Copy Desk Blues  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   September 1997

Copy Desk Blues   

The copy desk has long been an unsung, isolated outpost in America's newsrooms. But new developments are bringing copy editors closer to the heart

By Sharyn Vane
Sharyn Vane has written and edited at papers in Colorado, Florida and Texas.      

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   » Finding ACES

Hank Glamann remembers well the reaction to his questions.

Glamann, then copy desk chief at a major metropolitan daily, was working his regular Saturday night shift. A big investigative package was slated to run on page one the next day, and in fact had already been published in some early editions. The story – thoroughly lawyered and otherwise vetted by various layers of editors, having passed a review by "God and all of his minions," Glamann quips – was shipped to his desk.

He found what he estimates were maybe 100 changes he thought needed to be made. "These were not changes of the basic copy editing variety. We're not just talking about spelling. There was some rewrite, some polishing off of rough edges. I suggested a little bit of reorganization."

Red-markered copy in hand, he went back to the editor on duty, who promptly forbade him from changing a word unless it was spelled wrong. "This has been approved by the lawyers, and so we're not going to make any of these changes," Glamann recalls being told.

He didn't back down. "According to the chart of the personnel of this newspaper I am the best copy editor here," responded Glamann, angry that he was being told hands-off on a piece that had only had a cursory read by a copy editor handling the early editions. "What you have just told me is.., 'We are going to publish this piece, and you can't do your job.' "

Eventually, the reporter and the Sunday editor – the one who'd originally rebuffed him – sat down with Glamann and agreed to perhaps 90
of his 100 suggested changes. The result? Says Glamann, "We published a lot better story."

Reporters are likely to be rolling their eyes right about now, thinking, "Isn't that just like

them?" Assistant city editors probably are reminiscing about what they had to do to protect that last big story from the copy desk's meddling little fingers. But copy editors, no doubt, are simply shaking their heads in sad recognition, and thinking that the only thing unusuaD about this encounter was that Glamann bothered to push it so far.

Glamann and a group of other copy editors across the country are banding together in an effort to minimize, if not eliminate, this us-against-them attitude in the nation's newsrooms. The American Copy Editors Society (ACES), a professional group devoted solely to the interests of copy editors, has been hatched and is mounting a national conference next month as its initial foray into offering education, training and support for its members.

Aces certainly has its work cut out for it. At newspapers large and small, copy editors are among the most beleaguered of staffers. They are the forgotten stepchildren of the newsroom, typically isolated in night shifts and burdened by a "Mount Everest of newsroom discontent," as an oft-quoted 1989 report found.

That report – the American Society of Newspaper Editors' "The Changing Face of the Newsroom" – was the first big step in recognizing the entrenched dissatisfaction of copy editors. Some notable reorganization experiments have been launched at a handful of papers to combat sagging morale. Yet eight years and a handful of conferences later, the malaise still exists for many copy editors.

How unhappy are they? Consider these responses to a survey of copy editors posted on a Web site:

From the Albany, New York, Times-Union: "We recently were given the right to rewrite leads without consulting the assigning desk, and management responded to our plea for a desk redesign to create more work space. Many copy editors have won in-house headline awards, with a $25 bonus. In general, however, management sees copy editors as alien zoo animals who need scraps of meat every now and then to keep us from frothing at the mouth."

From the Schenectady, New York, Daily Gazette: "Executives pay lip service to wanting quality editing and good heads, but those of us who are capable of doing good work don't have time to focus on deep editing, and any head that steps outside of the mundane or cliché gets sent back or changed, due to fear of offending a reader by forcing him or her to think."

Kevin Catalano, a copy editor at the Kansas City Star and a consultant who runs copy editing seminars at newspapers around the country, has been studying the problem since 1986, when, as a University of Missouri journalism professor, he surveyed the copy desks of the 100 largest American newspapers.

"Most of them were happy with their jobs but kind of bitter about the lack of appreciation for what they did..," he says. "At most places, copy editors work at night – most of the reporters are gone, most of the senior editors are gone. You're kind of out of sight and out of mind."

Doing the majority of their work under cover of night is just one of the institutional factors that conspire to keep copy editors despondent. They are by nature invisible: Their names don't appear in the paper like those of reporters, photographers and graphics people. If they do their jobs well, they don't call attention to themselves; it's only when they screw up and a story ends in mid-sentence that the spotlight shines on them.

"Just the nature of the job sets you up to be nameless," Catalano says.

The nature of the job also makes it easy to cement bad relationships with coworkers. After all, a copy editor comes calling when there's a hole in a story or when you've spelled somebody's name two different ways.

If upper management won't support a role for copy editors that goes much beyond slapping a head on a story and choosing a pull quote, copy editors feel as though their skills aren't valued. When you're not allowed to question much, morale plummets.

There are reasons for such restrictions, of course. Most reporters have a tale or two about errors inserted into copy and even leads when a desker didn't bother to check with the reporter. Headlines are another trouble spot: "I remember wandering by the night copy desk and seeing a headline over [my] copy and saying, 'What?! That was not at all the point of my story,' " says Jennifer Comes Roy, a features reporter at the Wichita Eagle, which virtually eliminated its copy desk in a massive newsroom reorganization two years ago.

