Why? Times newsroom management announced it would cut the number of copy editors from more than 100 to about 50 in order to free up more money for “top talent” reporters.

It was a remarkable moment and it is a first in my memory. Suffice to say, reporters haven’t always come running to extol the virtues of copy editors who are sometimes wrongly blamed for messing up the prose and just generally being killjoys. Copy desks were once a central part of big-city newspapers. The work has always been grueling. I know, because I’ve done it. I used to come in at 5 a.m. to copy edit an afternoon daily. Then I stayed until 2 a.m. to copy edit the weekend morning editions. You stare at a screen. You never leave the building. No one ever asks what you think of a story on the front end. No one ever thanked the copy editor.

The ranks have dwindled in recent years, and we all know why. Faced with cutting expenses, management looks around the room and knows that it can continue to put out a paper without those guys with the green eyeshades and stylebooks.

In a blistering critique of management plans, Times copy editors penned a letter claiming that it’s “dumbfoundedly unrealistic” to expect 50 copy editors to catch as many errors as 100. Top editors answered that they weren’t doing away with “copy editing,” only the freestanding copy desk. We are assured each desk — National, World and so on — will continue to go to great pains to assure that all copy remains fair, accurate and in keeping with correct style. Management might have added that it’s dumbfoundingly unrealistic to expect a newspaper to carry 100 copy editors in this day and age. …

The question is this: How much do the inevitable mistakes cost the newspaper? The answer might be very little, at least in the short term. At least, in terms of revenue. We don’t imagine that Tiffany’s will stop advertising if there are 20 or even 40 percent more typos in the daily paper. Circulation might erode. We’ll see. But what is the cost in terms morale and prestige? What does it mean when the greatest newspaper in the world acknowledges that it won’t be as good as it used to be?

For most of us in the business, this is a river we crossed long ago. We made the decision that we couldn’t afford full-time, well-paid copy editors. But are we better off for having done so? Have our products improved since then? Has our business improved? Are we on a firmer footing today than we were, say, 15 years and hundreds of copy editor layoffs ago? Do readers trust us more, or less?

It will be interesting to see how things shake out at the Times. In the meantime, it’s good to see reporters support copy editors, for a change.




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