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.)

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Paresh Jha debacle is a teachable moment for editors

There are probably three hard-and-fast rules when reporting the news: Keep your personal opinion out of it, don’t steal another person’s work and don’t make things up.

Paresh Jha, a reporter for the New Canaan News, in Connecticut, apparently didn’t adhere to that third rule and paid for it with his job. Craig Silverman, who writes the “Regret the Error” blog for Poynter, has done a great job with following the story as it develops. As of today, Silverman says at least 25 stories of Jha’s have been scrubbed from the paper’s website and there may be more to come.

Many of Jha’s stories feature people with odd names who are unlisted on Facebook and the white pages, teenagers who are just a little too eloquent and sources who are just a little too convenient for the nature of the story. Eventually, when Jha’s stories were put under the microscope — as they should have been before they even ran — they failed to pass muster. Cue sacking.

Much of the focus is on the reporting craft, with this episode used as a morality tale to scare cub reporters away from cutting corners. But I’d say that it actually offers more of a lesson to editors and fact-checkers. Namely, check everything. Ask questions. Verify sources’ identities. Based on the falsehoods that have been pointed out, most of these stories would have been undone by a 5-second Facebook, Google or phonebook check. Benefit of the doubt goes only so far. If something looks too pithy to be true — a driving instructor with the surname Retrede, really? — look into it. Hell, look into it anyway.

This incident isn’t just a reporting breakdown; it’s a failure of the entire editorial process. It shows why papers and news outlets should invest in quality fact-checkers and copy desks (there’s some rumbling that the staff was simply too undermanned), and it exposes the weakness in just taking someone’s word for it.