Today I’m wrapping up a two-and-a-half-day workweek, courtesy of Thanksgiving here in the states, and it has me thinking about one of the important tasks journalism copy editors do that doesn’t show up in our job descriptions: We make up time.
Everyone in media works under a deadline, obviously, but deadlines are set according to how much time it will take for that piece of writing to work its way through the entire pre-publication process. So let’s say, to make the math easy, that a newspaper story goes through three editors and each of them needs to work on the story for one hour. The reporter’s deadline will be set at least three hours before the paper goes to press. But what happens if the reporter blows their deadline? Nothing, really. The editors get the story later, and they’ll try to finish their work on that article more quickly, but if they can’t manage it, then the next editor in line gets the story a little late, too.
But what happens if a copy editor gets the story late? Unlike most everyone else who touches the story, copy editors have a hard deadline. They are usually the last person to see the paper before it goes to press, and their deadline is already set as late as possible. (This is doubly true at places where the copy desk also handles layout, an increasingly common money-saving practice.) If their work is late, the print schedule for the whole night will be thrown off, costing the company thousands in overtime for press workers and delivery-truck drivers. It could even cost the company revenue—many publications contract their presses out to print out-of-town papers or supermarket circulars. Some community newspapers go out by mail, and if you miss the mail trucks, well, everyone in town gets their paper late, which will certainly lead to a round of canceled subscriptions.
So copy editors have to finish their work in whatever time is left before deadline, no matter how short that time is. Which is why we all have our mental triage lists—because sometimes you just won’t get everything done, and you have to know what to do first.
I should add, though, that nearly everyone I’ve ever worked with has taken their deadlines very seriously and done their utmost to meet them. But sometimes technology fails, sources call with last-minute updates, or news breaks late—like that time a horse escaped its trailer on the highway immediately outside the newspaper offices just before deadline and spent half an hour running back and forth in traffic, scaring the bejeezus out of drivers. (Yes, that really happened.) And on those days, copy editors find a way to make up whatever time was lost earlier in the process.