Why I am still a copy editor

Perhaps the title of this post should be “Why am I still a copy editor?” Certainly, the occupation I chose years ago has been beleaguered through the years. We newspaper copy editors have always had the worst shifts, working at night and on weekends and holidays. We have always been the ones in a newsroom who must make deadline, despite how many deadlines had been missed earlier in the cycle. We have been blamed for mistakes and blamed even more vehemently for not catching mistakes. We made disgruntlement part of our jobs — just like the pica poles, proportion wheels and spikes that we used back in the old days. And the old days were always better.

Now in the past four years or so, we have been hit by the biggest challenge I have seen in my 35 years as a journalist. Print copy editors have lost jobs by the dozens, maybe hundreds. Those who have remained have been saddled with more work and continue to bear the burden of making sure that the readers get their publications on time and with as few errors as humanly possible. Watching wave after wave of buyouts and layoffs shook me right down to my core. I wondered when it would be my turn.

My turn came last summer when my employer, The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., and its owner, The McClatchy Co., decided to shut down the copy and design desks at the N&O and the Charlotte Observer, and create a central publishing center in Charlotte, which is about 170 miles southwest of Raleigh. We copy editors and designers at The N&O were told that we could take jobs in Charlotte or leave the company. Most of my colleagues chose not to pick up their lives and move. They took the company’s severance package. I chose to take a job in Charlotte and have been working at the McClatchy Publishing Center since Aug. 22. We handle the page design and copy editing for the Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer, the Herald of Rock Hill, and the community papers published by the Observer and The N&O.

Here is why I am still a copy editor for daily newspapers.

First, I needed the income and the health insurance. I am 57 years old, and I was fairly certain that if I left the newspaper I would be unemployed for a long time and might never find another professional job. This turned out to be an even more crucial reason for my remaining employed when my husband, an editor and a writer, was laid off from a job (his second layoff of this recession).

Second, I need to work. Having a job is as important to me as anything besides my family. I have worked steadily since August 1976 with only a few breaks (one was six weeks of maternity leave). Work is my faith and my inspiration. I must have a job as long as I am able. This was clear to me in the weeks and months after my son, Jake, died in 2009. Without a job, I would have crawled into a bed and pulled the covers up. My job kept me from sinking into a hole that I might never have climbed out of.

Third, I believe in copy editing. We add value to the articles that we touch — making sure that the facts are complete, that the assertions are supported and that the writing is clear enough so the facts and assertions can be understood. We are not extras. We are essential. Over the years, I have heard directly from readers when we have let them down — with sloppy grammar and usage mistakes or with egregious factual errors. I know that they didn’t call or write more often because copy editors were on the job. Copy editors catch more mistakes than they miss.

I wanted to be in the publishing center to continue to provide The N&O’s readers with a newspaper that they had grown accustomed to. With so few of my N&O colleagues going to Charlotte, I knew that my role and those of the handful of others who transferred would be more important than ever. We needed to provide continuity. I felt an obligation to the N&O readers, even if my company and the bosses in Raleigh didn’t seem to think my role was important. I felt an obligation to my colleagues at the publishing center, too. They couldn’t be expected to know everything there is to know about Raleigh and the Triangle. I can help them as they help me understand Charlotte.

Also, I wanted to see how this publishing center was going to work. I was curious and, like any journalist, I wanted to know what comes next. I still look forward to seeing the next chapter for newspapers. Sometimes it seems like a morbid curiosity, but nevertheless I keep my eyes peeled and focused.

Even now in the world where search engines choose our reading lists for us, copy editors have a role to play. They can enhance the copy for the SEO age, while still hewing to the values that have always been important: accuracy, clarity and conciseness. I am still a copy editor because I still have something to offer.

4 Responses to “Why I am still a copy editor”

  1. Jim Thomsen

    Thanks for this post, Pam. The questions remaining for me are: Are you being allowed to spend as much time and care on copy-editing Raleigh-Durham copy as you were before? And are you happy where you are, doing what you’re doing?

    A little more than a year ago, I learned that the copy desk at my daily paper, the Kitsap Sun of Bremerton, Wash., was being dissolved in favor of a copy hub similar to yours for most Scripps papers, in Corpus Christi, Texas. We were invited to apply for those jobs. After a little investigating, declining that opportunity was, for me, an easy call.

