A Lesson for Instructors: Top 10 Copy-Editing Skills

Article excerpt

Newspaper editors who hire entry-level editors for their copy desks frequently complain that journalism school graduates are deficient in just about everything: they can't spell or write decent headlines, can't locate Haiti on a map and don't bother to check even the phone book for accuracy.

In addition, educators are being told they must prepare students for the 21st century by teaching them about pagination and visual storytelling. As the duties of the copy editor become more complex, so does teaching editing.(1)

Journalism editing instructors frequently receive conflicting messages about their teaching priorities. Should they keep students up to date with new technology and news presentation, focus on the basics, or both? It's difficult to do it all in 45 hours of class time in a semester.

Basic editing courses vary widely in their content. Some might focus on working with words and headline writing, while others might include a full menu that has everything in addition to the basics that an employer might want in a new hire: layout and design on a computer, coaching writers, and graphics.

The purpose of the study was to gather specific information from editors that editing instructors could use in determining what to emphasize in their courses, particularly those that prepare students for newspaper careers.

This study asked editors which skills they believe are crucial for entry-level copy editors to know, and in which areas they see the most deficiencies. Certain profile information about hiring practices was sought, such as whether journalism majors were being hired and how much experience outside the classroom was expected of them.

Questions focused on three areas:

1. Editors' expectations of crucial skills and level of experience for entry-level copy editors.

2. Skill areas in which editors have n found entry-level copy editors to be most deficient in meeting their expectations.

3. Profile of respondents' hiring practices.

Background

There is little research that focuses on copy editing skills, and even less on the skills and attributes desired of entry-level copy editors. Research by the industry and by scholars tends to focus on the impact of changing newsrooms on copy editors, their tasks and skills. Other studies focus on journalism education as a whole. The broad areas are relevant to copy editing, but not specific enough for editing instructors. However, they provide some guidelines.

Ryan noted that the changing copy editor's role has added multiple duties that are shifting production tasks to the copy editor, so that there is less time for editing.(2) "Copy editor," Ryan said, "has become a strange way to describe someone who has so little time to edit copy. Block composition and pagination, zoning, density and reader-friendly formats have mugged copy editors and stolen their precious time to edit."

Cook and Banks found in their study that the increasing stress level among copy editors has resulted in a higher job burnout rate when compared with the general population.(3) They said that job burnout among copy editors is partly caused by their expanded duties--increasing demands placed upon them by computerized graphics, photography and pagination.

Changing technology is not particularly new in the newspaper business. Some editors resisted video display terminals (VDTs) when they were first introduced, but later adapted, Solomon found.(4) However, others simply left newspaper work.

Arwood compared attitudes of editors and educators concerning how undergraduate news-editorial programs should respond to newspaper industry change.(5) He concluded that editors and educators agreed that good writing and critical thinking were the most important skills a newspaper-bound student should learn. Editors in the study said they were skeptical about journalism schools teaching technology because they didn't want them to de-emphasize basic writing skills, and they didn't think schools had the resources to keep up with technological change. …