You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

Present at the Creation

The Baltimore Sun

It was on this date twenty years ago that the fledgling American Copy Editors Society convened for its first national conference, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Godfathered by three grandees of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Bob Mong of the Dallas Morning News, Merv Aubespin of the Louisville Courier-Journal, and Gene Foreman of The Philadelphia Inquirer, the society was founded by two working editors, Pam Robinson at Newsday and Hank Glamann at the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

In the hierarchy of the American newspaper, copy editors were at the bottom, working anonymously, at night after the important people had left for the day, scorned by the reporters as comma jockeys, and disregarded by the high command. The purpose of founding the society was twofold: to raise the profile of the copy editor to the level of respect the work deserves, and to offer working editors opportunities for development of those skills.

Pushed by Pam Robinson, the deservedly nicknamed “Pambo,” as its first president, the society quickly became the preeminent place for copy editors to learn and to network. Its three-day national conferences have offered workshops on an impressive array of subjects, with the presenters generously donating their time and expertise.

At the same time, a number of major newspapers, including my own, appointed assistant managing editors to consolidate and coordinate the work of their copy desks, to establish uniform standards of performance.

I was there in Chapel Hill, experiencing for the first time the I-am-not-alone experience that marks all first-timers at ACES conferences. It was at Chapel Hill that I first presented my “Getting Back to the Word” workshop on precision in English usage, a workshop subsequently presented at dozens of conferences and publications around the United States and Canada (and often revised as I learned new things). It was at Chapel Hill that I formed friendships that have endured these two decades.

Those of us who were present at the creation will recall the exhilaration, the sense of possibilities opening up before us.

That was, of course, in the late 1990s, a high point for American newspapers. In the current century, the prospects for editing are more fraught.

As newspapers have shed their copy editors, ACES, now coyly named ACES: the Society for Editing, has adjusted to the changing environment. Under Teresa Schmedding, the current president, and the board, the society has made a number of smart moves.

As the proportion of newspaper copy editors has dwindled, ACES has welcomed freelance editors and editors working at businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies, as well as print and online editors. The training at the conferences has expanded to meet the needs of this varied population, and it is still the most impressive level of training you can get in three days.

Lexicographers such as Kory Stamper and Peter Sokolowski of Merriam-Webster and Steve Kleinedler of American Heritage are regular presenters. Linguists such as Ben Zimmer and Jonathon Owen have brought sophisticated insights into the richness and flexibility of the language. The society attracts keynote speakers of stature, such as Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan at this year’s conference in St. Petersburg, Florida.

For twenty years, and still going strong, ACES has been elevating the professionalism of editors and making the worth of editing known to the world. I was there at the beginning, and that I have played a small part in making that happen is one of the best things I have done in four decades as a working editor.

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