‘The Desk Wants to Know’

‘The Desk Wants to Know’

Looking Back

‘The Desk Wants to Know’

  • Dec. 15, 2016

Times Insider shares historical insights from The New York Times.

In 1960, copy desks were shaped like horseshoes, with editors seated around the rim and their supervisors in the slot in the middle. Desks have changed, but the roles of the rim and the slot remain.Credit…The New York Times

Times journalists are fearless when they hear statements like “Trump says he’s going to sue you” or “You’re not allowed in here” or “The mayor denounced your story at his press conference.”

What will make them quail are the words: “The desk wants to know —”

That means a copy editor has found something bewildering, confusing or flat-out wrong in your story. And the copy is going nowhere until the matter is resolved.

Eileen Shanahan was a star economics reporter in the Washington bureau. She wrote with great clarity but not much flair, as she was the first to acknowledge. So she was understandably proud of herself in 1963 when she came up with a snappy lede to describe an austerity program that cut the use of limousines by federal officials.

“Some big wheels in Washington are going to have smaller wheels from now on.”

Ms. Shanahan filed her copy. It was transmitted to New York. Then the call came. The desk wanted to know. Do sedans actually have smaller wheels than limousines?

The copy desk of 1934 — not much different from the 1960s version.Credit…The New York Times

As the business day neared an end, Ms. Shanahan placed frantic calls to the public relations offices at Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. (This was so pre-Google that Larry Page and Sergey Brin weren’t even born.) The flacks couldn’t answer such an arcane question offhand. They had to call their engineering departments. Finally, after the dinner hour had come and gone, Eileen received the answer that, yes, the wheels of sedans were in fact slightly smaller than those of limousines. By then, however, it was too late. The lede had been changed, the story set.

“Some big wheels in Washington are going to have shorter wheelbases from now on.”

Eileen shared this tale with me years later to illustrate how finicky copy editors could be. But it illustrates something else. The Times didn’t want to get it wrong, even something that seemed so inconsequential.

Copy desks are our bulwark. They are integral to our news gathering.

“Copy editors, in the view of practitioners, are the people who keep written or spoken news (1) factually correct, (2) understandable, (3) to the point, (4) and grammatically fluent, when possible,” Betsy Wade, a former chief of the foreign copy desk, said. “There are dozens of other goals, for example, avoiding libel, or headlines with double meanings (‘Tampax Fills New Opening,’ in all likelihood fictional), but the core of the matter is getting the message across correctly and quickly.”

Though their work is, at its best, invisible, the imprint of copy desks on newsroom culture is enormous.

A classic copy editor’s spike. Even today, we “spike” stories.Credit…Timeseum/Gift of Suzanne Daley

Desk chiefs are still called slots, recalling the days when they functioned as slots through which raw stories were sent to copy readers and edited stories were dispatched to the composing room. The slots sat inside a semicircular array of desks known then, and now, as the rim. Copy is still spiked, though it’s been a long time since paper was impaled on metal. And we still cut and paste, without the scissors or glue pots.

Copy desks have been the talk of the Times newsroom in recent days, after the most fundamental realignment in memory. As of Dec. 5, the metro, foreign-national, business and sports copy desks ceased to exist. Their work was taken over by four new groups, called the live, projects, enterprise and weeklies desks.

“Our copy desks have always reflected the organizing principles of the newsroom as a whole, so that Metro as a coverage area, for example, meant we had a metro copy desk,” Susan Wessling, the senior editor in charge of newsroom planning, wrote to the newsroom last summer. “But less and less of what we need to do is based strictly on geography or topic area. With our accelerated coverage of everything, in every form, we need desks that can operate with appropriate pace and metabolism for different types of journalism, not just different subject areas.”

Charles Knittle, formerly the slot on the foreign-national copy desk (a merger he superintended), is now co-chief of the live desk, with Peter Blair. “In addition to looking out for accuracy, and style and fairness,” Mr. Knittle said, “the copy desks have added another function, which is to try to foster a basic process literacy across all the new specialties — video, interactive design, social media, mobile and other subdivisions of digital production — in the hope that some of what Times copy editors do can take hold in these new forms.”

