El Paso readers lose with departure of newspaper copy desk

The El Paso Times’ announcement that all page-design and copy-editing work for the newspaper was moving to Phoenix, Arizona, next month was short and to the point.

There would be a “reduction of about 15 positions” as part of parent company Gannett’s move to centralize page production, but don’t worry, the CEO said, “We will continue to serve our readers as we have.”

No, you won’t.

I don’t blame the Times or Gannett for the move. Market forces demand cost savings. But don’t pretend you can ax all local copy editors and it means nothing. Don’t pretend readers won’t even notice.

They’ll notice, all right.

They’ll notice the first time some Phoenix editor doesn’t catch that — in El Paso, Yarbrough Drive isn’t spelled “Yarbruh Drive,” and that Lily Limon didn’t tell the mayor “No way,” she told him, “No, guey!”

Or, more to the point, will a non-El Paso editor notice when a reporter slips up and says Joe Wardy was mayor for four years?

Having a local copy editor, with experience in El Paso, is what it takes to say, “Wait a minute, Wardy was mayor only from 2003 to 2005.” An El Paso copy editor could add background, saying voters approved a change to four-year terms beginning with the April 2005 election.

The El Paso Times and its readership is losing something. Let’s not pretend it’s not. Instead, it’s time to mourn for a bygone era. This isn’t something the Times alone is doing. Nearly every paper the Times’ size, and many larger papers as well, no longer employ copy editors. It’s an expense most newspapers have decided they can live without. Grammar and factual errors creeping into stories just doesn’t affect their bottom line.

Heck, even talking about what Phoenix editors might not know about El Paso misses the point. Because the truth is, Phoenix isn’t hiring copy editors either. The center is hiring designers. The design of the El Paso Times is moving to Phoenix; the copy editing is disappearing completely.

It makes me sad for journalism.

I know so many good journalists who started their careers on a copy desk. Those jobs just don’t exist now, except at the highest levels. But how do you make it to the highest level? I have worked with several great copy editors over the years who eventually went to work for the New York Times. But you can’t start there. You start in places like Salem, Oregon, and El Paso, Texas.

Not only does the lack of copy editors hurt readers in El Paso, it eventually hurts readers everywhere. With no farm system, no place to start, how does any editor hone skills to eventually make it to the bright lights of the big city?

When I started journalism school at the University of Kansas, I was a shy kid still unsure I could be a reporter. I was too nervous to spend my days interviewing people; how was this going to work? Then I took a copy-editing class.

Hold up, I thought. There’s a job at newspapers where you get to read stories all day? You spend your day fixing grammar and checking facts? Eureka! It was a dream come true. I suddenly knew what I was born to do.

That dream job is gone now. It’s not the El Paso Times’ fault. It’s gone nearly everywhere. It does no good to blame the Internet. It’s just a fact of life. But don’t pretend readers won’t notice.

What’s next?

To help humanize the loss of those anonymous “15 positions” the Times is eliminating, I talked to three of those copy editors about their plans. Here’s what they had to say:


Bob Leal started working as a copy editor for the El Paso Times in 2010. Before that, he worked for a number of newspapers in California, including the Contra Costa Times. He has a degree in journalism from San Jose State University.

Why did you get into journalism, and more specifically, copy editing?

I always liked sports. But playing football at the college level wasn’t feasible for me. So I decided journalism was a way I could I stay involved with sports. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I was sports editor for several papers, and I really enjoyed doing that, but the pay was very low. If I had to do it again … I don’t know. Those jobs were enjoyable but they didn’t really pay the bills.

What did you enjoy about copy editing?

I enjoyed reporting a lot more, but the openings were in copy desks because of the weird hours. I enjoyed it after awhile. Before the downturn in journalism about 10 years ago, it was a good job. We used to fight over headlines and catch errors. We took a lot of pride in it. So I liked that part of it, working on a team to catch errors and make the newspaper better.

On the design side, that was something I tried to hide from. I didn’t feel like I could design well. After my years at the El Paso Times, I’m pretty competent in design, but I enjoy the copy editing side more. Watching newspapers for the past 10 years … it’s been tough.

Newspapers have just been decimated, and the quality just keeps declining.

What’s next for you? Any idea yet?

I have been hired to help the owner of the Mariposa Gazette, a small weekly newspaper in central California, near Yosemite. I always knew to get a raise I would have to get a new job. So, I’m excited to find that new job and that it offers a raise.

It’s bittersweet because my girlfriend has a good job with SISD (Socorro Independent School District), so she’s not coming with me. El Paso is a good place to live. I’ll miss it.

You landed on your feet quickly. Any advice for other copy editors on how you did it?

I just got lucky. The timing was right. I saw the opening at JournalismJobs.com and sent my resume. The publisher saw my resume, flew me out there for an interview, and I got the job.


John Huenneke had two stints as a copy editor, page designer and slot editor for the El Paso Times, from 1987 to 1996, then again from 2005 to the present. He received his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1976 and has worked for newspapers in Ithaca, N.Y.; Augusta, Ga.; and Palo Alto, Calif.

Why did you get into journalism, and more specifically, copy editing?

I became a copy editor for the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle in September 1983 because a journalist with my skills in language/style/headline writing was in demand.

There is only one good copy editor out there for every 10 reporters, Georgia editor Howard Eanes told me during my interview.

What do you enjoy about copy editing?

As a professional newspaper journalist for 28 years, sandwiched around nine years teaching in New Mexico and Texas public schools, I lament the current trend of media companies shedding or eliminating all copy editors (and slot editors) from their daily news gathering and production operations.

An immediate and direct result of this business decision is a terrible loss of credibility among precious, loyal readers and subscribers.

Reporters’ first-takes are being published with minimal backstop second reads by overburdened city or metro editors lacking in the institutional/historical local knowledge that most copy desks and their editors conscientiously bring to their daily news/sports/feature work shifts.

Hand in hand, nearly all copy editors offer print readers and subscribers dependably proper grammar and correct spelling in reporters’ copy, and bright/accurate headline writing across all sections of the paper.

With copy editors being laid off and their function eliminated from daily newspapers, many minor and serious mistakes in copy and headlines large and small are becoming commonplace — credibility be damned.

What’s next for you? Any idea yet?

I hope to teach English and journalism — or ESL — in high school or community college here in El Paso.


Ed Shugert starting working for the El Paso Times in 1993, and became a copy editor at the newspaper in 2010.

Why did you get into journalism?

I loved reading newspapers and I loved sports. Reporting on sports was my first love in journalism.

What did you enjoy about copy editing?

The thing I like best about copy editing is making the story better by catching grammatical, spelling or factual errors and adding background to give the story greater context for readers.

What’s next for you? Any idea yet?

I don’t know what’s next for me, still exploring several channels. I would love to stay in El Paso.