Some copy editors also don't do themselves any favors by fixating on truly arcane aspects of the English language (one reporter muses that these fussy folks come from the "Planet Copy Editor"). These are people who can argue endlessly over whether it's a contradiction to use the phrase "at about" in relation to a specific time.

The copy editor's anonymous role doesn't bode well for promotion opportunities. Reporters and line editors are on the promotion track, not spell-checkers and grammarians. And the advent of technology has only compounded the problem: Because of the shift to pagination, computer skills and a flair for design have, at least for the moment, eclipsed wordsmithing.

This, then, is the copy editor's burden. Still, the vast majority will say that they love what they do. Their view of the copy editor's true role in the newsroom is much broader than that of the functionary they may be considered to be by their colleagues.

"Some young people who are just starting in the business think that coding the story and writing a headline on it is copy editing," says Beryl Adcock, a copy editor at the Charlotte Observer.

Adcock and other veterans point out, however, that the copy editor is a powerful combination of reader advocate and fresh eyes on a story. Copy editors don't work closely on a piece like a reporter/city editor duo, and often can see the proverbial forest while the others are still lost in the thicket of trees. They take joy in recasting a sentence, tweaking it just so and improving it tenfold. And if a copy editor can't understand a story, a reader isn't likely to, either.

Good copy editors, Houston's Glamann says, also are the arbiters of tone and style. And, he adds, "traditionally we have been the last line of defense in terms of maintaining accuracy."

The copy editor blues isn't news to ASNE leaders, who, after putting out "The Changing Face of the Newsroom," set out to modify some of these endemic attitudes. ASNE's Management and Human Resources Committee dubbed both 1995 and 1996 "the year of the copy editor," and mounted conferences in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Lexington, Kentucky, to brainstorm solutions.

Still, it wasn't until about a year ago that a group of copy editors – Catalano, Glamann, Adcock and others, along with former Newsday senior news editor Pam Robinson – gelled into the American Copy Editors Society. ACES, which organizers see as a source of support, education and training for copy editors around the country, is hosting a national conference in October in Chapel Hill.

"We want this to be very much an educational process, a way of making copy editors know that they have a lot to say," explains Robinson, who runs the New York-based Editor's Ink, an editor recruitment service, and who created a Web site for copy editors with the same name. "Copy editors are important, but they don't necessarily know how to talk to top editors about what they need. We want this to offer some solutions instead of just being negative."

There are already experimental efforts in place in some newsrooms. Cross-training – in which reporters or content editors switch places with copy editors for a specific length of time – is one way of deepening the understanding between warring factions.

"My experience has been that empathy is a wonderful thing," Glamann says. "To produce that, the best thing people can do is walk a mile in the other person's shoes. To have a night assistant city editor and a copy editor trade places even for a week, the copy editor has to deal with reporters and copy directly, and the night assistant city editor has to write headlines on deadline. They come out of it with new respect for what coworkers do."

Perhaps the most extreme approach is going on at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Wichita Eagle, where managers have essentially eliminated the copy desk and reassigned the staff to "topic teams" or "circles" that also include reporters, assignment editors and designers. Termed "blowing up the copy desk," it's garnered praise from many of those who work under the new system.

St. Paul's Casey Selix is one of those people. She remembers when she and her fellow copy editors would come into the Pioneer Press newsroom every day only to encounter angry messages posted by reporters on a bulletin board. "Why did you make this mistake?!" and "Why did you chop this story?!" were among the more charitable. "It was kind of an us-against-them environment... Whatever went wrong was the copy desk's fault," she says.

Then in November 1995, copy editors were offered a chance to join a content team, which would involve more planning and direct contact with other parts of the newsroom. And the world changed for the better. "I think they really see how much good a copy editor can do, how we can do those little behind-the-scenes things that they never know about otherwise," Selix says.

As a team member, she was included in weekly planning meetings, contributing ideas on coverage and graphics. "I tended to have a lot of content questions as a copy editor, not just grammar and construction. I got to do that more in these meetings."

And the setup affords copy editors the chance to shine in ways that can lead to advancement. Selix is now chief of a five-person bureau, something she thinks was a direct result of the leadership she was able to show on her team.

A similar but less drastic approach for many papers is the "maestro concept," in which big packages are handled by a team that includes all the relevant players. Copy editors have a chance to ask questions about headlines and content in an environment less threatening and stress-
riddled than the moments before deadline.

"Losing the facelessness is great," says Adcock of the Charlotte Observer, where the maestro concept is sometimes used. "The reporters see what you do. They know you, and they trust you to make their story better."

At the State in Columbia, South Carolina, copy editor Alicia Roberts says the four-year-old "circle" system has indeed broken down barriers. "The reporters, more than at any other organization I've worked at, seem a lot more willing to accept questions from a copy editor and actually talk to copy editors about changes," she says.

