Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ode to a copy editor

Monday's New York Times editorial page included a piece by Lawrence Downes, In a Changing World of News, an Elegy for Copy Editors.
Downes' ode to copy editors included this:
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.

Reading those words early Monday morning, one name came to mind: Alan Cochrum, a copy editor at the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram, at least he will be until Friday. According to an e-mail he sent me this morning, Alan is a victim of recent cuts at the McClatchy Newspaper chain, which owns the Star-Telegram.
I worked with Alan several years at the Fort Worth newspaper. He was exacting about prose, searching out and destroying poorly written copy. The old joke about copy editors is that they tend to pose revelatory questions like, "Does anal retentive have a hyphen?" Yep, that's Alan.
But he often saved the newspaper from embarrassing mistakes. He once caught a guest columnist (who would later become a Bush administration political appointee - naturally) plagiarizing a little-known passage by C.S. Lewis. Commas, and their placement, were very important to Alan. He took the job of guarding over newspaper copy (read: stories) very seriously. He took it to a level that often frustrated the rest of us, even those who love the language and its proper usage. Still, it's a valuable service. One done with equal fervor by many hard-working journalists here at The Star.
The Times' Downes concluded Monday:
As newspapers lose money and readers, they have been shedding great swaths of expensive expertise. They have been forced to shrink or eliminate the multiply redundant levels of editing that distinguish their kind of journalism from what you find on TV, radio and much of the Web. Copy editors are being bought out or forced out; they are dying and not being replaced.

With the news of Alan's pending departure from the newspaper he worked at for 20 years, that passage has more poignancy Tuesday than it did Monday.