Monday, June 16, 2008


In today's New York Times Opinion page is an elegy lamenting the decline of copy editors in the newspaper business and the lack of awareness about copy editors and the feats they make possible. What is it that copy editors do, you ask? Lawrence Downes sums it up:

As for what they do, here’s the short version: After news happens in the chaos and clutter of the real world, it travels through a reporter’s mind, a photographer’s eye, a notebook and camera lens, into computer files, then through multiple layers of editing. Copy editors handle the final transition to an ink-on-paper object. On the news-factory floor, they do the refining and packaging. They trim words, fix grammar, punctuation and style, write headlines and captions.

But they also do a lot more. Copy editors are the last set of eyes before yours. They are more powerful than proofreaders. They untangle twisted prose. They are surgeons, removing growths of error and irrelevance; they are minimalist chefs, straining fat. Their goal is to make sure that the day’s work of a newspaper staff becomes an object of lasting beauty and excellence once it hits the presses.

Downes's editorial goes on to observe that presses are the key to this shift: in an age where newspapers are produced through computers and the actual presses have been retired, copy editing is no longer required in the way it used to be. That doesn't mean it isn't needed:
The copy editor’s job, to the extent possible under deadline, is to slow down, think things through, do the math and ask the irritating question. His or her main creative outlet, writing clever headlines, is problematic online, because allusive wordplay doesn’t necessarily generate Google hits. And Google makes everyone an expert, so the aging copy editor’s trivia-packed brain and synonym collection seem not to count for as much anymore.
Without a need to make copy perfect before it is fixed in print (or at least that morning's edition), there's no need for a copy editor to work it over. Not only does computing speed things up, it makes changing copy easy. Look it up on Google, run it through spell-check, publish it. And if it is outdated in an hour, update it and publish it again.

When the Eliot Spitzer story was breaking, I read a piece on the NYT website about the prostitute for whom he was Client 9. The first time I read it, it had a couple of surprisingly judgmental clauses about her MySpace page and the quality of her singing. An hour later, the online article was a bit longer, but it had clearly been through an editor, and those odd clauses had been removed. If I hadn't seen the earlier version, I would never have known it existed. Unlike print editions, which did vary in some cases between the first run and a later run, and between the national edition and the New York edition, the web stories have no easily discernible way of marking how a current "edition" varies from previous ones. I'm not sure how much that bothers most users of the site. It would drive a textual scholar nuts, though. So many variants, so little time!

And this is, again, where I come back to the printing of early modern books. We are used to thinking about books as varying between different editions--the Harry Potter books on different sides of the Atlantic, for instance. But we are also used to thinking about books as being stable within one edition. We expect all books printed in the same run to have the same text. But in the early modern period, stop-press corrections were frequent: if a mistake was noticed or a change made necessary after the printer had already started printing off sheets, the press was paused, the type re-set, and the printing continued. Depending on the number of changes made during the run, every single book could be different from every other book. And there was not even a date/time-stamp to mark the changes.

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