Thursday, April 26, 2012


Lamenting the impending demise of the copy editor

by Larry Geller

My mom drilled me on spelling and grammar. So it was natural that I became copy editor of our college newspaper (and later managing editor).  Met my wife there. She was my copy staff.

Much of the “copy” we received from student reporters was really crap, and together we made it into gold. Well, into lead, anyway.

We also wrote headlines and composed the paper. Along the way I learned to operate a Linotype machine for fun, and nearly killed myself by forgetting to close the side clamps on the Ludlow headline machine before pushing the pedal to squirt the hot lead upwards into the type molds. The gusher of molten lead rising into the air was a sight to see… and that was the last time they let me play around at the print shop.

Newspapers in this country are in trouble, no doubt about it. As they shrink, it appears the copy editor’s job has become expendable. Web surfers are somewhat tolerant of errors of all sorts, so maybe this is inevitable. The older generation, those who still buy or subscribe to a paper product, may grouse as the quality deteriorates, but they will continue to buy the paper.

Now, if newspapers are really on a slow skid towards oblivion, ultimately there will be no editors or writers or journalists or photographers at all.

So just as the buggy went out of style, so did buggy whips, steel-rimmed wheels, harnesses, and all the other stuff that go into a buggy. It is not as though buggy whips were any less perfectly suited for their job, just that the job itself disappeared. In other words, you can be perfect, in fact indispensable, maybe top-of-your-class, and still end up on the scrap heap.

That’s called progress.

Quality in journalism has long been a team effort. This is changing. At a Senate hearing last month a video cameraman covered the hearing all by himself. That’s right, no reporter was in sight.

Reporters are made to become photographers or videographers. I remember giving an interview at the Honolulu Advertiser office, at the conclusion of which the reporter dragged me out to the parking lot and shot some video of me yapping in front of some bushes. He was told he needed to get video, so he did. That’s transitional stuff. At this point everyone is settled into their multiple roles. It’s part of either the new journalism or the death throes of the tradition itself.

What lies ahead? Self-edited web versions of the printed page?  In the short run, perhaps. It may depend on how fast ad-skipping software becomes popular on tablets.  On desktop PCs ad blockers have become very popular ad-ins. It’s possible to visit a newspaper’s website and see almost none of the ads that they are counting on to pay for their services. “Very popular” is still relative, of course. Only a small percentage of users even care, we have become so accustomed to being assailed with advertising. Should ad-blockers go viral on tablets, though, it will be hard to see how on-line newspapers will prosper. That may never happen, but then again, it might.

The tablet and the smartphone are disruptive technologies. In my condo, the elevators are populated with people ruining their eyesight by staring continually into their smartphone for one thing or another. For everything, actually.  Whatever they do, there’s an app for it. There could be an app for blocking ads one day. Don’t say never.

So the Poynter article linked above triggered all this in my mind. We live in remarkable times. Dishonest bankers who lost billions profit hugely while copy editors get pink slips. Go figure. I find this all quite remarkable, and because I was a copy editor, a bit unsettling.


They said it in 1995, when the NYTimes started to lose subscriptions. Why buy a paper when the Internet provided news free, 24/7 and from various sources? Again, we heard predictions in 2000 as the stockmarket soared largely on the strength of tech stocks, and net stocks (I was a stockpicking editor for an online newsletter) Then, mid decade (of this decade) we saw more of the same, with the demise of mom and pop bookstores, but they were put out of business by large warehouse booksellers like Barnes and Noble. And now we are seeing a prediction of the large bookstores being run out of town by Amazon, and Wal Mart. Well, well. It seems this prediction has been around for at least 17 years, correct?

We'd be wrong in assuming that. Just 25 or 30 years ago, NYC had tens if not hundreds of small local newspapers. Now there are what? 5 to 10. But that handful thrive well. Almost all large cities still have competing papers, and in those cities where there is only one large paper, they still do well. But even 5 to 10 dailies in NY, if not all national rags - proves the point that there has been a consolidation of papers, or we might say evolution of journalism since the creation of the printing press. Going right back to the Revolution in the 1700's this phenomena has been occurring. It is not just the Internet that has done it, but competition, mismanagement, costs, and other factors that contribute to any paper's decline.

There will always be a market for small rags, and free neighbourhood papers. When waiting in line at the restaurant to pick up an order, we can read something. They grow into larger papers. Then they get better and better and they grow. Eventually they get bought out, sell out, or run out. But there will always be a need. It might take one entire generation to get rid of printed rags.

It might also take two or three generations to get rid of printed rags, who knows? I venture to say they'll still be around for another 50 years; I've heard too too many predictions. Nobody has a crystal ball, I sure don't. But based upon the failed predictions of the past, I bet on history, which tells me they are here to stay.

I Tweet at @ProNetworkBuild

Thanks for your excellent comment.

I do see the proliferation of iPads and iPhones. I wonder what a New York or Tokyo subway car looks like these days. When I was a straphanger there were lots of papers visible. In Tokyo, standees managed to hang on to a briefcase with one hand (though due to the crush, if you let go of the handle, it wouldn't drop to the floor) and hold a folded newspaper in the other. Articles were arranged so you could read down the columns without re-folding the paper. It required some practice to do that, but not much.

Are people standing around now staring into their smartphones instead? One hand holds the phone and the thumb flicks the screen, the other hangs on to the strap. Seems like newspapers could lose market share just because of the convenience of that. If not now, one day soon perhaps.

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