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Why 'Amercia' needs copy editors

By Merrill Perlman, Special to CNN
June 2, 2012 -- Updated 0215 GMT (1015 HKT)
Mitt Romney should have had a good copy editor take a look at that new mobile app first. Mitt Romney should have had a good copy editor take a look at that new mobile app first.
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Why didn't anybody catch that?
Why didn't anybody catch that?
Why didn't anybody catch that?
Why didn't anybody catch that?
Why didn't anybody catch that?
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Merrill Perlman: A copy editor would have fixed the "Amercia" typo in Romney's app
  • Perlman: Newsrooms mistakenly fire copy editors to save money, and quality sinks
  • She says readers complain of typos, grammatical errors and ridicule the media
  • Perlman says news is taken more seriously when it's polished by copy editors

Editor's note: Merrill Perlman is president of Merrill Perlman Consulting and writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. She is an adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and was an editor at The New York Times for 25 years.

(CNN) -- A Mitt Romney campaign app went viral because it urged people to stand "with Mitt" for "A Better Amercia." An easy typo to make, but, you know, almost all typos are easy to make.

There might be some irony here, given the comment Romney made to the American Society of News Editors in April: "Frankly, in some of the new media, I find myself missing the presence of editors to exercise quality control."

Romney, like so many others, needs a copy editor. And Romney, like so many others, is apparently working without one.

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. No other job classification has suffered so many losses as the news business downsizes (except, perhaps, for classified ad takers, who have been craigsdelisted).

Misspelled Romney ad spawns spoofs
Merrill Perlman
Merrill Perlman

Although it is anecdotal that there are more errors, the evidence is certainly there: At the American Copy Editors Society, Charles Apple blogs regularly about all those who need a copy editor. Sadly, there's no shortage of material, in news reports and beyond.

Typos can be funny: Who wouldn't want to graduate from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Pubic Affairs? Though, if the stories are true, his predecessor had a lot more pubic affairs than LBJ did.

While we're in the nether regions, look at the second photograph in the gallery above. How about a martini from this Phoenix restaurant? Don't see it? Look closely at the ingredient after "Apple Pucker." (All together now: "Ewwwww!")

Other photos in the gallery show that everyone needs an editor. NBC's Lester Holt needed one when a story about a viral video marriage proposal was identified as "The Propsal." Wal-Mart needed one when the information on a box that was supposed to be in Spanish read "Spanish here" instead.

And, yes, CNN sometimes needs editors, as you can see in a news ticker on a breaking news story that said "yujyujyujyujyuj..."

And The New York Times, where I worked for 25 years, has copy editors but seems to need them online. "Mormon" as "moron" in a headline? It happened.

Copy editors provide a safety net for a publication, catching most of the problematic stuff dropped from above. They are a curious breed: trivia experts, steeped in popular culture (helpful for pun headlines, none of which Google gets), usually voracious readers, often unappreciated.

A copy editor's work is largely invisible, until she misses something, in which case she takes the blame. But most important is that a copy editor stands in for the reader, gingerly reshaping, clarifying and correcting things before the reader can see them and post an excoriating comment.

But more and more publications are laying off their copy editors, replacing them with Web designers or more reporters, or with nothing. Or they're consolidating copy editors (and designers) in "hubs" far away from their audiences, where they can't catch a reporter who misspells Dan Smyth's name as Smith.

Websites, even those of print or broadcast properties, often have no one. One site that specializes in gossip originally had a copy editor but laid her off, one of its editors told me, "because she just slowed things down." Sorry, but would the world even know if that story on the pregnancy of (celebrity name here) was posted a minute later because someone had to correct the number of kids already borne by (celebrity name here)?

"Digital first" often translates as "show the reader the finger."

So why are so many news organizations giving up on copy editors? Money, of course. Given the choice between having to give up reporters or give up copy editors, reporters will win nearly every time because they provide "content." By the way, didn't we once call it "information"? "Content" sounds so ... commercial.

Copy editors "merely" prepare content, some publishers say, and don't we have Web editors to do that? Yes, but many don't have the training or inclination -- or time -- to pay attention to the content. Their main role is to drive traffic to the site, even if the content is bad.

One reason given for eliminating copy editors is that reporters can simply "proofread" themselves better. But no one can read something he wrote as well as someone else can. Anyone who's sent off an email beginning "Dead Bob ..." knows that. And many reporters simply rely on spell check, witch wont ketch wards spilled rite, butt knot yews wright.

Few publications that are laying off editors are training their remaining staffers to edit themselves better. And proofreading is perhaps the least important purpose of copy editing.

Another stated reason for not having copy editors is that readers don't care about typos. If that's true, why is there so much ridicule about them? How many comments say things like "where were the editors?" Besides, emerging research shows that readers view edited news more positively than they view unedited news.

Perhaps the most misguided reason for not having copy editors is "reader engagement." After all, readers will spot mistakes, which then can be corrected quickly. Yes, it is a great advantage to be able to correct things quickly, but isn't it a greater advantage to not make the mistake in the first place, rather than have it ricochet around the Internet, and have readers think less of your publication?

Can you name one other business whose quality control consists of "Well, we'll just send it into the market and see who complains"? If another consumer brand did that, there would be lawsuits.

Copy editors are the quality control experts. Let them inspect.

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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Merrill Perlman.

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