This transitional moment offers a chance to reflect gratefully on the role of copy editors in shaping the overall report, and in polishing words that appear under others’ bylines.

I remember struggling to find a verb that would convey how a group of Jewish refugees in World War II had — somethinged — restrictive government quotas to enter the United States. Not sidestepped. Not ignored. Not defied.

George Rood, who died in 2000, was both a copy editor and a jazz musician.Credit…The New York Times

How about “leapfrogged,” asked George Rood, a metro copy editor with a cranky demeanor and the soul of a poet. His choice was lively, direct and perfect. He provided what sparkle the story had. Though Mr. Rood died before we moved to 620 Eighth Avenue in 2007, I still feel his presence here.

“Copy editors are, finally, the people with the knowledge and the reach to span the entire arc of a story from the reporter on the ground to the staff editor moving the parts on the home page,” Mr. Knittle said. “You must know the story of the blind men and the elephant, and how each man touched a different part of the beast and exclaimed, ‘It’s a tree!’ or ‘It’s a fan!’ or ‘It’s a hose!’ The copy desk is still looking at the whole animal — making sure each story is accurate, literate and attractive — while so many others are busy feeling the elephant.”

Readers are naturally aware of mistakes that slip through. And it’s not uncommon to hear Times loyalists complain that errors have grown distressingly common, as editors perform ever more demanding jobs on ever diminishing timetables.

What’s impossible to discern, however, is how many outright errors and unfortunate nuances never see print.

“I just thanked a copy editor, for example, for observing that a story about the effect of climate change on fall foliage in Canada had used only American sources,” Mr. Knittle said. “The piece was sent back to the writer for a little more reporting, and presumably a better story for The Times’s current push into the north.”

Tom Feyer’s stylebook carries hundreds of addenda, attesting to changes in the geopolitical world.Credit…Timeseum/Gift of Tom Feyer

Ms. Wessling recalled a Page 1 story about a man whose name was misspelled throughout until a copy editor, Jaime Swanson, checked it. She also said that the lighthearted lede of an article about a new use for technology was changed after a copy editor objected that the phrasing insulted an entire class of people.

In a compilation of catches made by the sports copy desk, John Oudens saluted his colleague Jason Bailey for spotting four errors in a single month while reviewing print page proofs between deadlines: Miomir Kecmnovic (it is Kecmanovic), Maya Dirado (it is DiRado), Kody Puderbaugh (it is Kory) and Jonathan Hankins (it is Johnathan).

“One of the biggest challenges of being a copy editor is editing the copy of the most accurate writers,” said Steve Bell, a veteran of the metro rim who now works with both metro and society news. “Everyone will get something wrong sometime, and it’s just as important, maybe more so, to catch the error of a writer who makes one mistake every two years as that of the reporter who is a mere mortal like the rest of us.”

Betsy Wade in the slot on the foreign desk rim in 1975. Ted Shabad is to her left, in short-sleeve white shirt and necktie.Credit…The New York Times

A memorable catch came on Ms. Wade’s watch. “Ted Shabad, late and great, shows us the core of the job,” she wrote.

“On the night of Aug. 2, 1964, I was in the foreign-desk slot and he was on the rim. At the last gasp, a long-awaited WX [Washington] dispatch: Conflict in the South China Sea. I dealt the dispatch to Ted, who sped to the Columbia Lippincott Gazetteer, of which he had been an editor. Returning, Ted said: ‘The fixes they give are about 30 miles inland.’

“When the Washington bureau heard this, it went back to military sources and extracted a new pair of fixes: Lat. 19.40 degrees north, Long. 106.34 east. And so, under somewhat dubious circumstances, word of the Gulf of Tonkin clash between the C. Turner Joy and the Maddox, versus the Swatow gunboats, went out to the readers.

“This is, on a global scale, an illustration of what an ex-desk head considers the everyday task of anonymous copy editors.”

I grew up at The Times on stories like that. And though I’ve made my share of really dumb mistakes, I’ve tried to keep Eileen Shanahan’s memory alive. Before filing a lede recently that described Jeannette Rankin as having broken “the stained-glass ceiling of the House of Representatives” a century ago, I made sure that the ceiling of the House chamber would have had stained glass in 1916.

Just in case the desk wanted to know.