The new structure hasn't been problem-free. Selix admits that shifting the copy editors to teams – and away from a centralized gatekeeping system – has allowed a substantial number of mistakes into print. Though as members of a team the copy editors' opinions were listened to and their content questions answered, they weren't doing as stringent a job of copy editing as they'd done when massed together.

"We have had some really big errors, some headline busts," Selix says. "That keeps coming up: 'Well, if this system is so great, then why do we have errors?' "

The same problem has plagued Wichita, which reorganized its staff into teams two years ago. At first, copy editors continued to play traditional roles, reading all stories before passing them on to a one- or two-person news desk whose duties include catching errors.

Julie Mah, who came to the Eagle as a copy editor five years ago, and another copy editor on the education team have since shifted to reporting duty. Under the current setup, team members, including some who are still exclusively copy editors, try to read the team's copy but don't always do so.

"When we first started there was a lot of tentativeness," Mah says. "I think the reporters were more comfortable with me the first year as more of a copy editor than a reporter."

Mah has been reporting full time for about eight months, and she concedes that the system may produce happier people, but not necessarily a gaffe-free paper.

"You still hear from different quarters in the newsroom that the quality of our newsroom is not the same as when we had a copy desk," she says. "The consistency of it is not there. You knew [before] that all the stories that went into the paper were being channeled through a quality control center. Even now, some people feel that some stories are not being scrutinized."

Fellow Eagle reporter Roy says the quality of the paper's copy editing has deteriorated. But she is an emphatic champion of the team concept: "I think we're putting out a more interesting paper, a more readable paper, a paper people are talking about. I think the content has improved."

The other potential pitfall associated with blowing up the copy desk is the loss of the impartial reader advocate, the advantage of having a story scrutinized by someone who hasn't been involved in its preparation and who isn't emotionally wedded to it.

"I think it's a big mistake," says Kansas City's Catalano. "Copy editors almost become reporters, so they're heavily involved with the story. They've lost that impartiality that they had before."

The distinction between jobs has obviously been blurred in team-centered newsrooms like Wichita and St. Paul. Selix has heard the doubts about that kind of system, but she says the close working environment created by splintering the copy desk helps her make changes that weren't so easy when the copy editors were one cohesive unit.

"I have a better opportunity to be a reader advocate under this system," she says. "They know me, they know I'm not going to ask superfluous questions. It's a whole different ball game when you're sitting down there next to the reporters... One of the criticisms is that putting editors on content teams means they get extra reporters. Some of them do report if they want to. Well, heck, why not? I mean, it's kind of a charge to do that."

ædcock acknowledges that she feared the maestro concept would rob her of impartiality. But she found that the relatively brief planning meetings aren't the same as the intensive partnership of an assignment editor and a reporter.

Still, that role was so critical for Portland's Oregonian that, even though it has begun farming copy editors out to topic teams, it has retained a central desk through which all copy is funneled.

"We were very worried about what we've heard are the bad parts of the topic team, that you lose the role of copy editor as the last set of eyes, the reader advocate," explains copy desk chief Jerry Sass. "We're aiming for a hybrid."

Reorganizing into teams is a concept that, for now, is likely to stay at larger papers, which have the staffing levels necessary to sustain such a system. For those papers with more traditional newsrooms, though, there are still steps both sides can take to improve communication and, ultimately, the product.

It's not hard to guess what copy editors seek from reporters and senior editors: respect and acknowledgment of their role as something more than glorified proofreaders. Instituting an in-house headline award or "Best Catch of the Week" recognition can help.

That's probably the smallest of the changes made at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution when it sought to revive an understaffed and unhappy copy desk, in part through the creation of news operations, a department that bridges numerous sections of the paper. Among its major innovations was the institution of cross-training so that when one section gets swamped, copy editors from other sections pitch in.

"I think things were pretty grim when we started this. Everybody was stressed out and worked on basically their own private, understaffed island," says John Reetz, assistant managing editor for news operations. "The intent, obviously, with all of this is how do you get quality and quality control and let people do better work – and that was just as important as solving staffing problems."

Yet even without overtures from management, most copy editors say there are things they can do on their own to improve their status in the newsroom.

For one, copy editors should be sure to pass on compliments as well as criticism. Adcock, who has a stash of Hershey's Kisses she doles out as rewards for making her editing life easier, remembers copy editing a story on the third day of a series. "I skimmed the rest of [the series] before calling the reporter, and before I got into my questions I said, 'You did a really good job with this..,' " she says. "We're always the bearers of bad news. Of course people run when they see us coming."

The desk also needs a strong chief who's willing to speak up on behalf of his or her staff. Too often the best copy editor is made the chief because of his or her editing skills rather than negotiating savvy.

The latter is key for raising the profile of the desk and making sure higher-ups notice when copy editors do well, not just when typos slip through.

Because it's undeniable that, when copy editors do their jobs well, the quality of the paper improves. And who wouldn't want a copy editor doing exactly what Selix sees as the appeal of the craft?

"I love," she says, "to make copy sing." l

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