How did we get here and where are we going?
Technology has brought the copy desk from the days of manual typewriters and testy optical scanners to time-intensive pagination systems, but it will be education and training that will equip copy desks to meet future challenges.
John Russial, associate professor at the University of Oregon, and John McIntyre, assistant managing editor of The Baltimore Sun's copy desk, led a discussion that traced technological and organizational changes in the past 40 years. As the production work of proofreading and composition coding moved from the composing room to the copy desk, newspapers saved substantially in labor costs. Those savings, however, came at the price of increased demands on copy editors and, as some studies showed, increased error rates.
"Technology isn't necessarily put in place to make your lives easier," Russial said to the chuckles of editors at the conference. "It may indeed make your life easier - and in many cases, it has - but that's not the motivating force." Some papers, such as The Baltimore Sun, hired additional page designers and copy editors as pagination loomed, McIntyre said, but other papers "made the leap without doing that and discovered there was a penalty to be paid."
The spread of pagination led to a shortage of qualified copy editors, McIntyre said, at the same time that interest in copy editing in journalism schools waned. The resulting "scramble" to find copy editors means that many newspapers are happy to hire editors right out of school, he said. That creates a need for more in-house training. "We have to bring green copy editors in and season them ourselves," he said.
Interns and new hires may arrive in the newsroom "technologically coordinated," Russial said, but they may lack either the editor mindset, reporting experience, or both. Today's copy editors can't settle for only understanding what it takes to be a good reporter and writer, knowing how to edit copy and write headlines, and creating strong page designs; they must also figure out pagination, possibly html coding and maybe even video and audio editing.
If "copy editors are what copy editors do," as Russial put it, then our understanding of what copy editing is must also change.
The demand for copy editors and the changing nature of the job puts journalism schools in the middle of a supply- and-demand problem. "The number of undergraduates interested in print journalism is small," McIntyre said, "and the number of those students potentially interested in copy editing is smaller still."
One needs "the right talent and temperament to be a copy editor," said McIntyre, who also teaches copy editing at Loyola College as an adjunct instructor. "Most of the students I've taught over the past eight years would sooner make a living as carnival geeks than as copy editors, and for most of them, it would be a shrewder career choice." If journalism schools are to do a better job of training copy editors, Russial said, they need the help of professionals who demand it.
"I can tell you what gets the university's attention - money," he said, adding that the journalism school at the University of Oregon has raised about $7 million the past few years. "Every change we've made has come from alumni money."
Not only are fewer students becoming copy editors, but also journalists of color are less likely to seek copy desk jobs.
"It's hard to find people who want to take a job that is anonymous and has crappy hours," McIntyre said. "Why seek out another place to sit in the back of the bus? Why find another place where I won't get much attention and respect from colleagues? You can't just hire minority applicants and ignore them. You have to coach them. and then put them in a position where they'll get noticed."
If newspapers hope to improve the quality of copy editing, they must raise the profile of copy editors.
One way to get attention for the copy desk is to keep a record of the errors the desk catches every day, McIntyre said. "If you put that down on the managing editor's desk, that is a powerful statement of how valuable these copy editors are to the paper, and this is how you justify maintaining the staff or increasing it. One of my students penetrated to the heart of what it means to be a copy editor. She wrote on an evaluation at the end of the semester: 'You catch 19 errors in a story and a 20th goes through, and you get penalized. It's just not fair.'
"No, it is not fair, but that is the way it is."
McIntyre also urged news editors and copy desk chiefs "to take time to work on the craft." At regional and national workshops by the American Copy Editors Society, editors "talk about the details of editing, about the skills, about the issues, and they just blossom in front of your eyes. It's the most astonishing thing."
McIntyre said the same kind of experience can be set up on the desk during the regular shift. Schedule a half hour to talk about headlines, one story, caption writing - any discrete topic.
"They just open up," McIntyre said. "They don't have time to talk about the work because they're too busy doing the work. And when they get the chance, they get more imaginative, they get more engaged, more determined. We can do that now without adding any staff."
McIntyre urged top editors to recognize the copy desk's talent and management potential. "You should be positioning people on the copy desk to take positions of responsibility elsewhere in the newsroom, even if they don't have reporting experience," he said. "It is thought to be scandalous that a copy editor who has no experience as a reporter could do anything else. And yet it's not thought at all odd to take a reporter who has no editing experience whatsoever and make him an assigning editor. You need people in positions of authority in the newsroom who understand production, who understand how the copy desk functions and the importance of that function."
McIntyre and Russial agree that the one constant throughout technological change is the need for editing.
"We are still getting shockingly subliterate, ill-organized, unthought-out stories delivered to us every night," McIntyre said, "and we have to edit them, or to attempt to edit them, while fulfilling these additional responsibilities because if we don't master the technology and manipulate the machines, then the thing doesn't come out on time, and I know where the blame lands when the thing doesn't come out on time."
The bottom line, however, is that the copy desk must have the active support of top management to be effective. "It makes all the difference in the world," McIntyre said.