Insert a Style Pun Here

One of the hardest things I’ve done as a copy editor is explain to non-copy editors what a stylebook is.

Last month, I was charged with updating POLITICO Pro’s rather outdated stylebook, which includes a longer general section and then smaller sections for each of its 14 verticals. It was a fun and challenging project to work for; I also view stylebook maintenance as a “rite of passage” for all career editors.

I told my parents and friends about the work project, and then set out to explain what it was I was doing. So much of it seems minute or arbitrary, and some of it is. But what matters is consistency. It doesn’t matter if we spell out the Environmental Protection Agency or not of first reference, so long as it’s the same in all of our stories. It makes for better, cleaner copy and a crisper, more consistent product.

I went through the old stylebook line by line and kept what I thought we needed and discarded anything that was outdated. I included points that I thought were important and had to come down on one side or the other for some items. It took me about two weeks of fairly consistent work, but it was finally finished.

Is it wonky? Definitely. Boring as hell to anyone who isn’t a Pro editor or producer? Probably. Is it still very important for us to produce high-quality copy? Yes.

Did I have a blast doing it? You bet.

Lose your copy editors, lose yourselves

I’m a copy editor. It’s been my jam since I passed the Dow Jones editing test way back in 2007. That test led me to my first internship, at The Indianapolis Star. And, barring my master’s work, I’ve never looked back.

I am extremely lucky to be able to make a living as an editor, and lucky to work at a place that still sees the value in keeping a dedicated copy desk. I’ve had crash courses in fracking, the Affordable Care Act, patent law, defense contracting and countless other topics. It makes me better-rounded, and every time someone thanks for me improving a story, finding a better word or correcting a potentially embarrassing error, I feel glad to have come in that day, that what I do matters.

As such I — and many other friends and colleagues in this business — was distressed to see that the number of working copy editors has fallen by about 46 percent in the past decade. By comparison, reporting positions fell by 26 percent, according to Poynter. Apparently, when newsrooms need to bust out the scissors, we’re an easy target.

However, I argue that dismissing the copy desk will in the long run exacerbate problems, not solve them — the same problems that trimming the copy desk were supposed to solve in the first place.

This Steve Myers entry on Poynter last spring sums up exactly what I mean. Myers writes about the dismissal of the Denver Post’s copy desk and the assignment of editing duties to other staffers across the newsroom. Rather than comment on this one way or the other, he simply shares a single headline from the Post: “Downward sprial continues.” Oh yes, yes it did.

What do readers think when they see a newspaper (or website, magazine, whatever) riddled with spelling, grammatical and factual errors? Reasonably, they probably assume that this newspaper is bush league, that it doesn’t care enough to get things right and that it isn’t worth the reader’s subscription dollars. Readership falls, advertising follows and before you know it, the relaxation of financial tensions caused by neglecting the copy desk starts to tighten again.

A quality news organization, no matter the medium, is one in which copy is clean, concise, factual, logical and, yes, spelled correctly. And that requires an investment in copy editors. Take care of them and they’ll take care of your product, and the rest will follow.

(A copy editor, for example, could have told Cindy Adams that Georgetown is actually in Washington, D.C., proper, and that it is no longer 1991.)

I was an intern, hear me roar

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

Words of wisdom, if from an odd source (Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight”).

As we get further into June, so begins that magical summertime stretch of Internship Season. Each year, thousands of high school and college students get experience in their industries of choice. Some get paid, some don’t.

Recently, there’s been a big to do about unpaid internships and the ethics involved in them. Seeing many of my friends go off to their own summer gigs, it got me reminiscing and thinking about my intern days.

I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my summer work. I didn’t have the time to intern the summers before and after I studied abroad, but the summer after my junior year, I earned a Dow Jones editing internship at the Indianapolis Star. A Dow is pretty much the gold standard in editing internships, and I had a great summer in Indy.

My next two internships — in the summer of 2009 after I graduated from KU and in the summer of 2010 before I came to Canterbury — were also with large, respected newspapers: the Columbus Dispatch and Kansas City Star, respectively.

I will point out two critical features that all three of my internships had in common: I did actual hands-on, deadline-based work, and I was compensated.

Apart from getting some technical help and one-on-one critiques, I was expected to do the work of anyone else on the copy desk. Often I was responsible for front-page or front-section displays, and at the Kansas City Star, I often had an entire page to put together from the dummy up. After clearing my content choices with the slot, getting it done was on me.

So it’s with some dismay that I now read stories about unpaid interns, desperate to get their feet in the door, who trudge through their summers doing mindless, menial tasks. I was trimming AP wire, editing house copy, writing headlines and cutlines and posting stories to the Web. Many of them are fetching coffee and running the Xerox machine.

I’ve noticed that journalism, particularly the magazine industry (not all magazines, certainly, but many of them), is a career path rife with unpaid and unchallenging internship work. Many outlets apparently think that working for them is enough of a reward in and of itself.

I have two serious problems with this.

The first is that not every college student can afford to go two and a half months without a paycheck. Internships often require you to pull up stakes for the summer (two of mine did). Valuable experience or not, it’s a big burden to bear, needing food, rent and living expenses with no income. This puts more affluent students at an unfair advantage, regardless of skill sets or talent. This annoys the hell out of me; I value fair play.

The second is that I think students should feel that their work is appreciated. A hard-earned paycheck is a great thing to hold in your hand. It is a clear message that your employer finds you valuable. I don’t find anything greedy about people wanting compensation for their work. I do think it’s greedy when employers use unpaid college students to do grunt work and try to explain it away as “valuable work experience.” I received valuable work experience at all three of the newspapers for which I worked; they still saw fit to pay me.

There’s evidence that the tide’s turning away from unpaid internships. Many colleges refuse to list them in career center postings, a position I enthusiastically support. More media attention is focused on them now, and there’s also some naming and shaming going on. I know some people who simply refuse to apply for them.

I think that last point is the key. As long as droves of students sign on for unpaid work — some companies even charge students to get them internships, which I frankly find kind of tasteless — the trend will continue. But if the talent pool starts drying up and students hold out for internships where they’re appreciated and compensated, maybe employers will wake up.