Universalizing the copy desk

Turmoil in the generally placid waters of copyediting! Singleton lets drop that he might outsource their work to India! Weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth! The American Copy Editors Society (ACES) responds (on front page of site, not permalinkable):

Sending copy editing overseas is a sure way to kill a paper’s credibility. Maybe not immediately, and maybe not in one dramatic gesture, but every time that desk 9,000 miles away overlooks some nuance that local readers will spot, the newspaper’s credibility dies a little. Oak Lawn, Oak Cliff, Oak Park, Oak Hill? What’s the diff?

….And let’s not even start on the tragicomic workflow disaster an overseas desk would cause. Just think of the last time you had to deal with an overseas customer service call center.

I’m sorry, but I happen to think the world’s offended copy editors are wrong for suggesting, in effect, that those dumb folks in India don’t know English well enough, and won’t know their particular backyard, resulting in a ton of stupid mistakes.

The unions’ argument against Singleton (in their formal response) is plainly weak; it boils down to: There might be “errors a local person would have caught.” What else is new? There are plenty of errors already.

But beside that, if you look at the stories in any major Indian newspaper online, you won’t find scads of grammar errors, spelling errors, or stilted language. And for the most part, at the various regionalized copy desks already within MediaNews Group today, they don’t make mistakes about street names and such that are a couple of counties away, because Google has been invented (along with the telephone), to doublecheck those things. Distant copy desks can learn the local particulars pretty quickly and would obviously build themselves a reference manual as well. The California MNG papers are already doing ad production in India, apparently with no surge in errors, and the outfit Singleton probably has in mind, Mindworks, has been at this for a while very very successfully for a number of other major publications.

A better idea than all of this, however, is wiki-based journalism, which I seem to be posting about frequently (click “wikipedia” tag below this post). As part of this, stories could go online before getting excruciatingly edited, and would then go through several cycles of re-editing and annotation, Wikipedia-style, as envisioned by Japan’s Information Architects. Copy editing in this model is universalized, as it is at Wikipedia.

Of course, copy editors won’t like that either, because it means that to some extent, Jane Public becomes your copy editor. But what’s wrong with that? If Jane Public is already spotting mistakes (or “missed local nuances”) all over the paper today, while there are still copy editors warming American seats, why not let her just fix those mistakes, so reporters and editors can focus on chasing down the rest of the story? In fact, if enough Jacks and Janes out there can be engaged in the process of not only copy editing but researching, reporting and improving stories and news wiki topics, news content could be enormously enriched.