Worst. Justification for copy editors’ existence. Ever.

I recently proposed a new vision for copy editors in the newsroom of the future, in response to a provocative Alan Mutter post asking whether papers can still afford editors. My basic prescription: Have reporters and line editors take responsibility for some basic things they’ve traditionally left for copy editors, which would free up empowered copy editors to also take on more responsibility.

I took issue with some responses to Mutter’s post that essentially argued for the status quo because a)”that’s the way it’s always been” and b) reporters and line editors are so lazy and useless that copy editors are needed to pick up their slack. Now comes an even lamer version of the latter argument, in the latest American Copy Editors Society newsletter. ACES president Chris Wienandt writes:

I’ve just been hit with another reason copy editors are indispensable: We know how our computer systems work. …

When a story goes missing in the system, who’s the person who can find it? When a reporter doesn’t know how to generate the character ä, who’s the person who can tell her? When two versions of a story are floating around, who can spot which one is actually going into print?

[large snip]

So when these little glitches … no, snafus … crop up in your newsroom, it’s great that you can fix them. But be sure to take that next step: Let someone in authority know … that there was a problem, and that it was the copy desk that solved it. It’s another demonstration of how valuable we are. (italics mine)

Is Wienandt serious? Newspapers are hemorrhaging cash and he’s trying to justify keeping copy editors because they possess the most basic technological knowledge? I’m sure Wienandt has written plenty of other pieces about why copy editors are important as editors rather than as IT cheat sheets, but come on.

I’m not convinced that copy editors are in fact “organizations’ repository of technical knowledge”; I’ve worked with plenty of copy desk luddites (who were nonetheless excellent editors). But to the extent that this assumption is true, it’s because institutional biases have taught reporters and line editors they don’t need to bother with learning piddling minutiae like how the computer system works. After all, that’s the lowly copy editor’s job! Wienandt’s argument thus boils down to this: Copy editors should be proud that newspapers’ organizational structures have allowed reporters to treat them as their IT bitches. I don’t mean to be crude, but it’s a staggeringly defensive definition of an employee’s “value” — battered copy editor syndrome at its worst.

If copy editors truly value themselves and want to argue for their jobs, this deeply ingrained defensiveness needs to end. Stop letting reporters and editors get away with not learning the basics — whether of grammar, style, or computers. Stop being proud of being the newsroom’s backstop/doormat. (Yes, copy editors are valuable for preventing errors from appearing in print and cleaning up copy. But again, this is a curiously defensive notion of value.) And for god’s sake, stop giving up and saying, in Wienandt’s words:

It would be pretty to think that other people in the newsroom would have the level of diagnostic know-how that we do. But that ain’t gonna happen.

Bill Walsh said the same thing, in response to Alan Mutter’s post, about why reporters and content editors can’t learn basic stuff like spelling and grammar: “to quote Paul Simon, ’cause that’s not the way the world is, baby.”

But as Homer said when Marge told him to stop dreaming about moving under the sea because “It’s not going to happen”: Not with that attitude.

As I wrote before,

Okay, fine. Maybe that’s the way it is. The answer isn’t to throw up your hands and tell your shareholders, “Sorry, we can’t change the way we work because reporters are lazy and that’s the way things are.”…

Instead, start telling reporters that this attitude is no longer tenable or acceptable. … And if you actually do change the desk’s job, in ways suggested above or otherwise, then you have that much more weight behind you when you tell reporters the old way isn’t how it’s going to work anymore.

Maybe this is just a generational or personality difference. But I truly can’t fathom how such a resigned attitude is supposed to justify copy editors’ existence. Worse, it could end up actually diminishing copy editors’ value in a company’s eyes.

The more we defensively argue that copy editors are useful primarily for picking up slack when others don’t do their jobs, the easier it will be for companies to fire copy editors when others finally are forced to pick up the slack because of money and manpower crunches. At that point, if nobody has defined a positive vision for copy editing, if the chief arguments are still “copy editors do what others are too lazy to do,” then copy editors will have made themselves redundant.

Put another way: When working in a deeply wounded industry, the best way to protect your job is not to argue “I can do what previously fat profits have allowed others in my company to avoid doing.” It’s to say, “In a contracted future when everyone has to take on previously distributed basic responsibilities, here are all the new and valuable things I’ll do that nobody else can.”


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