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Friday, July 24, 2009


Budget cuts at newspapers have led to the firing of many copy editors. With their departure comes an increase in errors. John McIntyre was let go by The Baltimore Sun after 23 years and says newspapers are foolish to fire a disproportionate number of copy editors.

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Comments [20]

Robert Knilands

Returning to stir the embers here:

I don't often read John McIntyre's site, especially now that he is out of newspapers and no longer relevant, but he has posted some amusing comments.

John and his minions really need to get together and compare notes. John claims that I do nothing at my site other than "post something, reply to it, and then reply again." Yes, John. It's called a blog. That's the way it works.

The other minions sometimes regurgitate post counts. The forum generates these numbers. The minions think it is somehow a criticism to cite a high number of posts.

Yet a new minion claims there's almost no content at the site. These criticisms don't match up.

Now if a minion were to say there's little new content, then that would be a valid criticism.

The minion also throws out the usual vague comments about the site violating unspecified "webmastering" rules. Not sure exactly what the minion is talking about, other than the fact I don't use established Web page templates or that I dare to have a functional site without bells and whistles, but this smacks of the standard newsroom nonsense where someone criticizes something with the oh-so-helpful comment of: "It didn't work for me."

John and another minion named Doug Fisher -- who has proved himself to be even more useless than John -- engage in some hypocrisy when they say I can't criticize John because I have never met him. But they have not met me, so I guess I am due the same courtesy. Ah, too late. I guess we'll leave behind that nonsense.

Suffice to say, I'm not too concerned about the blatherings of fossils like John, Doug Fisher, or Wayne C. Countryman. They failed to keep their profession relevant. Their shortcomings will be far-reaching. devastating, and evident for decades. I find it puzzling that these people, with a breathtakingly high degree of defeat, still believe they have much of substance to offer.

Aug. 19 2009 02:42 AM
Robert Knilands

"Thanks for proving my point, Troy. The American Copy Editors Society has failed to do anything to promote the merits of copy editing.

It should have been fighting to get better pay and better treatment for copy editors. Instead, it was debating whom it should exclude from its organization. It was creating pointless awards to name after washed-up fossils. It was promoting hypocritical pseudorecruiters whose main contributions were to hire morons and to destroy the effectiveness of the copy desk."

Something was unclear about that? I was nice and didn't use names, but people who have been paying attention can fill in the blanks.

ACES had years to defend its members. Instead, it fiddled while Rome burned. The organization should stop taking money from people. It should disband. Today.

Jul. 31 2009 07:21 AM
Jon from Westford, MA


Can you help me understand the specifics about what you would have liked to see done to protect copy editors? What should be done, specifically, today? Or is it too late?

I do not want to make this discussion about you or McIntyre but rather actions. Please bear this in mind when I ask what you would have done differently had you been heading the Sun's copy desk.

I look forward to a civil and detailed reply.

Jul. 30 2009 02:55 PM
Robert Knilands

I'm disappointed with copy-editing fossils who failed to protect their craft.

Jul. 29 2009 04:59 PM

Robert, your vague accusations of "spin" and your strange obsession with one man's personality and job performance lead me to think you are a disgruntled Sun reader.

Jul. 29 2009 01:16 PM
Robert Knilands

And yet, that section has been slashed to the bone. And John is gone.

Big picture, my friend. Big picture. Like many in your realm, you don't see it. Or the facts. Or the scoreboard, which shows copy editors losing big. And all because people like John McIntyre failed to defend them.

Be sure to get that T-shirt made, though. Watch out that your point doesn't tear through the top of the shirt when you pit it on.

Keep on spinning. Remember: Facts can be a dangerous thing. Maybe someday it will dawn on you that John McIntyre is no longer on the copy desk, and that he walked out a failure, with his section a smoldering ruin. All his years of blathering, parsing words, wearing bow ties, and generally acting like a pompous ass were wasted. Too bad -- it's a tragedy when bad things happen to good people.

Jul. 28 2009 09:28 PM
Troy McCullough from New York

Robert, I'm thinking of getting a T-shirt made that says "Troy McCullough epitomizes what's wrong with newsrooms." Thank you for that. That's the best laugh I've had all week. You do have a great sense of humor, whether intentional or not.

