Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Copy editors

Brian Cathcart on the dying breed of copy editors:

You might have read about the Newseum, the $450m (£251m) museum dedicated to news and journalism that opened in Washington, DC this spring. Well, a chap from the New York Times paid a visit and asked at the front desk where he would find exhibits on copy editing - or sub-editing, as it is known on this side of the Atlantic. After a little discussion he was referred to the history section.

It should be no surprise. For as long as I have known newspapers, and probably for much longer, people have been trying to consign sub-editors to history, and the Express titles have become the latest in line, having decided to make most of their subs redundant....

The medium for news is words, and words are tricky things. An editor I once knew used to say that even the best writers, working to a daily newspaper schedule, made a mistake in spelling, grammar, style or fact at least every 500 words. Further down the scale of writing ability - and remember that some brilliant reporters are poor writers - errors were far more common....

Do not be fooled, by the way, into thinking that all this has something to do with the challenges of online and 24-hour production, and that the defenders of subs are mere Luddites. Speed - measured in minutes and seconds - has been important in news for at least a century and a half.

But no less important, then and now, are accuracy and clarity. News that is not accurate or clear is not just of lesser value; it is almost worthless. And to achieve accuracy and clarity you need a second pair of eyes every time, and even a third pair. Those eyes are the subs' eyes....


Brian Cathcart is a professor of journalism at Kingston University. His article in the New Statesman can be read here.