Sunday, February 13

Copy Editor from Hell

The New York Observer--the best damned faded-peach-colored newspaper in the five boroughs on the block where it is produced--takes up arms against the firing of New York Post copy editor Dawn Eden:
Ms. Eden, a 36-year-old copy editor and headline writer at the newspaper, knew she?d probably made a mistake by working some of her own pro-life views into an article she was copy-editing on women with cancer who were having babies through in-vitro fertilization.

Ouch. The woman is blogging at 3:00 a.m. today on the press coverage her firing--ostensibly for blogging on company time--has been getting. Let me join the chorus and say that I sure would have fired her for what she did. Commonsense Journalism gets it right:

What Eden did, to my mind, is the height of arrogance. If you think your paper isn't covering an issue fairly, is missing the nuances -- is a bunch of writhing idiots -- it's still not your job to try to deliver Ireland, or the Post, from the snakes. You don't just edit stuff into a story without going back to the writer and line editor and discussing it. (Yeah, OK, on deadline there will be times that's bent. But they ought to be damn few.) That's how we get reputations on copy desks as being hacks and butchers and arrogant SOBs.

I know writers I work with sometimes feel that way about my line-editing, and deadlines mean you sometimes have to edit things by fiat--punching up the lead is a routine task, for example--but not on the copy desk and not without at least stating your reasons.

Copy editing is an esoteric craft--it's a bit like verbal watchmaking--but if you put out a request for resumes, you'll see that a lot of people who aren't copy editors by trade will put in for the job, figuring what the hell, they aced spelling in grammar school, right? And maybe it's a foot in the door to becoming the next Terkel or Royko or Herb Caen! Those people are bound to hate their job within a week, get antsy, and start missing the important stuff. You need someone experienced there who understands the whole process the story has gone through and has every detail and nuance of contemporary publishing standards embedded in their brain so they can make the right snap decision day after day, in the middle of reading tens of thousands of words, to six 9s. The satisfaction in the job is preserving the integrity of a publication's voice over time so that the words on the page become invisible--straight-through processing of the message, you could say--and steeping yourself in the contemporary evolution of our cockamamie American English. But beware the "copy editor" whose resume proclaims them as a holy guardian of the sacred tongue of Shakespeare. I gotya Shakespeah right heah, fungoo!

The number of people well-trained in this unique and demanding job is dwindling, and so is the number of line editors with enough sense to realize that the copy desk saves their bacon day after day after day, like the leathery old platoon sargeant mentoring the lieutenant fresh from West Point. I've CE'd for a gazillion pubs in this town, and I'm telling you, the gross condescension from the whelps can really get you down--as well as the fact that your work never gets noticed until you foul up.

A Capital Idea has more, by the way. And the Observer notes this about Ms. Eden:

While at the Post, she?d won a New York State Associated Press award for her headline "Hurt in the Line of Doody" (after a toilet collapsed under a city worker taking a bathroom break).She?d had many Post headline triumphs, in fact. Remember when Bob Dylan did a commercial for Victoria?s Secret and the Post headline was "Dylan Sells Out for a Thong"? Dawn Eden. Remember the headline "Amazing Gross" when The Passion of the Christ hit No. 1 at the box office, and "Felon? Groovy" after Martha Stewart?s broker took a vacation at a spa?

Talk about your decline in standards! That thong one is good, though, you have to admit. The headline I'm proud of this week:

Swift Departure Follows Network Lag

See, an exec left his job at SWIFT at a time when the IP network he was overseeing, which recently launched, was seeing few people signing up for it. Less proud of, but willing to defend:

Turrets Syndrome

With an explanatory dek. Has to to with telephone turrets for "open outcry" trading. But see previous post on writing at a sixth grade level.


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