    One, as a Pacific Northwest native, I could see nothing desirable about relocating to the Mexican border. Two, the hub was in a non-union shop (the Corpus Christi Caller-Times) and I would be taking a massive pay cut, far out of proportion to the difference in the costs of living. Three, the hours stunk — to accommodate West Coast deadlines, the shifts offered ran roughly from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m.

    Four, I was given no assurance that I would be allowed to focus on Kitsap Sun copy. I’m a Kitsap County native, and I am steeped in the area’s history and context. It was one of the chief assets I brought to a paper managed and otherwise edited by non-natives.

    Five, I was given no assurance that I’d be able to spend much time at all on copy editing. It was clear that the Scripps copy hub was seen as a fast-paced assembly line with tightly staggered deadlines, and as such, the ability to troubleshoot serious story-structure problems (something I had to do every day at Kitsap) was simply not available.

    Six, the job involved page design (as in, MOSTLY page design) and I had no interest in that.

    Seven, having had the benefit of some advance notice before the changeover took place (in January of this year), I took a hard look around at alternatives uses for my writer/editor skill set and found abundant opportunities. I decided to set myself up as a copy editor of book manuscripts, purging AP style from my brain and replacing it with Chicago Manual style (not easy after 24 years in newspapering, but doable).

    By marketing myself to local writers’ groups, regional writers’ conferences, and through social media, I have a steady stream of clients, including a monthly magazine and a Boston book publisher. I worked with dozens of self-publishing authors, helping them make their dreams come true. The work is varied, interesting, and well-paying (funny to look around and see that nobody else in editing and publishing works in accordance with a newspaper’s usurious economy of scale).

    Now, less than a year in, I rarely have to do much marketing, as many of my clients are enthusiastic evangelists for my work and send their writer friends my way.

    The bottom line: We don’t have to make the kind of compromises you did to continue working as copy editors, and to continue providing service of high value for people who matter.

    But if you’re happy, and feel good about where newspaper copy editing is at, then, well … good. But to be honest, a sense of being satisfied with your new job is not something I picked up in this blog post. Am I wrong about that?

    • Pam Nelson

      Jim,

      Thank you for posting about your experience. I certainly believe that copy editors and page designers should be in the same place as the journalists whose work they edit. I didn’t think dissolving the copy desk of The N&O was a good idea at all and I still don’t. But as moves go, mine from Raleigh to Charlotte was a piece of cake compared to a move from Washington to Texas.

      I have also been fortunate in continuing to work with the same editors and writers I worked with in Raleigh. Even though I am in Charlotte, I still handle mostly copy from Raleigh. We edit a lot of stories every day, but we still have only three daily papers and a couple dozen weekly/semiweekly papers. Of course, one large consequence of the cuts in the reporting staff is that I am editing much more wire service and syndicated copy now. That is quite a change from a few years ago when Raleigh would do anything to have staff-written stories on the Features fronts. I also am not being pushed into a page design role. I do more tweaks and fixes in page design now than I did in Raleigh, but for the most part, my job is very similar. My hours have actually improved in the publishing center — at least for the time being. I know I am fortunate. My colleagues and supervisors at the publishing center have been of great help in making the transition smoother. I have congenial co-workers and understanding bosses.

      Still, I do wish I had more staff copy to edit and that I had more time to work on headlines for print. And I wish I weren’t still living in two places. My husband and I haven’t moved from the Raleigh area, and I am bunking during the work week with my parents, who live about 50 miles from Charlotte. So I have a long daily commute and a long weekend commute.

      I am heartened to hear that you have been able to establish yourself in book editing. Bravo on knowing what you needed to do and marketing yourself well. That’s very encouraging to read! I hope many more of our copy editing colleagues who want to restart their careers learn from what you have done.

      This blog is meant for anyone who edits in any form, so I welcome any examples you can send along that will help illustrate common problems. I call this The Grammar Guide, but I won’t limit myself to grammar and usage. I will write more about life in a hub as I experience it.

      Pam

  2. Chuck Small

    Hear! Hear! (Here! Here!? At any rate, way to go, Pam!) You so succinctly captured why you have made the choice you made. It sounds like one you’re content with, which is most important. To the degree that you are able to do what you’re there to do, I think you can make a difference in this brave new “Charlotte N&O” world.