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Copy Editinng's Rapid Decline: Whom Notices?

Every week, I write two columns that appear in the print Washington Post and here online. And every week, I write five to ten pieces here on the blog on washingtonpost.com.

Each print column goes from me to the Post's Metro Editor, R.B. Brenner, who goes over it carefully and comes back to me with comments about the logic, argument, reporting and writing of the piece. After I make any needed revisions, the piece goes to the copy desk, where a copy editor combs through the column to see if it makes sense, checks facts and spellings, questions points of style and ease of reading, and writes headline and captions. A copy chief also reads the column. Often, I'll also ask several reporters who are very familiar with that day's topic to give the column a look. By the time I give the column a last check before publication, somewhere between four and twelve people will have read it and offered opinions and suggestions.

Every blog item I write goes directly from my keyboard to your computer screen. Not a single other person reads it in between. No one asks any questions, no one screens the copy pre-publication for errors or unusually foolish statements.

Here on the web site, the column and the blog look almost identical. They are promoted on the home page interchangeably. Judging by my mail from readers, most make no distinction between the two, even though in-house, we treat them as utterly separate and unrelated, even incompatible forms.

Like any blogger, I'm probably more likely to make an error here in this form than in the column, largely because speed is so much a part of the ethic and purpose of blogging. But aside from the fact that the column contains far more original reporting, the crucial difference between the two is that in the column, most errors of fact and flaws in thinking are caught by those smart editors, whereas the flaws on blog items are presented to readers, some of whom are kind enough to use the comment boards to act as unpaid editors. (Editors at washingtonpost.com do edit most Post blogs before publication; apparently, Raw Fisher and a small number of others are the exception to the rule. And editors at the web site try to spot-check blogs such as mine after publication, correcting spelling or grammar errors as they come across them.)

Sunday's column by Post ombudsman Deborah Howell lamented the drastic and rapid diminution of the ranks of copy editors at this and other American newspapers in this time of stunningly quick shrinking of the country's news infrastructure. Great copy editors are among the most impressive and brilliant talents in this industry. Unknown to the reading public, they can be wonderfully picky and even maddeningly literal, but the good ones are great quipsters, masters of the art of winnowing a complex topic into a handful of very short words. They have saved me from embarrassment, lawsuits and worse too many times to count.

Do you care? Should you care? Those who love the blog form argue that blogs are self-correcting, thanks to careful readers who jump all over any errors, enabling me to make corrections in a matter of seconds. So, are newspaper editors such as Post Managing Editor Phil Bennett right to argue that in a period of rapidly shrinking staffs, news-gathering institutions should put a premium on holding on to reporters ahead of the folks whose job it is to make our work read more smoothly, look more attractive and be that much more accurate, fair and comprehensible? (Copy editors make the arguments for their survival here.)

As a reader, it drives me nuts when I find glaring errors in books, magazines and newspapers--places where I expect a level of care and professionalism that is too often not quite met. But it's also true that as a reader, I have far lower expectations on the web. The rapid-fire, informal, user-generated nature of most of what's on the Internet has accustomed us to copy that follows few rules, embraces shortcuts that strain the bounds of comprehension, and assumes that errors will be caught and fixed by readers, rather than by those who produce the original material.

I accordingly invest far less trust and respect in much of what I read online, but the tradeoff in immediacy, excitement and novelty is one that I and most of us have been willing to make, to varying extents.

Attending a conference of bloggers, new media pioneers and old media dinosaurs not long ago, I was struck by the explosion of creativity and new forms online. But I think almost everyone at the conference was surprised to hear one account after another from online media entrepreneurs who found that many readers and advertisers would not take their work seriously until and unless the web site found a print outlet for its writing. When two Washington Post political reporters left to start Politico, the Virginia-based webzine of politics, they made certain to launch a print version as well. Similarly, a number of new community news sites all around the country have found it necessary to create a print version of their web operations, both because the business model made more sense that way and because readers somehow grant more credibility to products you could touch and keep.

Those print editions require copy editors. Readers are simply less willing to accept errors in print than they are online. Most likely, print won't always carry more authority, but for now, at least, print's credibility has managed to survive the generational shift toward electronic media.

