If you watched The Post, you may remember the cameo role played by a copy editor who receives the draft of the most consequential articles in journalistic history and promptly crosses out the entire first line.
That may be the most publicity copy editors have ever gotten—except, maybe, for the brief moment of outrage this past summer when the New York Times decided to get rid of its stand-alone copy desk. Journalism may be a dying profession, in part because it’s doing a pretty good job of prematurely killing off one of its own vital organs.
While the leadership of the Times may think differently, copy editing is incredibly important, even if the article you’re editing isn’t part of a landmark Supreme Court case such as in the case of The Post. Journalism is the first draft of history, and it would be awfully embarrassing if history had typos. Copy editing may be a thankless task, but I believe it is the backbone of a good newspaper. That’s why I dedicated countless hours of my college experience to other people’s grammar as the head copy editor of the 141st volume.
However, as much as I love the Oxford comma, copy editing does not just entail proofreading. While punctuation rarely has the power to effect meaningful change, word choice definitely does. For example, during my year as head copy editor, the word “alt-right” often appeared in drafts of Spectator articles, often referring to the incendiary speakers brought to Columbia’s campus by the Columbia University College Republicans. However, Tommy Robinson is not just “alt-right.” Mike Cernovich is not just “alt-right.” “Alt-right” is a euphemism for white supremacy and white nationalism. It is journalism’s job to convey the truth, and for that reason, I changed our style guidelines to ensure that the term “alt-right” never appears in our coverage—instead, we call white supremacy what it is. Decisions like these define a head copy editor’s job and make a strong and consistent copy section central to any publication.
As vital as decisions like these may be for discourse on campus and beyond, though, the copy section at Spectator is, to me, about so much more than the actual editing. As I took over the section from exceptional former head copy editors, my main work lay not in updating our style guidelines, but in making sure that the copy desk could be what it has been for me during my years at Columbia: a home on an often cold, impersonal, and competitive college campus.
I joined Spectator as a lost, lonely first-year, desperate to find a community at Columbia, and I believe that this experience shaped the responsibility I felt when I attained a leadership position within the organization. Frankly, my first-year experience at Columbia was awful, and I tried to dedicate my time at Spectator to helping younger students have a better experience at this college than I did.
By nature of its work, Copy is one of the most tight-knit sections in the office. We do all of our work around the same table, and during lulls in production, we have time to talk and laugh together. These lulls became a time for me to check in with my staff—I know from experience how meaningful it can be to have someone else ask you how your day was and talk through the problems you’re experiencing. No matter how tired I was, I tried to always have time to talk with my fellow editors for however long they needed. I hope I made the copy desk feel like home to my staff, the way it became a home for me for four years.
In the process, I had some of the best experiences of my time at college. I could not have imagined in my first semester that I would eventually dedicate 40 hours a week to Spectator, living and breathing the AP Stylebook. I edited sports recaps at bars on Saturday nights and breaking news articles from my host family’s apartment in Russia this summer. My friends called me crazy for this many times, but I can honestly tell you that watching the sun rise through the office windows while still working on the week’s print paper every Wednesday night will be one of my fondest college memories.
Maybe that’s my greatest piece of wisdom to share: Find a community that makes you laugh. I found my community through 4 a.m. Sporcle quiz marathons, 6 a.m. conversations about whether Double Stuf Oreos really have double the “Stuf” (they don’t), and 8 a.m. breakfast bagel orders from Nussbaum & Wu. Those probably aren’t particularly healthy suggestions, but you get my point—find a community that will not only support you, inspire you, and challenge you, but that will make you laugh every step of the way, no matter how stressed or unhappy you may be at the time.
Copy editing at Spectator may not be a glamorous task, but it has the potential not only to affect concrete change in the newspaper’s coverage of crucial issues, but also to help its own staff succeed and grow at this university. If my work as head copy editor helped one other Speccie through the hell that Columbia can be, every all-nighter in the office was worth it.
Kaatje Greenberg is a senior in Columbia College studying political science. She was an associate copy editor for the 139th and 140th volumes and the head copy editor for the 141st volume.
Senior columns are pieces in which members of Spectator’s graduating class reflect on what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown from their time at the organization, and are part of Spectator’s 2018 Commencement Issue. To respond to this senior column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.