Please, don’t tell anyone, but it may surprise you that some reporters can’t spell.
I’m not saying they can’t type, but I’m saying that they sometimes hit the wrong keys.
Most certainly, when I started in the news biz in 1980, it became clear that I would not have made it out of the qualifying round of any spelling bee.
Place names like “Irondequoit” threw me into a loop. State Sen. Ralph Quattrociocchi’s name froze me in place.
But I had backup: the copy desk.
In the pre-spellcheck era, the seven or eight people on the copy desk were the last line of defense against spelling errors, just as they were there to straighten out references to Rochester history, Rochester geography or Rochester people.
These arbiters of style and taste sat behind glass walls around a large desk located in the demilitarized zone between the afternoon Times-Union and the morning Democrat and Chronicle.
The TU copy editors would occupy the desk from early morning to midafternoon. Their counterparts at the D&C would take control of the desk around 3 pm and work until late at night.
The copy editors seemed to know it all, in part because they did. Many of them were veteran reporters; they had experience I didn’t have.
The copy editor’s job was to give a close read to a story that had already been read by the assigning editor. They would spot errors of fact, unconventional spellings or violations of style.
When everything was in working order, the copy editor would give the story a headline, and send it off to the slot editor for a final read. (Yes, some of my stories were read by more people in the newsroom than outside the newsroom.)
One of my favorite copy editors, Ralph A. Hyman, died March 14 at age 93.
Before he became a Times-Union copy editor, Ralph had been a sports reporter and executive sports editor at the paper. He certainly knew his way around the block, which meant, of course, that he knew a lot of things I didn’t know.
When he spotted a problem with a story, Ralph would get up from his desk and weave his way through the maze of desks and litter to the offending reporter. There was something leisurely about his movement; he seemed to be simply stretching his legs.
But Ralph was on a mission. Arriving at the reporter’s desk, he would clear his throat and ask, without judgment, mind you, if the reporter (in this case yours truly) had meant to have a road going in the wrong direction, or if the spelling of “Canandaigua” had changed. (Don’t laugh. Can you spell Canandaigua without phoning a friend?)
Satisfied with the response, Ralph would return to his desk, patch up the flawed copy, and move on to another story.
Ralph had good company on the copy desk. There, too, was Del Ray, a legendary reporter and columnist before he became a copy editor. I never met a newsperson as polite, as gentle, as Del. As a copy editor, he had a perfect bedside manner. Oh yes, the story was barely breathing, but he knew how to bring it back to life. All would be well. And it was.
Other copy editors, among them Mal Calman, Mike Lewis and Bob Smith at the Times-Union, John Dash and many others at the Democrat and Chronicle, were the same. They patched our copy up, made us look good, never getting the thanks they deserved.
I should add that the copy editors weren’t always the bearers of bad news. Ralph could get up from his desk, stroll over to a reporter and shower a story with praise. A pat on the back from Ralph Hyman, or any of the other copy editors, counted for a lot. Alas, we still couldn’t spell, but at least we had gotten something right.
From his home in Geneseo, Livingston County, retired senior editor Jim Memmott, writes Remarkable Rochester, who we were, who we are. He can be reached at email@example.com or write Box 274, Geneseo, NY 14454.