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Editor Be Nimble. Editor Be Quick

Seven years ago, The Baltimore Sun, where I had worked on the copy desk for twenty-three years, let me go, along with sixty other newsroom employees, out of economic exigencies. Six years ago, The Sun hired me back, bestowing on me the fanciful title of Night Content Production Manager.

The title is a means of avoiding the term editor, which has fallen out of favor at American newspapers and other publications, out of a sense that editing is a costly frill better dispensed with. Resentment over that situation spills over into hostility to the word content being used rather than stories or articles.

But I think that the prevalent use of content speaks to the current situation of the business, because what a publication publishes is no longer necessarily print, and no longer simply text. Content embraces graphics, photographs, video, and social media. Reporters today are expected to provide photos and video. And anyone who comes to The Sun’s copy desk today is expected to pick up, in addition to text editing and headline writing, page design, formatting for the website, and participation in social media.

All these developments have been compressed into a remarkably short time. When I was hired, at seventeen, to work summers at the weekly newspaper where I grew up in Kentucky, everything was typed on manual typewriters, editing in pencil, and set in type on a Linotype.

Thirty-six years ago, when I began work on the copy desk at The Cincinnati Enquirer, we edited text on video display terminals, but there was only rudimentary formatting for headlines and a few other elements. Over the past thirty years, copy editors have taken on the brunt of production, with ever more elaborate software and coding, impinging on the time available for the actual editing.

It appears from the videos Mary Norris, the author of Between You and Me, narrates about editing at The New Yorker that much of her work is done in pencil on page proofs. But what is more characteristic of the contemporary editing environment is Katherine O’Moore Klopf’s post at this site on her editing procedure as a freelancer, which involves relatively elaborate preliminary formatting on Microsoft Word before she actually addresses the text.

The current environment is a challenging one for the student who wishes to get into the business or the veteran pushed to the curb who tries to make a fresh start. There are many people chasing a handful of positions, many people scratching to make a living as freelancers. The craft of editing itself is as demanding as it has ever been, and to it has been added the requirement to master various electronic skills in a world that is moving away from print with increasing velocity.

It is a world for the nimble, for those, first, who are willing to acknowledge the new environment and to attempt to master new skills and, second, who can come up to speed quickly.

John E. McIntyre, the night content production manager at The Baltimore Sun, writes the blog You Don’t Say at and is the author of The Old Editor Says: Maxims for Writing and Editing.

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