There once were giants on the copy desk

As copy desks gradually pass into history at the hands of sharp-pencil corporate functionaries who do not believe in editing, let us spare a moment to rescue from You Don’t Say’s archives a handful of the heroic moments of the craft.


 On an otherwise uneventful evening in May 1982, the copy desk at The Cincinnati Enquirer was at work on the first edition. Webb Matthews was following the wire services.

Webb was the sort of polymath who crops up on copy desks. He knew more about U.S. vice presidents (and had stronger opinions about them) than any man ought to. He was writing, in his free time, a verse drama in heroic couplets after the manner of Dryden.

 As wire editor, Webb was monitoring the incoming news from the wire services to which The Enquirer subscribed, alerting editors on the news desk to updates and breaking news.

 An announcement came from the Associated Press that Hugh Beaumont, who played Ward Cleaver for 235 episodes of Leave It to Beaver, had died. Webb sang out, his voice carrying through the newsroom:

 “June, I’m dead!”


This occurred at a metropolitan daily newspaper. The figures involved, a columnist, a managing editor and a copy desk slotman, are still alive, so their identities are concealed.
The central figure of this burlesque is the columnist, who does not speak. Call him Plodder. He is the marquee local columnist, and he is famously lazy. You probably know the kind of column: inconsequential bits stuck together with ellipses and spit. The kind of column that includes funny bumper stickers readers have seen. The kind of column that has Departments Of. (When Plodder’s Department of Names That Match their Occupations included a urologist named Leake, the managing editor killed the item.)

Scene: The newsroom of one of America's newspapers. The copy desk slotman, at the center of the U-shaped copy desk, is preoccupied with getting copy typeset for the first edition. The managing editor approaches from behind, trailed by the pre-eminent local columnist.

M.E.: I hate to interrupt, but we have a problem.
SLOTMAN (not looking up from his work): What is it?
M.E.: We’ve lost the Plodder column.
SLOTMAN (still not looking up): What do you mean?
M.E.: I mean it’s gone. I can’t find it in the system. Tech support can’t find it. It’s been obliterated somehow.
SLOTMAN (shrugging, his eyes on the copy): Well, what does the copy desk have to go with it?
M.E. (grinning at his own wit): Well, I thought we’d have one of the copy editors write a Plodder column.
SLOTMAN: Can’t do it.
M.E.: Why not?
SLOTMAN: We don’t have anybody dumb enough.

Plodder turns on his heel and stalks away. Curtain.


John Scholz, who distinguished himself on the copy desks of the Courier-Journal in Louisville and the Washington Star before coming to The Evening Sun, was the kind of copy editor who got into tussles with the assigning editors.
Returning one evening from a prolonged set-to over at the business desk — more than a rhubarb but less than a donnybrook — he announced triumphantly:
“They have agreed to forgive me for being right.”

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