The stars of the copy desk

By Jerry Bellune

Do you labor in relative obscurity at work that is taken for granted?  Like housework ... never noticed unless not done well?

Thousands of people go to work every day, unsung and unappreciated.

They do jobs that are not glamorous, poorly paid and for which one rarely hears thanks. Respect? Grudgingly given.

We've all worked in a few of those jobs and know the value of appreciation.

My first real job in journalism was one of those jobs. But being fresh out of the U.S. Army and in need of money, I was too excited to realize the job's limitations.

Carl Wymer hired me, not for my good looks or exceptional intellect ... but because he needed a copy editor and they were in short supply .

He found in me the needed qualifications: English major. Had a pulse. Could fog a mirror. The job was mine.

My job was to straighten out the reporters' syntax, make sense of their writing to our readers and write the headlines that would lure readers to actually read the reporters' purple prose.

The reporters were the stars.

Their names appeared at the top of the stories and they spent most of their time out of the office covering crime and fires and other exciting news.

My colleagues and I were chained to the copy desk where we labored deep into the night in complete obscurity.

No bylines. Few words of praise.

An occasional complaint if a headline oversold the news in a story.

To address these inequities, I made a smart-alecky proposal some years ago in a national trade magazine.

Its premise was that the best and brightest ought to work on copy desks.

They protect the newspaper from libel suits. They are the readers' best friends.

They should be treated like stars.

My proposal was called "Caesar's Copy Desk" on which copy editors would be wined and dined nightly as they practiced their art and craft like surgeons.

They would have status in the office, be given raises and recognized for the exacting work they did.

They would even be given credit like the reporters with their own byline.

The reporters liked this idea because it shifted blame from them if something was inaccurate in their article. They also wanted the copy editors to be given credit for headlines so their sources would quit complaining to them.

"But I don't write the headlines," they would tell their sources.

Mark Twain may have had it right.

Twain labored as a newspaper reporter before he became a bestselling author.

He famously said, "I am not the editor of a newspaper and shall always try to do right and be good so that God will not make me one."

Despite Mark Twain, it's a great job.

© The Bellune Co. Inc.

Jerry Bellune and his family operate their own book and newspaper publishing companies. For details about his weekly Advertising and Marketing Letter, e-mail him at

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