After posting the link to “The lowly life of the lonely copy editor,” I received this note from Robin Sterns, a former copy editor who is currently out of journalism:
I’m sure the below (a piece on my recent experience as a “copy editor”) is more than you want to read, but I assure you that the column rings 100% true in my experience.
Anyone with any real knowledge was gone at my paper and the kids who were left not only had no experience/training as copy editors but resisted/rejected input from someone who did. They/we were treated like pond scum by the entire newsroom, and – most stunning to me – bypassed completely when it came to posting online content, which isn’t copy edited at all and doesn’t even have the same headline as the hard copy paper.
I’ve excerpted her piece, which Sterns says hasn’t been published anywhere else.
BY ROBIN STERNS
My first day as a newspaper copy editor/page designer was a shock.
Let me just say that I am the child of an early feminist. When it came time to sign up for typing in high school, my mother counseled me not to take the class, observing from her own experience that “men will hire you based on how fast you type.” What they would hire me for if I didn’t know how to type, neither of us apparently considered. But I happily took an extra art class or whatever at the time and eventually adopted a style using three fingers, left forefinger to do most of the typing, a thumb to space and right forefinger to hit the shift key. And I’ve written a couple of books using those three fingers, okay? So what the hell, right?
Except here at the newspaper I noticed right away that not only could all of my colleagues type at warp speed with all of their fingers, they also knew a billion keyboard shortcuts, like apple-shift-control-6 (but the 6 on the side of the keyboard, not the top).
How did I get here? We were moving to a new town and I thought it would be fun to apply for this job. I’ve been teaching writing and Associated Press style forever, worked at a few newspapers and started doing desktop publishing in maybe 1985, so I thought I had some skills to bring to the table. But my newspaper page-design experience was limited to sketching the St. Croix section on a piece of paper and faxing it over to St. Thomas, where they actually made the Virgin Islands Daily News. And my only newspaper copyediting experience was when I was sitting at my computer in Chicago posting copy for the Virgin Islands Source online. So I thought it would be a fun challenge learning how to make a great page on deadline and how copy editors interact in a real newsroom. And they have a beautiful paper.
I explained all this to the young woman who interviewed me in their enormous, echoing empty building on a Saturday afternoon. They make a couple of small papers serving a coastal resort community, but they are part of a big chain. The walls were lined with blow-ups of their award-winning photography. The floors rumbled as the press started up.
She said she was inclined to give me a try because, not that she wanted to call the other copy editors kids, but they were kids, and sometimes they just didn’t understand enough about American history or politics to do good edits on stories.
Reverse age discrimination, I thought! Being older is better! I was going to be a copy editor.
What I didn’t know is that there’s no such thing any more.
To me, the word “editor” is loaded. You don’t start out as an editor. You fight for the best stories and hone your writing chops until one day you emerge grizzled and senior, the profane old fart who can lecture the newbies about their buried ledes or missing points of view. You know, the old guy with his feet up on the desk, ink-stained shirtsleeves rolled up, bottle of whiskey on his cluttered desktop, a “Because I Said So” sign on the wall behind him.
A great example is John McIntyre, who copy edits the Baltimore Sun. He ran the copy desk for 23 years, until one day in 2009 when a third of the Sun’s staff were laid off to save money. He’s back as “night content production manager,” a position I imagined not that different from my new job — supervising callow youth — and he blogs daily about the vicissitudes of language in journalism. A recent post involved Sports, which wanted to put the word “wanker” in the paper because that’s what some famous soccer player had publicly called another famous soccer player. Who doesn’t want to be the guy who gets to decide that?
So that’s how I imagined my job, these heated debates about grammar: is it “the football team get on the bus” or “gets on the bus”? at which point my dewey-eyed colleagues would turn their bright faces to the old codger in their midst, and I’d lean back in my vintage oak chair and settle the issue, intoning, “Kiddies? Here’s the deal: The team put on their uniforms, an action each performs separately, but the team gets on the bus, an action they perform as one. Collective nouns, page 51 in the stylebook.”
