Charles Apple posted on his blog Saturday about a mistake in the pages of The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., a newspaper where Charles and I once worked. I was a copy editor for The N&O for most of my 24 years there — until Aug. 22, 2011, when my job was eliminated and I moved to become a copy editor in the McClatchy Publishing Center in Charlotte, which handles the copy editing and page design for The N&O, the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer and the Herald of Rock Hill, S.C., as well as about 20 weekly community papers distributed in the Raleigh and Charlotte areas.
I left the publishing center 7 1/2 months later, when I took a job as a copy editor for the magazines and newsletters group at a professional association in Durham, N.C. (This blog is a personal venture and does not reflect the views of my employer.)
Charles’s post runs down some of the mistakes that have come out of the publishing center, and he is quite strong in his criticism of McClatchy for allowing the quality of The N&O to suffer. I shared Charles’s post on my Facebook page, saying that I wanted to know what others thought. Several of my friends weighed in to agree with Charles that the mistakes are embarrassing. Some friends with no connection to the N&O posted thoughtful notes lamenting the decline of quality in newspapers.
I know from having worked in the publishing center and from hearing from others who work there now that the job of a copy editor/page designer in a hub is quite different from the job we did when we were on site and dedicated to one newspaper. In the pre-hub era, we often made mistakes, many of which we caught at the last minute because we were well-staffed with experienced, sharp editors and because we were in the press room ourselves when the paper rolled off. It’s not the same job any more when the copy editors and page designers are 170 miles away. It’s not possible for the copy editors and page designers who work in Charlotte and may never have even visited the Raleigh area to know all the things we knew because we lived in the community. The journalists in the publishing center have three daily papers to publish every night. They have to get the work done quickly.
(Aside: I also think some mistakes blamed on copy editors are, in fact, the fault of editors who are not in the publishing center. Those folks were lucky when they had copy editors watching their backs.)
I also added this comment to the Facebook thread: Thousands of words can fly by a copy editor’s eyes in a single shift, and myriad things need to be checked and checked off on pages. If I were in charge of copy editors, I would tell them to focus on the most important things (and the list would be short), and worry less about some things. And I probably would take the time to sit down one-on-one with newbies and go over copy they edited or editions they worked on until I knew that they knew what to look for. But I am glad I am not in charge of copy editors. It’s too heartbreaking to think about wasted opportunities.
Another commenter asked me what would make my short list of things editors should focus on like a laser. Below is my reply. My list is for copy editors who have to work on the fly, not for those of us who have time enough to do much, much more than this. Still, I hope this list might serve as a quick-and-dirty guide to keeping the worst mistakes out of print and offline.
Here are the things I would tell copy editors to focus on (specifically, newspaper-website copy editors, who have less time):
1. Names (people, places, companies, teams, historical events). If you only have a few minutes to check facts, check the names and other proper nouns.
2. Consistency. Make sure the names are the same throughout the story (once you’re sure of the spelling) and throughout the display type. Look twice at the captions to be sure you haven’t introduced an error.
3. Confused words. Don’t worry as much about style points and disputed usage (comprise, enormity), but do sweat the words that are easy to mix up: peak-peek, principle-principal, lay-lie (please!). Readers will notice.
4. Numbers. I don’t call for doing higher math, but make sure, for example, that millions and billions are not confused and that ages and dates match the story’s timeline.
5. Big picture. Look at all the display type and check the spellings. If you use a proper name, make sure that it’s correct and that it matches the story. Look at the ledes again! Double-check the accuracy: Do the headlines, captions and blurbs match the story? Check the graphics, especially maps. Keep a map nearby to help you tell north, south, east and west.
I would dearly love to hear from those of you who work in an editing hub. What have you found are best practices? What constructive advice do you have for copy editors and page designers who are working in those center? Please comment on this post.