Take a ride in the way-back machine, and you’ll eventually arrive at a time when copy editing was solely focused on print products, from books and magazines to brochures and even those relics called newspapers. The demands of technology have moved copy editors out to pasture or into a digital era.
Copy editors are still playing the role of editorial rescuer, even as their jobs are sometimes devalued by managers looking at the bottom line. An American Society of News Editors survey released in April 2012 found that nearly one-third of copy editors employed in 2007 by U.S. newspapers no longer hold those jobs. Poynter, an institute for the advancement of journalism, noted in a 2013 report that copy editors in particular have been slammed by the cost-cutting measures undertaken to revive a struggling newspaper industry. If you think copy editors have been replaced by technology’s spell-check functions, consider the innumerable elements of good writing that can only be judged and improved by human reviewers. Just one look at a gallery of hilarious autocorrected text messages, and it’s evident that technology can even become the enemy of excellent writing.
Google, and search engines in general, provide an example of how the nuances of copy editing have shifted with technology. Editors are no longer only concerned with captivating readers through printed content, like a snazzy headline atop a killer lead paragraph. Now they must also optimize content for search engines to increase web-driven traffic. In a 2011 interview with “The Atlantic,” copy editor Matthew Crowley noted dryly that -- unlike readers -- Google doesn’t have a sense of humor. Professional editors are still out there improving copy flow, checking facts and catching potentially embarrassing typos -- like that time you tried to spell “public” and accidentally left out the “l.”
Up for Debate
Recently, some organizations have made moves toward again revising the roles that copy editors play. Publishing companies are considering putting editing back on the plates of writers or higher-level editors. Still others will argue that traditional copy editors must become more like content curators, pushing well-organized and clean content out to the web to attract readers.
This isn’t the first time copy editors have been called on to take on more duties in response to evolving technology. A report sponsored by the Knight Ohio Program for Editing and Editing Education noted that the spread of computerized pagination technologies led to newspaper copy editors taking over those functions, too. In this way, editors became responsible for both cleaning up copy and laying out the pages.
The Good Fight
Even if they are not always regarded as such, copy editors are essential to the production of online content as much as printed material. A 2012 post by the American Copy Editors Society described editors as the last, objective line of defense against “naked” content -- that is, flawed copy with misspellings, gaps in reporting and lacking compelling headlines.
Editors ask the same questions readers will and provide writers and publishers the opportunity to address those holes before printing or posting to the Web. To this end, one thing is certain: Readers and viewers notice when editors have gone missing or aren’t allowed to do their jobs well. . Research from Wayne State University tested readers’ responses to edited and unedited articles and found that the edited articles were far more likely to be deemed professional, organized, well written and of higher value than the non-edited pieces. (See ref 9)
- Poynter: Copy Editors ‘Have Been Sacrificed More Than Any Other Newsroom Category’
- The Atlantic: 'Google Doesn't Laugh': Saving Witty Headlines in the Age of SEO
- CNN: Why America Needs Copy Editors
- Poynter: Denver Post, Bay Area News Group Revamp Story Editing with Fewer Copy Editors
- Editing the Future: How Did We Get Here and Where Are We Going?
- American Copy Editors Society: Operate Without Copy Editors at Your Own Risk
- Wayne State University: Reader Perceptions of Editing Quality (PDF)
Based in Los Angeles, Monica Stevens has been a professional writer since 2005. She covers topics such as health, education, arts and culture, for a variety of local magazines and newspapers. Stevens holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism, with a concentration in film studies, from Pepperdine University.