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Can you outsource this? The brainy copy editor behind the headlines

With his bow tie and eagle eye, John McIntyre is the quintessential big-city newspaper detail man.

By Richard O’MaraCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 14, 2008


Let’s pretend, for just one paragraph.

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Imagine that Walter Burns, the tyrannical managing editor from the famous play, “The Front Page,” magically materializes in the real world. While here, he gets into one of his foaming rages and sentences John McIntyre to life in the purgatory of all newspapers, that graveyard for overused reporters, the copy desk. Mr. McIntyre accepts his fate willingly, gratefully, grinningly, happily: It is what he wanted.

Now, back to reality. Burns remains a deathless character in a fictional story about newspapering. McIntyre is alive and enjoying the game that H.L. Mencken once defined as “the life of kings” – or close to it: He’s on a big-city newspaper, lord of the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun.

In 2006, Mrs. McIntyre baked her husband a cake to mark his two decades running the staff that provides the ultimate screening of the newspaper’s content, the final edit before it hits the streets and doorsteps of Baltimore. With his colleagues, McIntyre ate his cake, and he’s had it, too.

“I can’t imagine anything I would have liked more,” he says. “I love editing. I love news. I love the collegiality of copy desk work.”

Has he truly found his calling?

“Those who do not edit do not understand the keen pleasure that comes from taking up a text and leaving it tighter, clearer, and more accurate. Working against deadline provides a structure and a stimulus. And it is far from widely understood how smart and funny copy editors are as a group.”

This last sentence is intended to rebut the conventional perception people have of these journalists as undemonstrative, timorous folk who analyze and argue over the efficacies of commas and semicolons and such, and throw boring parties. McIntyre is an unequivocal man, faintly theatrical, occasionally pedantic, a touch pompous. A former colleague describes him as “the ultimate fuddy-duddy, who knows his grammar back and forth,” adding, “he dresses like a floorwalker, flower in his lapel and all. But he is respected.”

He sits comfortably in his minute office within the Sun’s immense newsroom, thinly populated these days. Lean and tall, his head of wavy white hair is seemingly attached to the rest of him by his signature bow tie. He wears suspenders. A white tea set suggests his moderate Anglophilia. The office itself bespeaks orderly management: CDs and books line shelves; muted notes of Franz Joseph Haydn drift on the air. His desk is clear — until he drops a thick pile of papers onto it, copies of the 400 postings he has made on his Baltimore Sun blog, “You Don’t Say.”

“Everything I know about language and editing is in these pages,” he says. And more: The blog is the man, a collection of his many parts.

A short posting early this month revealed McIntyre’s thoughtful embrace of globalization. Having observed that Scout, the narcoleptic family cat, is shirking his duties, probably having to do with mice, McIntyre is letting him go and outsourcing the cat’s work to India.

His filmed instructions on managing bow ties suggest fine sartorial taste, as well as his desire to teach, or to perform, or both at the same time.

Thoughtful moments bring serious topics to the blog: a eulogy for the men and women who once contributed to the miracle of production that is the daily newspaper. McIntyre shines a light on the “lost crafts,” those of proofreaders, typesetters, linotype operators – all gone now, brushed aside by a technology both irresistible and indifferent. He writes of “the ugly realities of the metropolitan newspaper” as it is today.

Though seemingly satisfied in his current surrounding, McIntyre is weighted with unpleasant recollections of earlier experiences with editors and reporters who expressed contempt for the copy desk. One described their work as “a necessary evil.” Another didn’t even know the names of the copy editors, “couldn’t have picked them out of a police lineup.” He remembers a reporter who, early in his career at the Sun, “flew into a rage and called me a liar.”

Such behaviors made clear the want of respect for those whose job is to catch the errors and smooth the wrinkles of the stories that come under their scrutiny each day.