I had three hometown newspapers when I was growing up. The Janesville Argus was the most literal representation, its small offices located on Main Street one block from our house. The quality of the Argus was totally dependent on the quality of the paper’s publisher. As a kid the paper was blessed with great publishers and editors, making the weekly Argus a great read. That quality declined over the years until the main question about the Argus wasn’t “What’s in it this week?” but “Is it still alive?”
The Waseca County News was a bit bigger, but still a weekly. Twice-a-week when I was a kid and was a paperboy raking in the big quarters while lugging my heavy bag around Janesville, avoiding angry dogs and grouchy widows.
The Mankato Free Press was the most relevant daily newspaper, earning a spot on the Fury family breakfast table with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. But the Free Press was the one I considered my hometown daily, even if I never lived in the host city. When I first started in papers out of college I often thought about working there and on every trip home it’s still my first read in the morning. I still recognize many of the bylines, but there’s now going to be a major change for the people whose names don’t appear at the top of the stories — the copy editors. Major change is actually an understatement. Their jobs apparently won’t exist anymore, at least not in Mankato.
Veteran Free Press reporter Robb Murray wrote a post about the company that owns the Free Press moving the paper’s copy desk duties to a centralized location in lovely Traverse City, which is, yes, in Michigan. It’s become a common ploy the past few years for newspaper companies that can save money by putting those types of jobs in one spot, so the staffers there handle the work of several newspapers. Outsourcing. So if Janesville’s ever misspelled in a headline, you’ll have to blame someone in Michigan.
I’m a magazine copy editor in my day job now but it’s nothing like the night job I had as a newspaper copy editor. Now I simply read stories and correct errors. Back then we read and edited the local stories, selected the national sports stories to run but also handled the pagination, laying out each page and often tearing them up twice each night to meet the three press runs. It also offered plenty of creative opportunities, as we wrote the headlines for every story. Of course many people never realized that. Every newspaper writer can tell a tale about being blamed by readers for a headline that appeared above their story or column, the angry customers not realizing the person who wrote the words in the story had nothing to do with the words that appeared above it. We were anonymous and occasionally bitter, grumbling about management that didn’t appreciate us and writers who knew what the deadlines were but didn’t always have an interest in meeting them. No one can complain like newspaper copy editors, who make the group of seventysomethings at a small town coffee shop sound like the most pleasant, optimistic and well-adjusted people in the world.
But then they get their jobs shipped away to another state and you understand some of the feelings of resentment and paranoia.
When papers ship these jobs off to faraway lands, people talk about the loss of local and institutional knowledge. There’s an image of the grizzled news copy editor who remembers every election since 1968 and catches a misspelling in a story about a mayor from the 1970s. Those descriptions aren’t just caricatures; there are copy editors, young and old, who seem to have all the answers, whether it’s a question of grammar, history or coming up with a perfect six-column headline to go with a story about a local state champion. The copy editors in the centralized location will have those same skills, no doubt. But they aren’t a part of the community — the one that exists in the newsroom and where the newspaper is located.
Copy editors are the nameless people behind the scenes who help everything run on time — or at least only a few minutes past deadline. The Free Press isn’t the first newspaper to remove copy editors completely from the scenes. It’s just the latest one to lose a little bit of its hidden soul.