The evolution of the “copy editor”: From a 1923 definition to today

The evolution of the “copy editor”: From a 1923 definition to today

June 25, 2018 By Merrill Perlman Resources
Merrill Perlman

ACES rebranded itself last year to acknowledge that for so many of its members, the old name, the American Copy Editors Society, was meaningless. Many of their titles don’t include “copy editor”; many don’t include either word.

I grew up in a newspaper world, as a newspaper copy editor, and the basics of the job over my 34-year newspaper career remained virtually unchanged from this description in a 1923 book, “Newspaper Writing and Editing”: “The good copy-reader must be able to catch instantly, and correct quickly, errors of all kinds. … He must be able to detect and correct errors of fact” and “should be able to pass intelligent judgment on the accuracy of stories.” (It was a man’s world back then.)

Sure, I had to occasionally design pages, and I had to go from hot type to cold type to computers, but my basic job was the same: find and correct errors, and exercise news judgment. That we graduated from being called “copy-readers” to “copy editors” acknowledged that second part.

Here’s a job posting from the newspaper where I first worked as a professional copy editor: “The Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale, Illinois, is looking for a creative and passionate part-time copy editor to edit local, wire and sports copy; write headlines and package stories; coordinate page design with our regional design desk; and fine-tune content for digital audiences. …The ideal candidate will have a keen eye for grammar and punctuation and an ability to produce compelling pages in conjunction with our regional design center. Experience with SEO headline techniques and social media is required.”

That sounds like my old job, with a helluva lot more work to do.

Newspaper copy editors like to complain: bad hours, no respect, the pizza is gone before we arrive. But the job was considered so crucial that, when ACES was planning its second conference in 1998, employers said they would send none of their copy editors if the conference included a job fair. (Who needs a job fair? For half a dozen years, The New York Times, where I worked, sent a recruiter to the conference looking for good candidates. We found a lot.)

I was director of copy desks at The Times when I left in 2008, and neither that title nor the job of “copy editor” exists at The Times these days. (Strictly speaking, there was no title “copy editor,” as the Guild classification was “staff editor.”) When the standalone copy desk was eliminated, the executive editor, Dean Baquet, said the system “was designed generations ago for the rhythms of print alone.”

Copy desks at The Times were replaced with what it calls a “strong editor” system, combining the assigning/first-edit level with the copy editing level. The internal description for that position began with the attention to detail, accuracy, fact checking, etc. of “traditional” copy editing, but adds: “Ability and judgment in conceptualizing stories and story lines” and “Adaptability to new modes of storytelling as they evolve.” Most traditional copy editors wouldn’t be allowed near those duties.

But The Times still has a system designed for print alone. An internal posting for a senior staff editor on the “features print hub” begins with the responsibility of “Ensuring the newspaper remains of the highest quality,” followed by “Writing superior headlines and other display type, understanding the presentation qualities of a print page and being capable of smart and efficient copy trims on deadline”; “Exhibiting solid news judgment and editing to the style, standards and ethics of The Times.” Sounds just like 1923, right?


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