The death of the copy desk…

When I was beginning my career in journalism, newspapers had copy desks. They were filled with sage older writers who had migrated from the thrill of being a beat reporter to the seemingly mundane task of reviewing every article that was to go in the paper, writing a headline for it and them assembling the stories for each page of the publication.

These were talented guys — Millard Hunsley, James Abar, Jim Smith, Bill Bogle and others — who sat around a U-shaped desk to review every sentence and word printed in the newspaper. They were sticklers for proper spelling, sentence structure, general readability and compliance with the Associated Press or United Press International stylebooks. I learned a lot from these men about writing that has served me well through the years. And I feared when they would send a story back to me for clarification, correction or — in one case — a note that just rejected my story as “lousy.”

Writing a headline for each story was an important element of their job. Even today, when something odd or exciting happens to me, I immediately write a headline in my mind for the story about whatever happened. For example:

  • “Unfocused Mesilla Park Man Trips While Walking Dog; Fall Smashes Prized Neighborhood Flower Garden.”
  • “Propane Tank on Outdoor Grill Catches Fire; Owner Placed It Too Close To Burning Coals”
  • Flames Almost Torch Owner’s Home; Embarrassing Fire Department Call Made

I bring this up because of two glaring errors I spotted in Albuquerque Journal and Las Cruces Sun-News headlines this week.

In the first incident, the front page of the Sun-News announced that “Freshman claim state speech and debate title.” The adjoining picture showed two different people who won the separate awards. So it clearly should have read “FreshMEN claim…” In the second incident, the Albuquerque Journal headline announced the eruption of a new volcano in “Ireland.” Well, sorry, Journal, the volcano was in ICELAND.

The problem isn’t really the fault of most newspapers who no longer have the money or resources for a real copy desk . It’s really a symptom of fewer and fewer people reading newspapers these days and a squeeze for more profits from newspaper owners. As a result, you, the reader, often get poorly edited copy and we all suffer the loss of well written, grammatically and factually correct newspaper stories. 

My recommendation to everyone is that you read a reliable mainstream newspaper every day and not rely so much on online sources for your news. 

Okay, that’s my rant for the day.

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