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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.

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Having been at this game for 28 years, at the Sun and earlier at the Cincinnati Enquirer, McIntyre says he understands the dynamic that separates copy editors from reporters and from managers who used to be reporters.

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“Nobody likes to be edited,” he says. “People understand that when they see a copy editor approach, it’s not good news.”

This disrespect, he believes, flows from the ignorance among many reporters of what copy editors do: They correct grammar and spelling; they check facts to assure accuracy; they may even clarify the reporter’s prose, frequently shot through with mistakes owing to the pressure of deadlines. They caution unappreciative writing colleagues who are moving toward the edge of libel or slander.

“The most important question a copy editor can raise to a reporter,” says McIntyre, “is, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ ”

Which is not to suggest that copy editors are infallible. McIntyre’s desk once allowed a map to get into the paper that labeled the Pacific Ocean as the Atlantic, and vice versa.

This old schism within the newsroom has produced more than its share of bent perceptions: Copy editors are introverts, nerdy, self-effacing bookworms, though probably a little more contemplative than reporters. They are abrupt, ambitious, maybe even impulsively desperate for attention. As with most hoary presumptions and stereotypes, this one holds some truth.

McIntyre believes that relations have improved in recent years: “The open scorn is a thing of the past.” But there are broader concerns. His craft, and those who practice it, “are imperiled by shortsighted cost cutting and ignorance [that word again] of its value.”

With print journalism in decline and newspapers desperate to reduce staff, copy editors worry, and with reason. McIntyre has 39 copy editors beneath him. Eight years ago he had 58. Currently the Sun is processing the early retirement or layoffs of about 100 employees. Half are likely to disappear from the newsroom.

Signs that copy editors may be going the way of uniformed elevator operators abound. The Orange County Register, in California, is outsourcing some of its copy editing to India. The New York Times noted recently that Washington’s new shrine to journalism, the Newseum, is without an exhibit on copy editing and its role in American newspaper history.

Having foreseen some of this, and also to find a way to deal with what many copy editors see as discrimination against their cohort, McIntyre helped establish The American Copy Editors Society in 1997, a national group that gives voice to people who do this vital but unsung work. He has served as its president twice. He teaches copy editing at Loyola College in Maryland, even though few of his students express interest in print journalism. He gives workshops and writes about the danger inherent in the diminution of this valuable craft and the consequences – not only for newspapers, but for book publishers as well.

Obviously, McIntyre’s expectations for the future of newspapers are not bright and grand. Whose are? He is uncertain as to whether they will disappear entirely or evolve into some sort of shrunken paper product or electronic news medium. But if they do, “we will still need journalists to gather information. We will still need editors to shape it.”
Which is to say, the “life of kings” may endure here and there, in some form or another.

This should not be taken as a Panglossian prediction that all will come out well in the end: “Hundreds of journalists’ jobs are being eliminated throughout the country, and nobody can say when we will touch bottom,” McIntyre says.

This story does not have a happy ending, nor the opposite, because this story has not reached its denouement. “I think about it a lot. It is the shakiest of situations,” says the king of the copy desk, who then reveals some shakiness of his own, having just borrowed on the very day of this interview a staggering amount of money for his son’s university education.

And what will the boy do? He wants to be – a journalist? A food writer.