And look, I don't care in the slightest whether you are a fan of John McIntyre or not. I'm not the keeper of his fan club, and I haven't spoken directly to him in years. But my first-hand experience of working for and with him doesn't jibe with anything you've said. You can call it spin if you want, but here's what I saw first-hand:

I saw Mr. McIntyre highlight and defend the stellar work of his copy desk every day that he was on the job. He made sure top management was well aware of copy desk saves that kept the paper from being embarrassed, avoided potentially devastating lawsuits and most likely saved the job of a few reporters. He informed the bosses of which editor wrote the snappy page-one headline, he offered details on how the desk managed to make deadline on particularly challenging nights and he stood up for his editors when confronted with unwarranted criticism.

It's also curious that you mentioned a failure to fight for better pay and treatment of copy editors. During my years at The Sun, the copy desk pay scale was slightly higher than the reporter pay scale and also included differential pay for working nights and weekends.

So, again, when you say that Mr. McIntyre "did little to nothing to make sure his section was recognized for the work it did," I'm simply pointing out that such statements don't line up with the facts.

I'll have to take your word on ACES. I've never been a member and don't place a lot of stock in the value of conferences myself. But I have seen many members come back from ACES conferences energized about editing and eager to try out new ideas and, yes, promote what they do to the rest of the newsroom.

Thank you again for the hilarious "insult," Robert, whoever you are. Best of luck to you.

Jul. 28 2009 08:48 PM
Robert Knilands

Thanks for proving my point, Troy. The American Copy Editors Society has failed to do anything to promote the merits of copy editing.

It should have been fighting to get better pay and better treatment for copy editors. Instead, it was debating whom it should exclude from its organization. It was creating pointless awards to name after washed-up fossils. It was promoting hypocritical pseudorecruiters whose main contributions were to hire morons and to destroy the effectiveness of the copy desk.

People like Troy McCullough and Jill epitomize what's wrong with the newsrooms. Instead of providing facts, they offer pointless "spins" on the information.

Copy editors needed to put down the "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves" and the Strunk & White manuals. They needed to leave behind the treatises of the blowhards like Bill Walsh and John McIntyre. They needed to grow a spine and some guts.

They did none of these things. They have been defeated. Hate to break this, but John McIntyre is no longer a copy editor at a daily newspaper. His credibility is crumbling.

Jul. 28 2009 05:26 PM

Lee Emerson: It should have been "luxuriant".

Jul. 28 2009 01:12 PM
Lee Emerson from Palm Springs CA

OK, I'll bite: please parse "woman with luxurious hair" for the error. Is this because someone really thinks a writer wanted to use "lustrous," which would get you strange looks at any beauty parlor? Or is it something else?

Jul. 28 2009 12:59 PM
Troy McCullough from New York

Robert Knilands claims, among other things, that John McIntyre "did little to nothing to make sure his section was recognized for the work it did. Instead, he ran around parsing words."


During my days on Mr. McIntyre's copy desk and later in various other editing positions at The Baltimore Sun, I watched Mr. McIntyre serve as a tireless advocate of copy editing. He worked every day to educate the rest of the newsroom -- from the top management on down -- on the value of the desk and the abilities of its editors.

Outside of the newsroom, Mr. McIntyre teaches editing to college students, runs a highly successful language and copy editing blog, and is the former president of the American Copy Editors Society, an organization whose mission, in part, is to promote the merits of copy editing.

Jul. 27 2009 08:18 PM
mike from Seattle

While I find Mr. Knilands's blame-the-victim attitude a little extreme, I do agree that the work of copy editors is visible to others primarily when it hasn't been done. As a class, copy editing is something like traffic management or wedding planning, where people tend to assume that a smooth outcome somehow just happens, and have wrathful things to say when it doesn't. As Mr. McIntyre has said in the past, it doesn't matter how hard copy editors work or how competent they are, readers don't care when they find an error.

In my experience, you can convince others of the value of copy editing, but you do this one writer at a time, by providing convincing and credible before-and-after text. The less a writer has experienced this personally, the less likely they are (again, in my experience) to value the work done by an editor. Everyone thinks writing is easier than it really is; the exception is editors, who know.

