Can Copy Editors Really Save Amercia, and Does Amercia Want Saving?
If there's one thing Amercia loves, it's a good, old-fashioned viral typo.
A highlight this week for many was the Mitt Romney campaign's hilarious misspelling of America, which appeared, instead, as Amercia, spurring laughs and, obviously, a meme in short order. Because if there's one thing 2012 Amercia loves, it's to feel smarter than a potential president (or anyone), and one easy way to feel smarter than other people is to spell better than they do—and to catch their mistakes, and point out their clear stupidity at having made them.
Except, the problem is, ever greater numbers of us—even in such esteemed publications as The New Yorker, even regarding such established celebrity names as Katharine Hepburn (it's an "a" in the second syllable, not an "e") are making copy mistsakes dayley.* This has caught the attention of Merrill Perlman, who writes the "Language Corner" blog for Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and is a former editor at The New York Times. It's something she knows all to well. So today a post by her appears on CNN.com, a news organization not immune to the typo itself, because who is? In her piece, Perlman bemoans the lack of copy editors in contemporary journalism, from print to Web to TV. To support her thesis, she includes an amusing slideshow of the kinds of typos one is likely to find not only in journalism but on menus (buttscotch liqueur, anyone?), on product packaging, and so on. Everywhere you look where there are words, there are likely to be more and more mistakes. There's really no sign of it stopping. It's terrfying.
Perlman writes, "People reading newspapers and news sites can empathize. They're seeing lots of typos, as well as errors of grammar, fact and logic — many more than they would have seen before news organizations decided that they did not need so many copy editors." Her argument: Everyone needs an editor, regardless of how smart or great a writer they are. Solution: Bring back the copy editors! And we agree, the world would be a place with cleaner copy if there were always trained professionals there to look over what other people had written. But a cry for more copy editors seems, sadly, hopeful at best—and this is coming from a writer who used to be one herself, and who very much values what a good copy editor can do.
The problem is, we're just in a different world now. Copy editing is a trained skill, but it unfortunately also appears to be a dying profession, along with fact-checking, photo research, and any other trained skills being co-opted into the workloads of fewer people who are doing more with less time. The easy thing to do here would be to blame the Internet for all this, for that which has made bloggers into, really, Renaissance writer-photo-editor-copy-editor-marketing people who are kind of supposed to do it all. Clearly, we simply can't do it all as well as it might be done otherwise with more people and time. Time, of course, is really the crux of it, right? It's like all of the collective skills of publishing are being funneled into a narrower pipe, all going into one entity rather than many, and you just can't fit it all in. There's also the fact that maybe there's a little less pressure with the Internet, where you can, in fact, make changes and corrections quickly. Many times your original mistake goes unnoticed.
There's something else this has bred, and it's both highly disturbing and a little bit freeing. That is the inability of many people to even notice when a mistake has been made. That is why there are SO MANY MISTAKES. While it's true that some of us see a typo or dropped comma or extra space between words and it wounds deeply, particularly if it's our own fault, I fear that number is growing fewer and further between.
Despite Perlman's honorable wishes, it's doubtful that there's going to be a copy editor resurgence anytime soon—they may be, sadly, the vestigial limb that's cast off as we sail forward on the wings of so-called progress (or progres). There are other, bigger things at stake, like money to continue to pay writers and to keep websites and struggling publications alive. Does this mean we're devaluing the entire industry? Not necessarily. We're just valuing some new things (like speed and quantity, in some cases) over some more traditional ones (spelling). Discussions about that go further than this post possibly can and into the future of content in general.
As for the copy editing, Perlman posits that all the ridicule over typos indicates that readers care very much for perfect, copy-edited prose, but I'd be willing to bet what it actually indicates is something far more Internet-y: The chance to make fun of something that's registered as both incorrect and often funny (like Amercia or buttscotch, or when public becomes pubic, or mormon becomes, in The New York Times no less, moron); the chance to interact with your media in a way that shows you have an insight into how the sausage has been improperly made. The chance to find a mistake, and make it go viral. It's copy schadenfreude, if you can spell it, and this, in many ways now, is how blog posts themselves are made (see all the brouhaha over Amercia). Unless, we suppose, you're a copy editor yourself. Meta, eh?
*All spelling, grammatical, and punctuation errors in this post are completely on porpois.