Newspaper copy desk legends came to rescue before spell check

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.

Mal Calman, Times-Union copy desk

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.

Ralph Hyman

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.

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