Copy editors: an endangered species?

In an era when the Toronto Sun misspells "Correction" in a correction column, is there any hope for a revival of good copyediting?

By Gin Sexsmith, for the Ryerson Review of Journalism

In an era when the Toronto Sun misspells "Correction" in a correction column, is there any hope for a revival of good copyediting?

By Gin Sexsmith, for the Ryerson Review of Journalism

It’s 1972, and the scent of cigarette smoke and stewed coffee acts as a backdrop to theclack clack ching of manualtypewriters in The Globe and Mail newsroom. Men’s voices fill the room—asking questions, bouncing ideas off one another, laughing at crude jokes. About 15 men in ties and white shirts are seated around a large, horseshoe-shaped desk—the “rim”—situated in the middle of the room. Inside the horseshoe sit a slot editor, an assistant slot editor, and four news editors. Off to the side, there is a smaller rim for the Report on Business section. 

Both rims are cluttered with pens, paper, coffee cups, ashtrays, style guides, dictionaries—and, of course, copy. Once a reporter has written a story, it goes to anews, or back desk, editor, then a traffic handler, who looks it over before assigning it to one of the rim men. He pores over it, looking for clarity, factual and grammatical errors, and spelling mistakes before sending it along to the copy chief, who gives it a once-over. The senior news editor will give it a final read once it’s in proof. In total, the copy is seen by at least six people on its journey from notepad to newspaper. 

Today, a story may be vetted by three sets of eyes, some of them belonging to staff at out-of-house “copy mills.” It’s not uncommon for online stories to be posted after being reviewed by just one person. Errors that would have had the old rim denizens squirming have become more and more common. In late 2012, the Toronto Sun misspelled “correrction” in a correction note, and early this year, a headline described owner Quebecor Media Inc.’s CEO and president as “influencial.” Also, last year the Ottawa Citizen stated that the Titanic sank in 2012, and in a restaurant review The Hamilton Spectator mixed up the name of a restaurant, Sarcoa, with sarcoma.

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Meanwhile, last September, the Globe published the headline “Egypt Siezes the Day at UN”on its front page. As Greg O’Neill, one of the longest-serving copy editors at the Globe, explains: “Naturally, when you take away a safe system, you’re going to have an increase in errors. We try, everyone just tries to be more intense and focused so some of those errors don’t happen, but they do.

Some blame outsourcing for the decline in copyediting standards. Paul Morse, president of the Southern Ontario Newsmedia Guild, belongs to this group. “It makes no sense to take part of the process that makes the product as best as it possibly can be and try to send it out to some lower wage, boiler-room kind of place,” he says. “Readers are content consumers; they notice that stuff. If we blow it in a story, when an obvious mistake or even a not-so-obvious mistake happens, readers let you know. Copy mills are not something that we want. It just drags down the overall quality of the journalism that we believe in.”

But, in reality, things are more complicated.

Greg O’Neill’s manner embodies what I imagine when I think of an old-school newspaper guy. He’s outspoken, with a take-no-shit attitude, his voice gruff from years of smoking. With his shoulder-length, greying brown hair and grey handlebar mustache, he projects an air of cool nonchalance with a side of don’t mess with me. He takes off his leather jacket to reveal a white button-down shirt with no tie, unlike the norm at the Globe when he joined the copy desk in 1978. 

Back then, the newsroom was louder; in those computerless days, copy editors relied more on one another to get things right. While editor-reporter exchanges could escalate into a fist through a wall, O’Neill describes typical conversations about usage or style as “determined discussions.”

“When I first started, all you did was come in and copyedit; they had a separate layout desk,” Beverley Spencer, a Globe copy editor from 2002 to 2009, recalls. “The first move was merging the copy desk and the layout desk. One of the disadvantages was that it gave us less time to work on the copyediting itself. You caught the big stuff and you had enough time to check spelling, tidy up grammar, and tighten up the sentences, but there was increasingly less time to really look at the story and go to the reporter and say, ‘Is this what you really meant when you said this?’”

Eric McGuinness, who spent 33 years at the Spectator, agrees that the biggest change in terms of quality occurred when copy editors started taking on pagination roles. “There was a great emphasis on production, getting the technical part and the layout right at the expense of grammar, accuracy, and content quality,” he says. McGuinness, who took a buyout from theSpec Postmedia's editorial hub in Hamilton. Ironically, copy editors and paginators there stick to their different tasks.

Recently, copy editors have taken on even more roles. Angela Hickman, who worked as a part-time copy editor and backup A1 editor at the National Post until this February, became accustomed to having multiple responsibilities. Not only did she edit and write display; she was also responsible for the layout and a degree of art direction. 

At the Citizen, the title “copy editor” is more a technicality in the contract than a reality. As of last August, about 95 percent of the paper is edited and laid out in Hamilton. The exception is the local content, which includes the national section, because of Ottawa’s national capital status, and pages one and two. Editor-in-chief and publisher Gerry Nott says that outsourcing has allowed in-house employees to focus purely on creating local content and has removed the “burden of production” from the newsroom—although he admits that the move was partially done to save money.

As Steve Ladurantaye, the s media reporter, says, “Papers are losing a shitload of money. By cutting today, they can publish tomorrow.”

It’s hardly news that the industry in North America has been shaken by a series of developments, starting with the hollowing out of classified ad sections due to the advent of Craigslist and its imitators. Then sliding circulation translated to lower ad rates. The recession that hit in 2008 meant further losses. Papers have responded by cutting employees, and the hit lists frequently include a disproportionate number of desk staff. “No other job classification has suffered so many losses as the news business downsizes,” Merrill Perlman wrote in a commentary for CNN last year

Perlman, who spent 25 years at The New York Times, added, “Given the choice between having to give up reporters or give up copy editors, reporters will win nearly every time because they provide ‘content.’”

And so the “burden of production” now increasingly falls on remote editorial outlets. Pagemasters North America, for example, based in downtown Toronto, promises to deliver pages “to your newspaper’s specifications and high quality standards at a fraction of your current production costs.” It offers copyediting, headline writing, layout, and page design services. Started in 1991Globeand Toronto Star are both clients, along with a number of smaller papers. 

Gin Sexsmith graduated from Ryerson with a Bachelor of Journalism. During her time there she wrote for McClung's Magazine, The Eyeopener, and the Ryerson Review of Journalism. This article was originally published in the Ryerson Review of Journalism and was reprinted here with the author's permission. To continue reading, please visit the RRJ