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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: As copy editors are cut, accuracy declines

By Jake Sherlock
January 22, 2010 | 1:13 p.m. CST

Everybody needs an editor. Including the copy editors.

All it takes is one errant keystroke to turn “public” into “pubic” or “compliment” into “complement.” A harried reporter can write “affect” when he or she means “effect,” or mistakenly use “Capitol” to describe Jefferson City when the correct term is “capital.” (Capitol is the building by the river where our state lawmakers work).


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At most newspapers, copy editors are responsible for every word that appears in print outside of advertisements. Newspaper Web sites have a little more variation to them, but ultimately a good portion of the daily report was seen by a copy editor at some point along the way.

Copy editors catch spelling and grammar mistakes. They fact-check stories. They write the headlines. They edit photo captions and make sure the right caption runs with the right photo. They post stories to the Web. They design and proofread pages. Sometimes, they put on the reporter hat and run out to cover breaking news.

Needless to say, it’s a lot more than just sitting around with a red pen and circling errors. Copy editors are the quality-control department for the newspaper. Without them, you get errors like this: “Rawlings-Blake says her bill will seek to heighte public trus’

That error appeared in Thursday’s Baltimore Sun. On the front page. On a story the Sun deemed worthy enough to label an exclusive.

An error like that does little to heighten public trust in the Sun.

The Sun is just one of several newspapers to lay off copy editors during these tough financial times. After posting a link about the error on Facebook and Twitter, I received several replies from recent MU graduates who have lost their editing jobs, as well as a few notes from working editors who are being asked to do more with less.

Sallie Hickle Story, who graduated from MU with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in December 2007, falls into both categories. She was laid off from her first job out of college after only a few months. After spending time outside of journalism, she landed a job at the Belleville News-Democrat in Belleville, Ill., back in September. She’s already had one layoff scare, but fortunately for Story another editor took a buyout.

That left seven editors/designers to produce a daily 50,000-circulation paper that publishes seven days per week. With vacations and days off, that can leave as few as three people on the copy desk to produce and edit the entire paper.

“Luckily, we’ve been able to avoid any major errors while I’ve been on the desk,” Story said. “However, I don’t feel like my daily work is an indicator of my skill level as an editor/designer anymore, because I can’t fully concentrate on my efforts.”

Like Story, Kate Rainey is a MU alum and a former copy editor and designer for the Missourian. After earning her master’s degree in May 2008, Rainey went to work for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. When Hearst, the Post-Intelligencer’s parent company, shut the paper down, it kept a handful of reporters, photographers and online staffers around to continue operating It’s an experiment to see if the newspaper can make a profitable transition to a Web-only product.

Rainey lost her job, but fortunately she landed another editing gig with a Web startup, She still gets to do some editing, but the scope of her duties has widened considerably. Now she’s also a writer and assigning editor. She cleans up HTML code and comes up with keywords for articles to make them more searchable.

“There’s a good variety, and I feel really lucky to have a job that’s still related to what I used to do,” she says.

The Post-Intelligencer, meanwhile, doesn't produce the kind of work it did before the copy desk was cut, Rainey says.  Spelling errors, awkward language and grammar errors are just a few of the problems she notices. One example that stands out in her mind: A story once made reference to the “Seattle Pubic Utilities.”

“They have talented staffers, but there are just too few of them to have anything like the scope of coverage that they used to,” Rainey says. “I don’t mean to badmouth anyone there because they are still doing some excellent work, but there aren’t enough people to make the most of what they have.”

Rainey added that while it’s tough out there for journalists in general right now, copy editors have been hit extra hard because “it’s not recognized as having real value.”

What do you think about the value of copy editing? When you find a news report – be it traditional media, bloggers, citizen journalists or anyone else wearing a reporter’s hat – riddled with spelling and grammar errors, does it erode your trust in the report? How many errors can you tolerate before you turn to another source to get your news?