I was going to be the decider. And in the real world too, not just a classroom where young people have to be nice to me. I was going to be the last bastion against poorly worded sentences and vague language in a world where anyone anywhere now can call himself a journalist by posting whatever sophomoric wanking off-gassed linguistic effluvia occurs to him. I’d zip in from points unknown, cackle at the screen for a few hours, fix a couple of egregious errors everyone else had missed, and then drive off into the night mist. This was going to be a blast.
First, page design. I shadowed the other copy editors as they built the various sections of the newspaper, learning where you go to find the graphics and photos, the local news stories and wire copy, and how it all gets put on the page in their style, which is very appealing — big splashy photos and clever use of white space, not the densely crammed pages I’m used to seeing.
I tried not to panic when I saw how fast they were, because I knew going in that there had to be a lot to learn to move a broadsheet’s worth of content around on deadline, and by god I would just learn it. My monitor became furry with Post-its: “use Endnote for sentences and Tagline for phrases,” “apple-a = select all,” “shift 6 = Chronicle Bold 42 point hedline.” I learned a thousand new things the first couple weeks.
Apparently, though, I was supposed to have learned two thousand, because the city editor started looking pointedly at his watch, asking, in the Southern polite way everyone at this paper says things, “Do we have an estimate on when Biz will be done?” two minutes after he had just told me to swap out stories on the page.
Or I’d finish a page to my best approximation of “our style” and my boss would then tell me to redo everything.
One night I did the same page three times, because after my boss had told me to redo it one way, the city editor wanted it done again completely differently. I mean, our desks are four feet apart – the city editor hadn’t heard my boss tell me exactly how to redo the page? He couldn’t have spoken up then? I began to suspect they were just fucking with me because, to be honest, what the hell difference does it make whether “Efforts on to increase voter turnout in Bluffton” runs across the top of the page or down the first column?
The copy editing aspect of the job turned out to be a problem as well. When my pages are done, I pass them to the city editor. He looks at my Biz and local pages. He rereads the stories and has final say on headlines. On Associated Press wire copy pages, like “World” or “Washington,” he just reads the headlines. Then my pages sit in a pile for maybe three hours until my colleagues can tear themselves away from their pages to eviscerate mine.
Most of my pages involve wire copy, usually written by a journalist at a newspaper and then distributed via the Associated Press. So I look for typos and “our style”: for example, we cut out “9/11” and insert “Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.” I figure the bulk of my relationship with wire copy is to cut it intelligently so the major points remain even if two-thirds of the piece is gone. But my pages were coming back peppered with red ink, with dozens of corrections. Like the difference between “might” and “may,” as in “Congress may reconvene before Labor Day,” which apparently has to be changed to “Congress might reconvene before Labor Day.” Why is completely opaque to me, but “our style” is, apparently, “Throw May From the Train.”
Susan* would scribble out the “on” in the sentence “He fell 10 feet during his trek on Sept. 8,” but add an “on” to the sentence “Rangers first began looking for Richards Sept. 9.”
The word “likely” is another issue. When it splits verb parts, as in “they will likely go,” the sentence has to be changed to “likely will go.” And “largely”: “has largely been replaced” has to be recast as “largely has been replaced.”
And since they’ve waited until the last minute to hand me back these pages, I now have to rush to fix them before deadline, because certain pages have to drop at certain times, no matter when they are actually done. And rushing is my weakest skill. Several times, they have to take one or more of those pages back and make their silly corrections themselves, because I’m sitting there 15 minutes after my page should have dropped, trying to cram or stretch new copy into a certain space.
At first, I make an effort to memorize and imitate this stuff. After all, these kids are professionals with journalism degrees, right? But this little voice inside my head starts asking, likely will go? What’s the point of rewriting copy so it sounds more stilted than it already did?
Then came the opportunity to make good on the ageism thing, my vast knowledge of the past that could lead to better content. The story on page 1A is about the two hikers freed from Iran after two years. The piece keeps making oblique references to a connection between the way these young men had been treated and — buried in the second half of a sentence toward the end of the piece — the “hostage crisis of 30 years ago.” Ha! I pounce.
“Umm, Robert?” I say, handing back the page to my boss. “I think we need to expand on this concept for younger readers. See the details I jotted down on the back of the page. This crisis? It was 52 Americans held for more than a year. They stormed the embassy.”
I notice Robert and Susan are staring at me.
“It was on the news every night: Day 362!”
