Copy editors vs. Production: The war

Posted: August 21, 2012 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

On Monday the day job presented some deadline drama, a common Monday night occurrence in the magazine world, although it was an every-night event in newspaper land.

The phrase “What will production say?” was tossed out more than once and we all imagined the curses and sighs that awaited us from that side of the publishing family, which always waits impatiently for the pages, whether at a weekly glossy or a daily tabloid. The whole thing brought back memories of the paragraph factory.

Know this about newspaper people, specifically those on the copy desk: They live in fear of production staff, sometimes known as the camera plate crew or various other titles. These people wield remarkable power, though they operate completely out of the spotlight. Sort of like copy editors in that way, which perhaps makes it strange the two parties are often involved in verbal combat that sometimes threatens to turn physical. Oh how I have feared these men.

The camera plate workers get the pages ready once the editorial side finishes. They’re dependent on the writers, editors, photographers and copy editors, and that must drive them all a bit crazy. When a page actually comes in on time, well before the deadline, they respond with sarcasm and mock shock. When a page comes in just before or just after deadline, they again respond with sarcasm, mixed in with the occasional personal insult.

I suspect it’s like this at newspapers everywhere and this adversarial relationship has surely existed as long as newspapers have been published.

In Fargo, when I worked at The Forum with Terry, who occasionally dabbled on the sports desk when he wasn’t working as a writer or male model, the copy editors lived in fear of being Fikeasized. It’s a play on a last name we came up with to describe the reaction of a certain worker in the camera plate area whenever he got upset. What did it mean to be Fikeasized? It was as if you combined other other ized words in the dictionary — pulverized, dehumanized, brutalized — into one response.

You’d be occasionally scoffed at, often mocked, routinely lectured and casually insulted.

We had three press runs each night at The Forum and for sports this meant tearing up pages in a short amount of time once the games we actually cared about ended and the deadline clock started ticking. Those six pages of high school state tournament results you read over cereal in the morning? Depending on where you lived in Minnesota and North Dakota those six pages might be filled with totally different stories and pictures. We used fillers for the early press runs, then the real stories for the later ones. That’s the newspaper business. Everyone involved understands this.

But not everyone easily accepted it. The camera plate crew complained, especially when color pictures changed, as it meant more work for them. We understood this and did what we could to limit the color changes. If you got an early photo from a game you could throw it on for an early press run and then just change the text around it.

After each deadline the leader on the sports desk asked each copy editor what pages would change and noted if it meant color changes. I always feared bringing that list back if several pages needed new pictures. None of this was my fault — sports happen at night! — but when I took the walk from our area to the camera plate, I knew what awaited me. We all did.

Their despair and confusion occasionally proved irritating. “No, we’re not running that 75-inch story on the Norwegian luge team that we used as filler for first run. We actually need to get this story in on the Twins clinching the pennant.”

I got along with all the workers in the back area. I enjoyed talking sports with them as we waited for the pages to emerge from the machines. I appreciated their work and their skills. But none of that made me immune from their barbs if I screwed up or even if I simply wanted too many changes. What were these exchanges like? Something like this, with the copy editors playing “manure for brains” Chevy.

If the backshop crew caught a mistake, they delighted in pointing it out.

“Did you want that story to end with punctuation or is it just supposed to go off the page like that in the middle of a sentence?”

“Think this picture might need a caption?”

“When did the Vikings start using two k’s in their name?”

The worst part of those moments? You had to take it because you were also extremely grateful. They sometimes caught errors even after the last line of defense should have seen them. You took your thrashing and asked for another, then walked away muttering and red-faced. You’d been Fikeasized but at least you walked away with another war story. If you knew a co-worker was on his way to being Fikeasized, you might deliver a low whistle or a mock call of sympathy, the type sixth-graders in a Catholic school give the class clown moments before he’s escorted into the nun’s office for a whack on the hand with a ruler.

If a page came in late, it was pointless to offer up an explanation. Camera plate didn’t want to hear about how the copy editors blamed the editor or how the editor blamed the writer for not filing the story in time or how the writer blamed the girls basketball coach for not talking immediately after the game or how the coach blamed the referee for blowing a call that led to him pouting in the locker room after the game or how the ref blamed his mechanic for charging twice what he quoted him for the engine repairs and how that distracted him out on the court or how the mechanic blamed his ex-wife’s financial demands for his money problems that forced him to jack up his prices on his loyal customers. None of that mattered if you were a copy editor standing in the camera plate area with a dumb grin and an apology for being late. You were the face of evil, and you were to blame.

Most of us just took it, although a few brave souls threw the insults right back. I relied on self-deprecating humor with the occasional barb, to show I understood this was all just part of the newspaper culture. We did the same dance every night, three times a night.

If you received a compliment it was like getting a pat on the back from an impossible-to-please coach or your hard-ass dad. It meant something. It could carry you for weeks, or at least hours. It carried you until the next time you screwed up or brought in a late page. It carried you until the next time you were Fikeasized.

  1. Hayden says:

    This might be the greatest post you guys have ever written.

  2. shawnfury says:

    Bring a page in tonight a little late, just for me.

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