The test of our mettle

These are evil days.

You civilians can listen in, but this post is mainly for others in the business.

A colleague I’ve known for years writes that the copy desk at his paper is undergoing yet another staff reduction, which will leave it down 65 percent from a couple of years ago. It appears that proofing has been virtually abandoned, and even slotting is diminished. Pages are going straight from a rim editor to print.

The traditional tripartite checking on copy desks — the article given a first edit by a copy editor on the rim, checked by an editor in the slot, read in proof by a third copy editor — isn’t featherbedding. Errors get caught at every stage, often small but sometimes substantial. On a recent evening, two copy editors, reading page proof as edition deadline neared, identified a problem with a lead paragraph that overstated the conclusion of the article. It was a paragraph that had gone under my hands in the slot. We got it fixed in time for publication because of that final stage of proofing.

Newspapers everywhere are under pressure from falling circulation and declining revenue, and I don’t mean that the copy desk should be immune to the contractions the rest of the newsroom is experiencing. But cutting back too far on the editing will not serve the business well. Multiplication of errors will not increase readers’ confidence or boost circulation. If slack or hurried editing leads to lawsuits, where then are the savings from staff reductions?

But I’m not here to whine. Newspapers brought it on themselves by being complacent and slow to innovate. And if copy desks are to continue to function, to enhance accuracy and clarity in publications, both electronic and print, then copy editors will have to push for maintaining the importance of editing.

Here’s one possibility. Since much of our work is invisible (the correction of errors) or anonymous (the writing of headlines), I’ve asked all The Sun’s copy editors to send me a note each week with a couple of their best catches and headlines. I compile those lists each month and make sure that my masters are aware of what the copy desk does for the paper.

You, too, can do that. Present the bosses with specific examples of how the copy desk protects them from errors, corrections and lawsuits. Put them on the spot; ask what level of error in the published editions they are willing to tolerate. Show them the connection between adequate staffing of the desk for Web site and print edition and the integrity of the product.

I’m not giddily optimistic. Managers of newspapers have always tolerated quite a bit of shoddy work. But if we respect our own work, it is worth fighting for.

Montaigne says that “the name of virtue presupposes difficulty and contrast, and that it cannot be exercised without opposition.” It was easy for journalists to look good when the business was flush. Now that we are in trouble, it will be a struggle to uphold the values we preach. But giving in would be ignoble.

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