In Praise of Copy Editors (And Why We Need More)

Posted by: in Communication Strategy on April 26, 2012

There were two unrelated items involving copy editors in the last week. The first involved the Denver Post, which said that — as part of a cost-cutting exercise — that some of those cuts would come among copy editors. The internal memo announcing the change put it this way: the paper would be “consolidating steps in the editing process so that traditional copy editing is done at the content-generating level.”

That’s code for “reporters will now be editing each other’s work,” which is one of those things that makes sense if you don’t think about it. But those people who have had their bacon saved (repeatedly) by the copy desk know that good reporters don’t necessarily make good copy editors. And though the editors of the Denver Post hope it’s not the case, there’s a good chance that dismissing copy editors will harm the quality of the final product.

How could the final product be hurt? Ask Elizabeth Flock, a blogger for the Washington Post, who resigned last week after two errors came to light. Flock wrote the Post’s breaking-news blog, which called for a tremendous amount of re-writing of the content of others, all so that washingtonpost.com readers wouldn’t have to leave the paper’s site to get their fix of the stuff that was absolutely fresh. Flock’s task was daunting: she shoveled out thousands of words for the site every day. And in that mad rush, she made two mistakes: she amplified a story about Mitt Romney that — while buzzing online — was not true. And she failed to properly attribute one story. For that, she fell on her sword.

Flock did have editors looking over her shoulder, but it’s not hard to argue that better, tougher copy editing might have saved Flock’s job, and, perhaps, some small part of the Post’s reputation.

And it’s not just journalism where copy editing failures can lead to disease. Jim Edwards from Business Insider flagged a whopper of a typo in a Google ad campaign (Google Chome, anyone?).

The easy solution is to suggest that, perhaps, we need more editors across the communication continuum, and that would clearly be a good start. But the problem may actually start further upstream. In a multi-media world, fewer and fewer individuals see the mechanics of writing as the core skill set upon which their success depends. I am increasingly working with undergraduate communications students who are absolute wizards with today’s media tools: they have excellent graphic design skills. They can shoot and edit video with a professional’s precision. They understand the mechanics of tagging and posting and the new media ecosystem.

But there is hugely less interest in writing copy — not short stuff, not long stuff, not the stuff in between — than when I was studying the media forms back in the dark ages. That’s not surprising. And, in a YouTube age, it’s not automatically bad to see more communicators specializing in media that have become increasingly important. But the subtle shift away from the written word carries dangers that can’t always be identified immediately. It’s a lesson that the Washington Post and Google learned the hard way. And it’s one that the Denver Post may learn, soon enough.

* This post produced without the assistance of copy editors. So if you find typos or leaps in logic, you know why.

By: Brian Reid

Brian Reid is a director at WCG in the product group, where he specializes in media. He is a former journalist who believes content really is king.

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