So those of us in this declining business are kind of stuck. We want to rechannel resources from copy editing to reporting, because only by doing original, exclusive, smart reporting can we remain valuable to an ever more itinerant audience. Yet we cringe along with our readers when dumb errors creep into our stories, undermining our chief asset, our credibility.

Howell urged the Post to keep copy editing as a priority, and I don't know of any reporter who wouldn't instantly second that motion. I'd put copy-editing stars such as Joe Hillhouse (Metro), Pat Myers (Style) and Bill O'Brian (The Magazine) right up there in my pantheon of Post talents along with the renowned, prize-winning reporters and columnists (speaking of which, here's Gene Weingarten's take on the loss of copy editors). But the latter two copy editors took buyouts from the paper recently. Many other terrific copy editors remain, but the total copy editing staff has gone from 75 to 43 in the past three years, a 40 percent drop.

Newspapers in general, like most mature industries, are top-heavy. There are more levels of top editors today than there were even 20 years ago; I'd look to thin out those ranks before cutting more copy editors. This week, for example, The Post has more than 50 people at the Republican National Convention, and a good half of those people do not write stories. Can you imagine how powerfully revealing and helpful it might be to throw an extra 25 reporters at the big issues and events in the District and Montgomery, Fairfax and Prince George's counties? But nobody asked me, and in the end, it's the readers' views, not any news guy's, that will determine the future of this business and of an informed democracy.

Does any of this matter to you as readers? Do you see any difference between blogs that are lightly edited or not edited at all, and the main news product of a newspaper, which involves multiple layers of editing? Does the presence of ungrammatical sentences, wrong words, misspellings and blown facts detract from your willingness to trust what you're reading?

By Marc Fisher |  September 3, 2008; 8:35 AM ET
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Comments

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I could not agree more. I have given less crediblity to writers and to television news programs after seeing misspelled words or grammatical errors. It indicates a lack of attention to details. In the end it is the details that are important.
If you communicate with the writen word, show respect for the format and to the reader.

Posted by: Margaret Pendleton | September 3, 2008 9:17 AM

Personally, I don't see why the Post needs any copyeditors for their political stories as all the Post reporters do is to repeat the democrats' talking points. Maybe if the Post reporters weren't so mind-numbingly stupid there wouldn't be such a need for these front-line editors.

Posted by: alvint | September 3, 2008 9:39 AM

I feel for the copy editors out there. The print business is in decline and it's a shame that they will bear the layoffs.
I don't read too many blogs, mostly because I don't feel they're credible (unless they're on a well respected site, such as the Post).

Maybe the copy editors can continue to use use their unique skills online by organizing a copy editor site that bloggers can use to give their blogs a once-over before being posted!

Posted by: Anonymous | September 3, 2008 9:41 AM

The Post (like other papers) has made a BUSINESS decision to reduce copy editors as a cost-cutting measure. And, like other businesses, when the Post discovers that fewer consumers are buying its product because the quality of the paper is not what it once was or because one of the blog pieces has resulted in an embarrassing error or expensive lawsuit, the Post will make the BUSINESS decision to hire back more copy editors in an effort to correct the quality issues in the product. This action/response cycle happens in various industries that are in decline all the time.

I am surprised that the Post actually lets any of the true blog posts out into the wild without at least one other person reviewing them first. Granted it is a paper, and the assumption is that the writers have a clue, but just as a CYA measure I would want at least one other person to review them prior to posting. I would think that would add a certain air of credibility that a typical blog posting might not otherwise have.

Posted by: Bob in BBurg | September 3, 2008 9:53 AM

If you think that things like punctuation and grammar don't matter, ask a lawyer!

Posted by: Anonimmus | September 3, 2008 9:58 AM

Why not let your readers copy editor your pieces, like the Wikipedia?

Posted by: Wikifan | September 3, 2008 10:02 AM

I definitely distrust blogs that are riddled with obvious grammar and spelling errors. Often their reported information is also in error, over-generalized, or poorly worded. I'm not a fan of blogs because, basically, anyone can write one and expect others to take it at face value. There is no vetting process. Some say this means "intimacy", or "instantaneous news" or the like. We're overwhelmed with "news" and less and less is credible. The idea that because something is written for the web it "doesn't need" to be spelled properly, organized logically, or grammatically correct is simply lazy writing at its worst.

