The New York Times announced earlier this month that it was “restructuring” its copy desk, which is corporate-speak for laying off lots of copy editors, turning more than 100 jobs into about 50. Today, fellow Times reporters protested. As they should.
Every American newspaper lives and dies by its copy desk. The size of the paper, the location, the history, the budget, and who owns it don’t matter. When you kill the copy desk, you might just as well rip out the heart, the lungs, the brains, and the soul, and then dance on the lifeless remains. This is true even—especially—if that paper is the Times.
There is no such thing as a newspaper without a copy desk. You can get rid of almost everything else—the layers of high-ranking editors with fancy titles about whom everyone whispers “What do they do?” when their names come up; the endless stream of consultants who promise they can unlock the key to younger readers (for a hefty fee); the hours of internal political maneuvering over which articles land on the front page—and the newspaper will be fine. Most readers probably would never notice.
But those readers will notice the very instant you cut a copy desk because copy editors actually do the goddamn work in print and on the internet of putting out a newspaper. The ugly secret of newspapers is that copy editors do a great deal of what non-journalism people think reporters or other editors, with fancier titles, do. They have for generations caught typos; deleted potentially horrifying factual errors; made 20 inches of bloated copy into a tight, bright, and juicy 12; noticed inconsistencies in a narrative and put a reporter on the phone to walk through fixing them; pushed back against the use of empty political jargon; made sure the photos matched the story; made sure stories get to the point before readers become bored; and done what is easily one of the most important jobs of all—crafting the headlines that make people read the stories.
In doing all this they have, unofficially, taught a lot of reporters (including me) the basic ins and outs of how to do their jobs. The copy editors are the people who read the entire newspaper, every day, top to bottom, and who remember what they’ve read from generation to generation. Show me successful reporters and I guarantee they will all have their own story, or two, or 20, about when a copy editor saved their ass, and the lessons learned from said ass saving.
And here comes the Times—essentially America’s paper of record during possibly one of the most critical points in American history given that the country elected a Cheez-It infected by nuclear waste to be president—trying to gut its copy desk and acting like this is a pivot to the future. What a load of shit. Times reporters know this is shit, which is why they protested today.
What’s even worse is that the memo talking about these “new” jobs that copy editors can apply for (and maybe get) describes what copy editors already do. Check out this list.
Attention to detail (in terms of acceptable style, grammar, punctuation, language, word choice, etc.)
Accuracy; ability and willingness to check facts
Agility and efficiency with respect to all aspects of editing work
Understanding and facility with display type on all platforms, including social media
Ability to lift stories
Ability to assess and discuss with reporters the best “voice” for stories in the earliest stages of story development
Ability to guide and work well with reporters
Ability to collaborate and communicate well with colleagues
That is what copy editors do! This job description is what the desk already does! Why don’t you just keep your copy desk! (And, yes, I know right now a copy editor is yelling at me for using too many exclamation points but I get really worked up about this.) It gets better. Check out this list of “specialized skills”:
Subject-matter knowledge or expertise
Foreign language skills
Other unique skill(s) or experience
Ability and judgment in conceptualizing stories and story lines
Ability to think through stories and topics effectively and constructively with reporters
Ability to prioritize on a continuous basis and pivot as priorities change based on the news
Adaptability to new modes of storytelling as they evolve
THIS IS WHAT A COPY DESK DOES! You want someone who knows how to pivot. Copy editors pivot five times a night. This is your copy desk! What really kills me, though, is the description under judgment:
Solid news judgment, including the ability and willingness to identify and drive forward stories with impact and steer away from dutiful, incremental news
Solid judgment about what not to cover and the willingness and ability to exercise that judgment
Solid judgment about story questions worth raising and pursuing, understanding what can be tackled in any given time frame
Clear understanding of and adherence to Times standards, ethics and policies
Ability to manage work effectively on deadline
Ability to work independently and with minimal supervision
I am 100 percent certain there is a group of people in the Times newsroom who already meet this description. They work on the copy desk.
I should admit that while I have never even set foot in the Times building, let alone worked there, this feels intensely personal to me. I am here at Deadspin because of Miami Herald copy editors. They saved my young ass more times than I care to admit. They taught me things about my own community that I never knew but which, of course, they did, having spent decades editing stories about everything and everyone in it. I listened to them debate headlines, discuss layouts, and push back against stories that (years before bloggers proved this point) were too damn long. Herald copy editors loved a good headline and knew it was as important as the story, another value bloggers celebrate in full glory.
When I worked night shifts, they rode my ass—there was no missing a deadline, and no excuse for not hitting the inch count. The flames of hell cannot compare to the fury of a copy editor who has a 12-inch hole and just got 22 inches of copy instead.
And thank God for those flames. There are many things I don’t miss about working at a newspaper, but I get a little sad thinking that young reporters will never have the experience of an old, wise, cranky copy editor yelling, “Don’t use that word! Nobody uses that goddamn word! Write like you talk and next time make this five inches shorter!” In my case, it was the word “nevertheless,” and Joe Modzelewski was right to call me out for using it. I think about the legendary Herald desk man Mel Frishman, who gave me what I still consider the best advice about editing: You are the advocate for the reader, and you’re fighting for them to make this story as good as it can be for them. I remember Harry Broertjes, who refused to let me wallow in self-pity when I almost got laid off during a round of buyouts and made me write several stories the same night I found out. You can’t control what corporate does, he told me, but you can show them how stupid they look for saying you aren’t needed. He was right.
It’s telling that a Times report was critical of the entire editing process, and yet it’s the people working on the copy desk who appear to be feeling the biggest brunt of these changes. Everyone blames the copy desk for everything at newspapers, which might have seemed like a morbid joke during the printed word’s heyday but now is bearing miserable results. Newspaper after newspaper guts desk after desk while keeping boatloads of superfluous administration and then wonders, “Why don’t readers like us anymore?” That other newspapers have gutted their desks doesn’t make what the Times is doing okay; it just shows that even the haughty Times isn’t immune to bad ideas. Newspapers are wonderful, but they’re also corporate businesses and inclined to the same bad habits as corporate America—lay off the people who do the work, keep everyone else.
Copy editors do the work, and for very little glory. They do not get Pulitzer Prizes. They do not get fellowships named after them. They do not go on fancy TV programs. Sometimes I think newspaper executives look at places like Deadspin and say, Well, gee, they don’t have copy editors so we must not need them either. What they don’t understand is that every person who works here also has the ability to be a copy editor at a moment’s notice. I edit copy, I write headlines, I lay out blogs, I catch errors. It is one of the most important things I do every day. Perhaps not as well as Mel Frishman, but I try. The values of the best copy editors, I’d argue, live on in blogs—tight, bright, juicy, and with great headlines. The question is if they’ll live on at the Times.