Copy Editors Getting Thrown Under the Bus

Bad news: another media job appears to be getting cut in the name of “efficiency,” (i.e., maximizing profits while slashing costs). It’s the one position that many of us felt was safe: copy editor. While more and more publications (both online and print) have found the golden ticket to cost-cutting by simply refusing to pay writers, one would think that copy editors – those underappreciated nerds who make all that hastily-written copy look more or less “professional” – would remain viable. One would be wrong.

Poynter points out that copy editors “have been sacrificed more than any other newsroom category,” so that since 2002, across the nation, roughly half of all copy editors working for daily newspapers have been fired. Apparently the trend is to shift the work to the “content-generating level” (i.e., the writers), as the Denver Post has done. Besides the obvious question – how many writers can treat their stories with the same clear-eyed attention to detail that a professional editor can? – there’s the fact that what this does is dump more work on writers, without, it can safely be assumed, any increase in pay.

The latest dust-up over this trend is playing out over Vice Media looking to hire a copy editor. First, Abraham Hyatt weighed in with a pretty straightforward blog post: “Whatever You Do, Vice, Don’t Hire That Copyeditor.” His reasoning is that when ReadWrite.com started putting all its stories through copy editors, the turnaround time on those stories “slowed the publishing process to a screeching near-halt.” The site’s traffic, predictably, plummeted. Yet if you read the post carefully, he writes that he hired only two copy editors for a site that posts more than 20 stories a day, “many of which were published within 30 mins [sic] of news breaking.” I’m no “math-magician,” but doesn’t that mean that each of those two editors had to go through ten or more stories a day, at 30 minutes or less per story? Can you say “unrealistic”?

Enter the American Copy Editors Society. They refute Hyatt’s anecdotal evidence that readers don’t notice what editors do with actual facts: a study showing that when given edited and non-edited stories, readers scored the edited stories higher on one or more criteria such as professionalism, writing quality, organization and value. While traffic may have plummeted because of the drastic slow-down of posts to ReadWrite.com’s site, how are we to know the number of people who came to the site once, spotted some glaring errors in a story, and simply never returned? There have been numerous times that I’ve visited websites with interesting headlines, only to be turned off by sloppy writing (perfect example here).

Finally, I would like to add one more comment to the mix: one of the things copy editors do is check the facts in stories. All it takes is one expensive libel suit to destroy a fledgling media company; maybe Vice and other news organizations should factor that into their cost-benefit analysis.

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