In this era when even the best educated among us make (and shrug off) daily errors in spelling and grammar, and the business community at large seems to think no one notices, copy editors should be even more valued.

Posted by: Sarah K. | September 3, 2008 10:07 AM

Trying to be cutting-edge and "Web 2.0" savvy by having a blog on a newspaper's website is not an excuse to engage in shoddy journalism or writing. A newspaper is only as good as its reputation and quality. Once you start the decline by lowering standards, it's a difficult rise to reclaim your reputation.

Wiki-journalism and blogging has its place, but not at the expense of high-quality reporting and writing.

Posted by: M Street | September 3, 2008 10:28 AM

Maybe the Post should rethink the employment of what few copy editors it has left, considering the rampant proliferation of once unheard grammatical errors. I swear if I see "women" used in place of "woman" one more time, I'm going to SCREAM.

... but such is life, right? Nothing is as it used to be, not in the nanosecond society. It seems now that as long as folks "get the gist of it," then it's okay.

Posted by: MizTeeJay | September 3, 2008 10:40 AM

It would be interesting to hear the justification of copy editors in concert with proposing ebonics to be talk in the public schools.

Posted by: DC Voter | September 3, 2008 10:48 AM

From reading the stuff that gets into print--not just newspapers and magazines, but books as well--I assumed all the copy editors had gone to the Home for Superannuated Ink-Stained Wretches.

Seriously, anything that is intended to be public communication, whether in print or on the web, should be vetted by at least one other person.

By the way, I use voice recognition software to put out my newsletter, and couldn't get along without it. But, I suspect it accounts for a lot of the howlers that make it into print.

Posted by: landlaw | September 3, 2008 11:02 AM

I realize the errors in the title of this piece are designed to see if anyone notices. Since nobody else has pointed them out, I will.

Posted by: SillyMe | September 3, 2008 11:12 AM

The key point in this column is that while the Post Co. sees its print and online editions as wholly separate, readers see them - entirely - as part of a single brand or entity. Sloppiness in the online medium reflects directly on the Post as a whole, whether or not the print muckety-mucks care to acknowledge this fact.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 3, 2008 11:13 AM

The chief role of the editor is to communicate clearly the intent of the writer. This is the dictum passed down by one of the Columbia [University] Encyclopedia's two editors, a remarkable man named Bill Bridgewater. Blogs can be appealing, even compelling, because there's an immediacy that suggests the writers' direct, personal involvement with the subject.
With non-blog writing, accuracy becomes more important. If editors were nothing but spelling czars, they'd be fairly irrelevant, but when they follow Bill’s dictum to make sure that the writer’s intent comes across clearly, they are essential, recognizing inconsistencies and unintentionally misleading statements. A classic example used by academic editors in favor of something as small as the series comma is the (theoretical) dedication: “My thanks to my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.”

Posted by: scotti | September 3, 2008 11:53 AM

"Like any blogger, I'm probably more likely to make an error here in this form than in the column, largely because speed is so much a part of the ethic and purpose of blogging."

If I were editing this article, I would question the use of "ethic" in this sentence. Perhaps you meant "ethos"?

Posted by: Copy Editor | September 3, 2008 12:22 PM

Never really noticed. FYI: When you use a certain "date" format on your posts it is a good idea to be consistent.

Example: Your post is dated "09/ 3/2008"

You should either use the leading zero for both month and day or neither. "9/3/2008" or "09/03/2008" would be acceptable.

Get your copy editor to have the IT folks work on that, OK?

Posted by: SoMD | September 4, 2008 12:03 PM

I've noticed the cutbacks in copy editing and it bugs me. Homonyms and the vernacular seem to be sore spots. I feel like I find more errors in the Sports and Metro sections than other places - stories written on tighter deadlines, I guess.

I know your business model is collapsing, but taking existing customers (fuddy-duddies who read stuff and appreciate writing) for granted in pursuit of potential n00b customers who, um, don't pay for stuff doesn't seem to be working out too well either.

Copy-editing also seems like an odd place to cut costs - it's one of the most visible and public parts of your operation. But I guess the Post assumes most people won't notice or care.

It's not the end of the world, but it makes me a little sad.

P.S. I am confident I will spot a spelling or grammatical error in this post seconds after I click the "Post" button.

Posted by: hubcap | September 4, 2008 5:25 PM

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