With Love, for the Unsung Copy Editor

Last month, King’s Journalism Review, a student-run publication of the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College (Canada), published a fascinating, thorough piece on the state of copy editors in both the United States and Canada. Now, I bet you weren’t spending nights wondering about the fate of copy editors, but I was immediately drawn to this article because I was once a copy editor in college and I loved it.

Once upon a time I thought I would grow up to be a fabulous copy editor at The New York Times, spending days with my trusty pen (or mouse) and some commas and em dashes. But when I graduated college not too many years ago, I realized copy editors were in very small demand. Dream dashed. What happened?

“Copy editors have been sacrificed more than any other newsroom category,” says Natascia Lypny, the article’s author and a journalism student at the university. Citing a survey of the American Society of News Editors, Lypny adds that “nearly a third of the copy editors who were working for American daily newspapers in 2007 are no longer employed in those positions today.” In the battle between content and precision, content won. Now I won’t bemoan this victory too much because I read newspapers for the story, the information, the words. But I want those words to be grammatically correct—and credible, something that Lypny astutely notes can be a huge concern of a copy editor’s job.

Copy editing is an unsung position, in or out of the newsroom. I must thank Lypny for alerting me to the astounding fact that Washington, D.C.’s Newseum, that pantheon to the news, doesn’t mention copy editing at all! (Time to start a campaign.) In today’s race to online journalism, Lypny continues, most copy editors are left out in the cold for two somewhat overlapping reasons: 1) there are no more deadlines in a 24-hour news cycle, and 2) because of that, in the rush to get the story up first, everyone thinks they can edit it on their own. But copy editors, with their AP Stylebook in hand, are looking for so much more than a few typos and dropped clauses. And readers want them to: as Lypny explains, studies have shown that, when confronted with error-ridden articles, people take longer to read them, remember less information and are more cognizant of such articles’ mistakes.

So what does this all mean? I didn’t get to a newsroom, but in my office, I’m something of the resident copy editor. I would never say that I’m perfect. But, being a copy editor in college and learning large swathes of the AP Stylebook made me more mindful of flow, consistency, hyphens. And I’m better for it. In the office of my college newspaper, we used to say that being a good editor made you a better writer. I think—I know—that’s true.

Note: Included in Lypny’s article is a great infographic timeline of the history of copy editors as well as an awesome video on the tension between copy editors and reporters (with pictures!). I encourage all to read her full article!

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