Written tests for copy editors often fall short, but managers have few alternatives
IN THE 15 years I've worked in newsrooms, mostly as a copy editor but also as a reporter and assigning editor, I've been hired by seven newspapers.
I haven't been hired by even more because, more often than not, I was told I made the equivalent of a B, or sometimes a C, on the paper's copy-editing test. Perhaps if my current employer, the Boston Globe, tested me instead of having me try out for three days, I wouldn't be working there either.
At one paper, the St. Petersburg Times, I worked in a full-fane temporary slot for a year. At the end of my stint, my editor filled out a performance review, checking "yes" in the box reading: "Would you hire this person again?" I moved out of state, but the next year considered returning. The paper had just started testing editing candidates. Once again, my test performance was mediocre.
Newspapers have all but institutionalized the practice of testing copy editors. Testing, or certification, for certain professions, such as law, medicine, or real estate, is fairly straightforward and consistent. But at newspapers, individual editors devise their own tests -- some well thought-out, others thrown together from random sources and rarely updated, making some tests feel more like hoops one must jump through than professional guideposts.
Some papers put a lot of weight on test scores, while others rely equally on references, clips and interviews. The welcome consensus is that if all papers could afford to pay for candidates to try out -- in person, working on real stories -- that would be the best way to judge their journalistic skills. But in this era of belt-tightening, we know what that means -- more testing.
"When you're hiring someone, I wouldn't base it on a test. I don't agree with it," says Richard Holden, executive director of the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and former copy desk chief for the Wall Street Journal. "When hiring editors at the Journal, there was no test at all, and they would come in and try out for a week."
Holden does, however, use a copy-editing test for his Dow Jones fund intern selection that he changes every year. In my book, he gets extra credit for the updating; some newspapers don't.
Old "current events" tests are one of the many problems I've encountered over the years. At the Atlanta Constitution, for instance, a pop-culture identification test I was given a few years ago for a features job hadn't been updated in several years. The paper no longer gives that test, says Jim Smith, chief of the copy desk.
Smith was responsible for eliminating a test on Southern culture, which another editor had required. It asked things like names of race-car drivers, and who caused Margaret Mitchell to die. To me that was totally irrelevant, but someone in the job before me thought it was important.
There's also the issue of making tests legible and user-friendly. Two places I tested a few years back, at the Denver Post and through the mail with the Seattle Times, asked for stories that were single-spaced to be edited on paper.
Seattle's test -- retyped and double-spaced after I gave unsolicited feedback -- says Karen Cater, chief of copy desks, originally was a poorly photocopied article straight from the paper, in 9-point type. Imagine squeezing editing marks between those lines.
At the Denver Post, not only were the stories single-spaced, they haven't changed for at least 10 years. "We need a couple of new stories," admits copy desk chief Joe Hudson.
One place I didn't fare well was the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. The testing went on for about 10 hours over two days. One exercise was taking fake reporter's notes and writing a story. I remember being very annoyed because it was not a real-world exercise. The test also seemed to be a hodge-podge of exercises. Sure enough, much of it was collected from other papers, says Bob Dixon, assistant managing editor/copy desk. …