- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003

Unsung heroes

They are the unsung heroes of the newsroom, laboring anonymously to protect the credibility and reputations of better paid and more glamorous reporters who often don’t know their names.

These are the men and women of the copy desk, our last line of defense against errors, misstatements, misspellings and libelous slurs. And hardly a day goes by that one of them doesn’t come by my desk to point out some mistake that would have made us look ridiculous.

Every story that goes into the paper is edited at least once or twice on the “desk of origin” — in our case, the foreign desk — by editors who are trained to concentrate primarily on the content of the story.

Here, we worry about whether the reporter has all the most important facts and has them in the right order. Only secondarily do we worry about grammar and such, although of course we try to get that right as well.

All our stories then go to the dozen or so men and women on the copy desk, where those priorities are reversed.

“First, a rim editor picks up the story and edits it for grammar, punctuation and spelling, and to make sure it flows,” explained Patrick Tuohy, the copy-desk chief at The Washington Times since 1998.

“They also make sure there is no libel, but we do not edit it for content,” he said. “If there is a problem with the content, they go back to the desk of origin; what the editor on the desk decides is what goes.”

We on the foreign desk have mixed feelings when we see a copy-desk editor heading our way — a combination of chagrin because it means some error has probably slipped past us, mixed with gratitude because it has been caught before it’s too late.

Sometimes it will be an internal inconsistency, such as a name that has been spelled different ways in the same article. Other times, a copy editor will point out that the Suez Canal war actually took place in 1956 or that Mount Everest is in fact 29,035 feet high.

Once the rim editor is finished with a story, he or she passes it along to the “slot,” where it is read once more by Mr. Tuohy or another of his staffers.

“I read the story after the rim editor,” Mr. Tuohy said, “but I frequently make changes.”

‘No parades for us’

At some point in the process, the news desk — which is in charge of laying out the pages — gives the story a “head spec,” specifying the number of lines, column width and point size for the headline.

The story then goes back to the same rim editor who originally handled it to have a headline written. That same editor will write the captions for any pictures accompanying the story since he or she is already familiar with the content.

The headline, too, will be studied by a slot editor and rewritten if it doesn’t properly reflect the point of the story.

“If the rim editor has a problem, they talk it over with me,” Mr. Tuohy said. “But when the slot is finished with it, that’s how it goes into the paper.”

The limited size of the staff — five to seven rim editors and two to four slot editors on a typical night — does not allow for specialization. The newspaper generates 80 to 100 stories a day from the foreign, national, metro and business desks and everyone on the copy desk has to handle his or her share.

They are assisted by standardized lists of spellings for such things as foreign names, often negotiated between Mr. Tuohy and a desk editor. For national politicians, they follow a list provided by the Congressional Quarterly down to the use of any middle initial.

But they also need to be familiar with minutiae of every kind. Mr. Tuohy has a brutal test for prospective hires that demands the widest possible general knowledge and any gaps are quickly filled after a few months or years on the job.

It’s a sometimes tedious job and provides little opportunity for recognition. The hours are miserable — typically 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. or later. Yet copy desk editors are, in my experience, some of the most committed newspapermen and women in the business.

“I guess being a reporter is more glamorous, but reporting and editing are two different skills,” Mr. Tuohy said. “We hear about it when we make a mistake, but we are expected to get the job done every night.

“The senior editors know that we do a quality job, and they back us 100 percent,” he said. But “there are no parades for us.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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