If you've recently encountered a woman with luxurious hair or read about someone alluding to an event that they were clearly referring to, or thought that Minsk should actually be Gdansk, you might be reading a newspaper that’s fired its copy editors, something that’s been occurring more and more across the industry as a way to cut costs. Earlier this month, the ombudsman at The Washington Post, which has cut its copy editing staff roughly in half over recent years, wrote a column on the phenomenon. He was responding to an outpouring of reader mail that lamented an increase in errors at the paper. And this April, John McIntyre left The Baltimore Sun after 23 years at the copy desk. McIntyre told us that copy editors do a lot more than fix typos.
JOHN McINTYRE: There are cases of potential libel that were caught on the copy desk. There were cases of plagiarism and falsification that were caught on the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun. There are any number of stories that wound up more clearly focused and better explained because the copy desk raised substantive questions.
MIKE PESCA: Could you give me an idea of some of the numbers involved when we speak of the purging of copy editors?
JOHN McINTYRE: Well, at The Baltimore Sun, when I was overseeing the copy desk, I was responsible for three dozen or four dozen copy editors. Today there are six.
MIKE PESCA: We should note the news hole of that particular newspaper, from what I've observed, has shrunk too but not, if we're doing the math correctly, to a sixth or an eighth of what it [LAUGHS] once was.
JOHN McINTYRE: Yeah, the news hole is much, much smaller, which is one reason that the remaining copy desk is still more or less above water.
MIKE PESCA: Do you think cutting the copy editing positions actually came easier to some of the newspaper bosses than some of the other cuts they've made?
JOHN McINTYRE: They are desperate to have enough reporters to generate enough material, and they have decided that they can sacrifice copy editors, that they can sacrifice quality and accuracy in order just to produce enough material. My sense is that you can only cheapen the quality of the product so far ‘til you reach a point at which even your loyal customers will start to go elsewhere.
MIKE PESCA: Are standards lower, or just different, or perhaps different and lower in new media, in such forums as blogs, as compared to the newspaper, especially the newspaper of yore?
JOHN McINTYRE: I suspect that one of the things that is on the minds of publishers of online enterprises is a sense that readers on the Internet don't expect things to be accurate or very well done and, therefore, they are used to tolerating a much higher level of shoddy work, a much greater volume of errors and, therefore, you can sacrifice the quality on the Web and it doesn't mean that much.
MIKE PESCA: So I read your blog, and some of your other fellow ex-copy editors have blogs, and it seems to me that a constant thread is taking some glee in - look at this mistake, look at that mistake. This is the doom that we predicted. Is there some of that going on?
JOHN McINTYRE: I don't think there’s much Schadenfreude among copy editors. When I was working for The Sun and I read the paper in the morning and saw something that had slipped through the safety net, I would, you know, fling the paper across the room and swear lustily.
[MIKE LAUGHS] Today when I see the things that get through, it’s a more in sorrow than in anger response. It distresses me to see what has happened to newspapers.
MIKE PESCA: John McIntyre was a copy editor for 30 years. He used to head The Baltimore Sun’s copy desk. His blog is You Don't Say, which can be found at Johnemcintyre.blogspot.com. Thank you very much, Mr. McIntyre.
JOHN McINTYRE: My pleasure.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
"The Face of the Earth"
by The Dismemberment Plan