Critical Thinking: Are Copy Editors Still Necessary in the Editorial Process?

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By: Nu Yang

Critical Thinking: Are Copy Editors Still Necessary in the Editorial Process?

When Vice Media put out a call for a freelance copy editor, an editor commented that from his experience, copy editors slowed down the publishing process and online audiences didn’t notice their work.  With budget and time constraints in the newsroom, are copy editors still necessary in the editorial process?

Kaitlyn Krasselt, 21, senior, University of Idaho (Moscow, Idaho)
Krasselt will earn her bachelor’s degree in journalism in May 2015. She is currently the news editor at UI’s student run newspaper The Argonaut and a reporting intern at the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune.

If there’s one thing in journalism that I’ve always been sure of, it’s that everything we do is a process and every part of that process has a purpose.

But in the changing times of journalism, those processes are being reevaluated and changed to fit the new web-first, 24-hour breaking news model of journalism. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But even with this new model, designated copy editors—that person responsible in many organizations for rereading anything and everything for AP style, grammar and factual mistakes—are an important part of everything we do.

Copy editors are silent players in the editing process. You may not notice them when they’re there, but you certainly will when they’re absent.

The work of a copy editor may not elicit comments such as “Wow, whoever copy edited this story did a fantastic job. They really know their AP style.”

But if the process lacked that key player, it would be noticeable and immediately we’d begin to hear the spears of angry reader comments bouncing off our journalism fishbowl set in the public eye. Angry readers who often feel the need to point out what they might have done better.

“Who edited this story?” “The passive voice is terrible.” And my personal favorite, “Does anyone even read this before you publish it?”

Yes, a second editor may slow down the process and maybe their process for copy editing needs to change, but that is certainly not to say copy editors should be eliminated.

Having a copy editor around to rake through a longer investigative piece or skim a breaking news story or tweet for any glaring mistakes and to ask questions someone else may have missed is worth the five extra minutes and the salary to have that person around.

A second set of eyes has never hurt a story, but a lack of them certainly has.  

Elizabeth Anderson, 43, copy editor, The Greenville (S.C.) News
Anderson has been a copy editor at The Greenville News for 12 years. She previously worked as a communications writer at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate Division and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.  

Copy editors remain a crucial part of the newsroom even as staff cuts have redefined their role. At many smaller papers, including The Greenville News, a copy editor’s duties might include posting stories online, coordinating the production of the paper with a design studio elsewhere, sometimes even laying out pages. Harried newsroom editors, themselves grappling with increased workloads, count on copy editors to ensure not just that a text is free of grammatical mistakes but that no big factual errors slip past.

Readers, whether online or print, do care very much about seeing clean, accurate copy. If we’re asking them to pay more for a subscription to the paper or to read content online, they want to know they’re getting a good product in return. A poorly edited story riddled with factual errors sends the message that no one cared enough to give it a good read, so why should the reader bother with it either? Our credibility with readers is crucial to building our audience. Taking a few extra minutes to read a story before it goes online, or holding back a detail that has raised a question, is far preferable to hearing from readers later about an error.

At many papers, copy editors also have built up a vast storehouse of knowledge about the community, the people who govern it and the history behind many of its issues. Having this background is about more than knowing the correct spellings of names for people and places. It’s also about making sure our stories get the history right.

The reality of newsroom staffing today is that copy editors have to work accurately but quickly while juggling multiple responsibilities. This means we won’t always catch everything, but we take pride in ensuring the final product is the best it can be.

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