A Love Letter to Copy Editors Set to Music

To go with the May 7 post, “Copy Editors Are Not Expendable: What We Do Matters,” here’s a musical version of a copy editors’ lament. From Poynter in 2009:

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editor Laments Copy Desk Layoffs in Song

Christopher Ave has publicly referred to himself as a human safety net who double-checks facts, corrects punctuation and fixes grammatical errors.

He’s not a copy editor, though.

He’s a journalist and musician who wrote and recorded a first-person song, “Copy Editor’s Lament,” about a copy editor being laid off.

“AP Stylebook is my bible/Helped me stop a suit for libel/But nothing ensures my survival now/And I don’t know what I’ll do/After I’m through/Killing my last adjective,” he sings.

Ave, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s political editor, said the song isn’t a tribute to a particular copy editor, but rather a musical testament to the value of all copy editors — those who have been laid off and those who are still in newsrooms.

“In a way this song is kind of a love letter to copy editors and a mild reproach to people like me who aren’t copy editors and who may not have always appreciated their work,” Ave said in a phone interview. “A lot of us in journalism sort of chuckle at copy editors’ slavish devotion to style, but you know what? They can really save your butt.”

Ave, who edits stories but has never been a copy editor, recorded the song and posted it to his blog last week. In an introduction he wrote, “I’ve worked with many [copy editors] over the years in my newspaper career, and they strike me as having the most underappreciated job in the newsroom. And sometimes, with the emphasis in gotta-post-right-now online journalism, I think we’re all forgetting how important their jobs really are.”

To record “Copy Editor’s Lament,” Ave used various synthesizers, a software program called Sonar and an ivory Line 6 guitar with a maple fretboard. He created the typing noise at the beginning and end of the song using his wife Melanie’s manual Underwood typewriter, which she purchased at a Texas flea market in the 1990s. The whirs, beeps, clicks and rings are audio he obtained (legally) online.

One line in the song is aimed at himself:

“I was there to fix your grammar/When you thought it wouldn’t matter/Cut all your extraneous blather”

“I’m sure I have either written or sent along sentences that were rather overstuffed,” he said, “and that’s something copy editors do — they help lean up the language.”

They’re also good at pointing out inaccuracies, minor though they may be. One woman who saw Ave’s post about the song commented, “A copy editor is more apt to kill an adverb than an adjective, wouldn’t you say? … Oh, … wait. … you’re not a copy editor. And you don’t have one around to ask anymore.”

It’s a valid point, Ave said, but “adjective” just sounded better.

Ave didn’t send his latest musical creation to many people, but he posted it on his Facebook profile and passed it along to Post-Dispatch copy editor Jennie Critchlow-Crabbe, who commented, “Chris you are my hero! Rockin’!!!”

Kurt Greenbaum, director of social media at the Post-Dispatch, also commented on Ave’s lyrical lamentationand raised the question: “Is it possible that this is the only song ever recorded about copy editors? :)” Blogger Simon Owens, who writes for PBS’ MediaShift, called Ave “the Jonathan Coulton of the newspaper editor.”

The song resonated with Steve Parker, the Post-Dispatch‘s deputy managing editor for news, whose copy editing staff was depleted in the last round of layoffs in January. Parker said four of the paper’s copy editors were laid off but were given the opportunity to return when three other copy editors volunteered to retire. Two of the four copy editors who had been laid off came back. The newsroom now has 21 full-time copy editors.

“Copy Editors’ Lament” isn’t the first newsroom-related song Ave has written and recorded. Ave, who formerly worked as deputy metro editor at Poynter’s St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, wrote a song to help market PolitiFact, a Times project in which reporters and researchers fact-check statements by politicians and other public figures.

“Give me the truth/Show me who lies/Cause you can see it in my eyes/I need some proof/To help me surmise/Candidates I will tell goodbye”

The 2008 political season was too hectic for newsroom sing-a-longs, but when Ave worked as a night editor in the Clearwater bureau of the Times, he would sometimes bring in his guitar and sing his favorite Beatles tunes — “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude.” He now tries to help journalists better understand music’s place in multimedia presentations and regularly writes about the subject on his blog.

A couple of months ago, he started his own music business, Music for Media Productions, which he sees as the intersection of journalism and music. “I’m a lifelong musician, and I love telling stories,” he said. “You can tell stories with music and you can augment music with a story.”

Ave said he’d likely turn to music to make some extra cash if he were ever laid off. He doesn’t plan to leave the newsroom anytime soon, though, and hopes copy editors at the paper won’t have to either.

Nor does he plan to write a swan song for journalism. “The journey ahead is going to be extremely painful, and lots and lots more people are going to lose their jobs,” he said, “but journalism will work itself out.”
Where is journalist-musician Christopher Ave now? A tweet on March 11, 2019:

I’m thrilled to announce my new communications consulting business. More than three decades as a journalist have prepared me to help you tell the world your story. I’m focusing on content creation, strategic + crisis communications, media relations and social media management.

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