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What Good Are Copy Editors, Anyway?

copyedits05142010.jpgOne of the major casualties of the seemingly eternal upheaval in the written-media world has been the institution of copy editing. The grammatically inclined, detail-oriented correctors of typos have had a tough time making the case that they add value to the process of pumping out content at the rates demanded by the Internet age. And so, today, “Newsonomics” writer Ken Doctor has posed the question: How does one assign a value to copy editing?

Doctor examines content farm Associated Content to get a grip on the current role of copy editors in breakneck-speed, low-cost story generation.

I asked [Associated Content CEO Patrick] Keane how many editors Associated employs to manage the copy flow. The answer: 15. Now that’s 15 FTE, so they’d be spread over the course of a week. Do the arithmetic, though, and you get close to 15,000 stories a week, edited by 15 people. Or a thousand stories per editor each week, or 25 an hour. That’s a number of magnitudes more than we’re used to seeing in the traditional world of journalism.

Keane heard the amazement in my voice, and hastened to add that Associated’s editors’ work is focused on “making sure the title is correct, the story’s not gibberish and not created by a bot in the Philippines,” says Keane.

As Doctor puts it, “copy editors” are now sometimes human Captchas, verifying that a story was written by a human being and not a story-writing robot. That’s a delicious irony: Companies like Associated Content, often derided for their lack of editorial vision and gaming of search engines, are forced to put people to work to make sure that a yet-more-lowly content machine (“a bot in the Phillipines,” as Keane puts it) isn’t scamming them.


Doctor eventually posits that a news outlet’s trustworthiness, measured in polls, can be a factor in the reach and impact of its stories. Although it’s unclear whether higher editorial standards actually lead to better traffic standards, Doctor says institutions would be wise to “claim their professionalism publicly, prominently and persistently, yet discreetly.”

We venture to add that one traditional role of the copy editor still maintains supreme importance. In online media, the creation of attention-grabbing, search-optimized and Twitter-friendly headlines can often take on much more importance than the generation of well-written stories. Gawker Media knows this. Perhaps it is in that domain that copy editors can make their best case for relevance (relevancy? — wish we had someone to help us out with stuff like this).

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