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What Exactly Is a Copy Editor?
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How a Copy Desk Works

S
tories come to the copy desk after a first edit -- the "substantive," or "content," edit, by an "assignment," or "originating," editor. At most any daily, this means local copy is edited by a city or metro editor or one of that editor's deputies or assistants. National and international copy follows the same path at the very large dailies, but at smaller papers most of that copy is pulled from the wire by a "wire editor" on the copy desk.

I can think of three basic methods of handling copy once it gets to the desk.

  • The traditional method is to have someone (normally the "slot" -- the chief or acting chief -- but sometimes this job is a specialty unto itself) grab stories and parcel them out to rank-and-file copy editors (the "rim" editors).

  • A method I've had some success with is to make this a self-regulating system: The rim editors watch the "in" basket (normally these days this is an electronic file, queue, folder -- whatever you want to call it) and jump on stories as they're "up." This makes for more efficient flow, but it also intensifies the workload inequity between the faster people and the slower people.

  • At some papers, copy editors are given entire pages to deal with. That is, instead of taking stories at random, or possibly being assigned a variety of stories for a variety of pages, the editor gets a page layout (that editor might even be the one to devise and sketch that layout) and handles all stories on that page as they come in. Of course, this method could be fraught with peril if the two or three last stories to come in are all stories from Page 7, or whatever.

    At some point, the rim editor needs to learn what size of headline the story will get; whether the story needs to be trimmed (or sometimes padded out); and what, if any, other chores will come with the story. If there are photos, there will be captions to be written (in rare cases, this chore rests with the photo desk). There might be a graphic to edit, or at least proofread. And padding out a story might mean pulling out a quote or an interesting passage and setting it in larger, "display" type. In addition, at some papers, the rim editor might have the time-consuming task of working with an elaborate set of electronic formatting codes and making precise trims to "fit" the story -- either for full pagination (the newspaper equivalent of desktop publishing, where type is set a page at a time instead of a story at a time) or for area formatting (partial pagination, in which stories are typeset one at a time but come out exactly as they appear on the page, as opposed to the traditional long strip of type that then must be pieced together by "printers" with X-Acto knives).

    The headline and other "specs" are up to the layout person, or "page designer." Layout is traditionally the job of the (misnamed) news desk, where the news editor or one of that editor's deputies or assistants handles the design, and sometimes the news judgment behind it. These days, especially at newspapers using pagination, there often is a "design desk" tasked with layout. Or sometimes, especially on less-important "inside" pages or on sections other than the main news section (editorial, sports, business), a rim editor does the layout. A word about the news editor: Often, but not always, the copy desk is a subset of the news desk, meaning the news editor outranks the copy desk chief. Sometimes there is no copy desk chief -- the news editor plays that role.

    The instructions and possibly coding for all of the above might be indicated on the paper "dummy" (the sketch of the page layout) for the rim editor to transfer to the story itself, or these instructions and codes might be put on the story by the layout person. Note that this can happen at various stages of the process. A story might move early enough that it can be edited on the rim and reviewed by the slot before it is coded up and fitted with a headline -- which again must be cleared by the slot. A story that moves later, or moves on a busy day, might get coded up after the rim sees it but before the slot sees it, meaning the story and hed are slotted together. Or, in a tighter deadline situation, the story might be outfitted with coding before anybody starts editing it.

    The slot is usually the copy desk chief. Sometimes there's a formal deputy chief and/or assistant chief(s) (deputy outranks assistant); in other cases, certain rim editors are called upon to fill in as needed in the slot. Some places, I'm sure, all rim editors are considered qualified for this duty. Sometimes only one editor is in the slot, but often there are two or three reviewing and setting copy. And sometimes there's just one slot but that slot might call on a rim editor to step in and slot a story or two if it's getting late. Depending on the paper (and the time available), slotting might consist of a thorough re-read of the story as well as a review, and often rewrite, of the headline. In other cases, the slot reviews only the headline and maybe the lede before hitting the "typeset" key.

    The slot is generally considered the last line of defense, but usually there's one more set of editorial eyes on the story: the makeup editor. This can be a confusing term ("makeup" means "layout" to some people), but it means the editor who oversees the production process in the composing room or the "backshop" -- if there is one (pagination tends to eliminate this step). At newspapers with neither full nor partial pagination, the makeup editor must make quick and dirty decisions to make stories fit. This might mean lopping off the last one, two, three (keep going) paragraphs (they didn't teach reporters the "inverted pyramid" style of writing for nothing), or it might mean resizing a photo or coming up with a pullout quote or other piece of display type that wasn't planned by the designer. Another option is a "pad ad," "PSA" (public-service announcement) or "promo" -- display advertisements stuck in at the last minute because there isn't enough type to fill the page.

    (A fascinating but dying practice is the art of the "filler." Once upon a time, copy desks set a variety of tiny little stories that could be used to fill whatever holes might crop up. Sometimes they were fresh, but often they were timeless little lessons in geography, history or, heck, the mating habits of the dragonfly.)

    The makeup editor usually returns from the composing room with "proofs" -- photocopies of each page that are then proofread. This proofreading usually takes place after an edition "goes to bed," but if a page is completed early enough, rim editors might get another look at it with the opportunity to make changes before the page is "shot" and sent to the presses.


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