Jul. 27 2009 05:44 PM
Forrest Brown from Atlanta

Back in the 1990s, you had guaranteed employment if you were a good copy editor and were willing to do the work. Boy have times changed.

I can't speak to the specifics of what happened at The Baltimore Sun, but it sounds like the same story, more or less, at almost every newspaper.

As a long-time copy editor, I did notice a certain amount of reluctance on the part of individual copy editors and copy desks as a whole at self-promotion. The same assertive behaviors admired in a reporter or a metro editor were often frowned upon in a copy editor. That self-effacing, under-the-radar approach -- even within their own newsrooms -- probably didn't help any when budget axes came aswingin'.

At the same time, I'm not sure that even a copy desk that excelled at the proper amount of self-promotion could have withstood the financial forces at work in the past two years.

The bottom line: Newspaper copy desks seemed to have taken more than their fair share of the hits.

Jul. 27 2009 04:43 PM
Dave Thackeray from Southport, UK

I regularly fly into a mild rage stimulated by gaffes in the local newspaper industry here in the UK. The frustration is exacerbated by the apparent growth of stress levels in the newsroom.
As a journalist past and present-day content consultant I still have plenty of reporter and editor friends who ply their stock in trade round-the-clock in an increasingly desperate bid to resist immolation in the face of heightening pressures from all sides.
We all know the brutal truth about the newspaper industry; we all love to hear the very latest gossip, using any channels necessary to feed our incurable hunger. The fall in copy standards is symptomatic of the way news is effected upon us.
My reason for jumping ship was triggered by one read too many of Lynne Truss' defining work 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves'. I no longer unpick the English language for kicks since newspapers always beat me to it and make a far bigger hash of the Queen's own lexicon than one educated pedant ever could.

Jul. 27 2009 03:52 PM
Jim Gerweck from Connecticut

I was fortunate to work with some great copy editors during my formative years as a journalist. It's sad the current generation won't have the same benefit. Of course, with the ascension of blogs and other online media, coupled with the "dumbing down" of grammar in the public school system (obviously not included in NCLB testing) I wonder if anyone except us old fogeys will notice.

Jul. 27 2009 12:47 PM
john k

For an interesting recent example of mistakes no longer caught by copy editors, see the NY Times appraisal of Walter Cronkite: (correction note at end).

Jul. 27 2009 01:30 AM

The most skillful and effective copy editors I know don't really get too concerned about being recognized. The job requires you to put aside your ego, and if you can't do that then your job performance takes a hit.

If somebody told me I was "everything the corporate world did not want in a newsroom," I would be genuinely very flattered. Sounds to me like a man who was great at his job!

Jul. 26 2009 04:23 PM
Robert Knilands

John McIntyre is largely to blame for the demise. He did little to nothing to make sure his section was recognized for the work it did. Instead, he ran around parsing words. He was the epitome of everything the corporate world did not want in a newsroom.

He wants to blame everyone but himself. In the end, though, he needs to look no farther than the mirror.

Jul. 26 2009 01:35 PM

Thanks for this excellent piece, OTM. It's a fascinating angle on the economics of print newsmedia.

However, I would have appreciated very much to hear what lies beneath the handwringing over typos and misused words. John McIntyre's first remarks in this piece make mention of cases of "potential libel", "plagiarism" and "falsification" that copy editors prevented. I don't doubt Mr. McIntyre's account, but these examples seem to me worth discussion.

Obviously this story is about much more than a trend towards less than ideal grammatical presentation of journalistic reporting: there are, as McIntyre claims, actual failures of news coverage itself that are at stake here. But the OTM story never actually touched on those stakes are with any specificity. In failing to do so, I fear that OTM may have done as much to perpetuate as to dispel the notion that copy editors are merely spell checkers who could be replaced by smarter software in this piece.

Please do revisit this subject from time to time. I for one would love to hear more about how copy editors are more than just defenders against split infinitives and hanging participles, but significant contributors to accuracy in journalism.

Jul. 26 2009 01:14 PM
Richard Johnston from Upper West Side

The results of this phenomenon are so painfully evident every day. I have begun whether there are any copy editors left.

Jul. 25 2009 07:49 PM

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