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Why copyreading and headline-writing (still) matter

I’ll let you in on a not-quite secret: Since 1931, public and private schools in the Philippines have been specially honing students in journalism. Throughout the school year, campus journalists and their advisers train for endless hours for what is now called the National Schools Press Conference (NSPC).

Aptly dubbed the “Olympics of campus journalism,” the NSPC is a major tournament. It is where student journalists from all over the country compete in specific events such as news-writing, editorial-writing, feature-writing, and photojournalism. One event in particular serves as the undercurrent to all these. It’s an area of journalism so important and yet so endangered, even educators seemed to think it obsolete.

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This event is called Copyreading and Headline-Writing, and this is why it matters today.

First, let me introduce you to this contest. As the name implies, it is two-pronged. One, there’s copyreading or copyediting. This is the process of editing a story before it is published, spanning correcting the tiniest grammar errors and fixing big-picture flaws such as factual inconsistencies and libelous statements.

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At the NSPC, copyreaders use pencils to draw copyreading symbols on the story they are given. By the end of the contest, every single page of the story would be filled with lines, circles, and arrows indicating the needed corrections.

The other half of the event, headline-writing, is more than just putting together words to become the title of the story. Traditional headline-writing also involves counting—every single character has a corresponding count based on how much space it takes up on the paper. Headline writers have to keep in mind the total count of the headline, as well as its word choice, phrase structure, length, and even layout.

You can hopefully see how copyreaders and headline writers are trained to be the most careful, thorough, and perceptive in the campus publication staff. This is an area where a student’s journalistic sense should be at its keenest.

Perhaps it is the traditional nature of copyreading and headline-writing that makes some think it is outdated. After all, do we still need copyediting when everything these days has Spellcheck? Must we still compress headlines when fonts can now be resized instantly?

A couple of weeks ago, news made the rounds on social media about how the NSPC organizers intended to remove Copyreading and Headline-Writing from next year’s conference. They apparently deemed copyreading an “obsolete tool in the digital age.” This development sparked the online campaign #RetainCopyreading, prompting the Department of Education to clarify that, rest assured, it will retain Copyreading and Headline-Writing at the NSPC.

Despite this assurance, it is tragic that our educators see copyreading as archaic in the first place. Digital tools still have an impossibly long way to go before they can replace the thoughtful decision-making of an educated copyeditor or headline writer.

Currently, no amount of Spellcheck or Autocorrect can recognize the relevance of punctuation in “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma.” No computer can spot the world of difference between “political organism” and “political orgasm” (an error, which, by the way, has occurred in professional journalism). No machine can automatically advise against sensationalized headlines, manufactured stories, and bias.

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The copyreader does these, and it is the lack of respect for the meticulousness of this craft that produces today’s fake news, confusing narratives, and cherry-picked reports.

The digital age allows anyone to be a reporter. This does not make copyreading obsolete; on the contrary, it makes copyreading more crucial than ever.

In keeping up with the times, copyreading may evolve in method but not in principle. Many campus papers today are produced digitally, which means editing is done on a computer without the need for penciling in marks on paper. But the fundamental requirement remains for copyreaders to be prudent. The ease provided by computers should only compel campus publications to further avoid getting sloppy.

This is what we train campus journalists for. The nitpicking on every sentence, the word-by-word weighing of headlines, the reading and rereading—these amount to more than just contest trophies. These amount to young minds growing more attuned to responsible journalism, a gem we are sorely missing.

This is why Copyreading and Headline-Writing matters today. Especially today.

[email protected]

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TAGS: copyreading, headline-writing, Journalism
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