In my first year at The New York Times, I got lost in a snowstorm. This was somewhere in Manhattan’s West Village, in a thicket of streets none of which seemed to lead where I was going. It was late 2004: No Waze or GPS on my Samsung flip phone.
I stumbled into a shop for help; but the clerk knew less than I did. Stumbling out, luckily, I ran smack into a (then) Times copy editor, Rachel Saltz. She spun me around once or twice, pointed me in the right direction, and probably wondered how a supposed journalist could get so far off-track.
The incident could have passed as a metaphor for life at the Times. Those copy editors could occasionally be picky, high-handed, small-minded or downright annoying. But they kept you on track almost all of the time.
The Times copy staff has been in turmoil for the last few months, as upper management executes a plan to slash their numbers and restructure the editing system. Managers call it a badly needed ‘streamlining.’ But many copy editors and their supporters say it is an ill-advised move to save money or redeploy resources by pushing aside the most vigilant guardians of the Times’ high standards.
In its latest attempt to salvage jobs, the NewsGuild of New York on Monday asked members to “flood” the Times Reader Center bulletin board with expressions of support for the copy desk. “Embarrassing and serious mistakes get into the paper even now, and in such a sensitive political climate, with fewer news organizations willing to invest in real journalism, The Times should be adding editors not paring them down,” reads a suggested template for the letters.
Without getting into the rights and wrongs of a labor dispute, I do hope they work it out. Those copy editors, most of them, are amazing, and it is painful to think that dozens will be cut.
To explain what the Times copy desk does is difficult. “Articles,” as we were instructed to call them (not “stories,” which hints at fiction), are considerably edited before they get to a Times copy editor; and they are, or were, reviewed again afterward, not least of all by the News Desk, a dragon-like entity charged with ensuring journalistic perfection. Yes, the copy editors check style, spelling (especially of “Scorsese,” eternally written with a stray “c”), facts and common sense. True, sometimes they miss the forest for the trees. More than once, I’ve had a Times copy editor object that he or she couldn’t verify a particular fact on the Internet: They had to be reminded that reporters are supposed to unearth things that aren’t yet universally broadcast on the World Wide Web.
But the deeper value of a good copy editor, particularly at the Times, which is cut by editorial politics and cross-currents, is a bulldog commitment to reality. It is something they share with the better reporters. The best of them would rather go down slugging than let an article take a wrong turn, no matter who is trying to make it.
I think, for instance, of Malecia Walker, who was a copy editor on the Times Business section during my tenure there. One effort of mine, about real-life complications that were gathering around the still unreleased movie Straight Outta Compton, ran into last minute resistance from the News Desk on a Sunday afternoon. Essentially, the dragon at the gate was wary of the notion that the movie production was caught up in a murder case (but it was!), and was facing close scrutiny by the likes of music manager Jerry Heller (who later sued over his portrayal). The News Desk wanted to lop out the best parts. My “backfield editor” (a Times term of art) and his boss had disappeared for some badly needed family time—no help there. But Malecia stood her ground, because she had read and understood every line of the article; and with a few artful flicks to a very few sentences, she saved it.
Sure, copy editors sometimes create small mistakes—say, by confusing the year an Oscar was awarded with the year in which an Oscar-winning movie was made. But the bigger errors more often come from bigger editors, who sometimes push the limits in pursuit of impact or traffic. As the late David Carr once put it: “The most dangerous words in journalism are ‘Page One is interested.’”
Indeed, what keeps Page One, and us snow-blind reporters, out of the ditch is very often that stubborn, annoying, reality-based copy desk.