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.