“They say it brought down the Jimmy Carter presidency.”
Blankly staring like secondary characters midway through a Stephen King novel.
Needless to say, probably, that correction never got made either.
My first big responsibility every night is the business page, which is supposed to straddle a delicate balance between being informative to the type of CEO who owns a golf property in Hilton Head but also splashy and nonthreatening to the rest of us. We generally run the financial content as is, while tarting up the layout with graphics like the silhouette of a businessman turning out his empty pockets or a dollar bill bursting into flames.
My second important page is 3A, the local news page, which features two or three local news stories and crime. There’s always at least one photo, which is supposed to be run very large. Often, one or more of the stories for the page are late, meaning the reporter doesn’t get back from the meeting until 8 or 9 p.m., and then I have to sit there fuming while he — it really is just one kid, Peter — farts around trading witticisms with other reporters instead of writing his piece, while the clock ticks and the city editor glares at me, and that’s when I realize I’m not an editor, whatever they are calling this position. If I were an editor, I could stomp over to Peters’s cubicle and tell him to get his stultifying 12 inches done on the County-fucking-Council meeting so I can do my godforsaken job. But no, I’m not even in the writer-editor loop. I’m a copy assistant, someone whose power is limited to blacking out the on’s and likely’s in wire copy.
Then Susan goes all Yossarian on my Evergreen. Evergreens are these quarter-, half- or full-page stories we pre-lay out so they can drop into a particular issue when there is an unexpected opening. When we have free time, we’re supposed to fill it making Evergreens. So I had found this amusing piece on our list of available stories on a woman who is noteworthy not because she’s won nearly a million dollars playing poker, which she has, but for owning 1,200 pairs of designer shoes, the largest collection in the U.S. The writing was great:
If that’s not enough to knock you off your six-inch stilettos, consider that 700 of [Beth] Shak’s shoes are Christian Louboutins. He’s the man behind one of her favorite pairs, $4,000-plus rose-gold heels with spiky straps and Swarovski crystals that only she, Victoria Beckham, and 10 other people own.
“Every time I wear them, I have people who try to take them off my feet,” she said with an impish smile.
And though the petite, girlish Shak looks nothing like Beyoncé, ankles down she could pass for the superstar’s twin when they wear their matching pairs of French black-lace Louboutins with gold Swarovski crystals.
There was good art of her in her walk-in shoe closet clutching a gajillion-dollar ruby-red rhinestone-encrusted pump. The piece had run on page 1A of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It was slugged “Her Sole Obsession.”
I ran out a half-page Evergreen and put it in the pile for peer editing. When I get it back a couple of days later, Susan had cut it by a third. She had stripped the story of the writer’s style, the imagery, any connection the language had to the content.
When my boss upholds this scorched-earth policy as a legitimate way for us to relate to a writer’s words, I know I have to get the hell out of this job. And what’s worse, because I spent the first three weeks focusing on page layout rather than copy editing, no one thinks I have any idea what I’m doing. When I tell Kyle you don’t hyphenate compounds with –ly, like “clearly marked boundary,” he just smirks.
On my “State” page, I have a piece about a new ruling, that no one rallying at the Statehouse can cover up one of the statues on the grounds. An NAACP group rallying at the Statehouse last year had “obscured” a statue of George Washington, which upset many people (this is a state where that same NAACP has been carrying on a decade-long protest about the Statehouse flying a Confederate flag). My headline: “Ruling: Ralliers may not obscure Statehouse statues.” Susan changes “may” to “might.” Ralliers might not obscure? The mind reels.
While my current boss and I are considering just when my last day should be, we all get an e-mail from the publisher announcing a week’s unpaid furlough for every employee. “Year-to-date we are 15% behind 2010 numbers. And remember – this year’s decline is on top of four consecutive years of severe declines,” she writes. I am shocked to learn this is the second furlough of the year. I agree to stay on a few weeks to help everyone work through the schedule.
One night I burst out laughing, realizing I am trying to fill a 2-inch hole in a story with text I am making up. Genero-text! Expando-text! I’m finally cackling at the screen. Chris, a recent Mizzou grad, takes my seat next week. I hope he can keep it long enough to pay off his student loan.
* Names have been changed