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Whatever You Do, Vice, Don't Hire That Copyeditor

Update for the copyeditors and journalists I irritated today: I wasn’t debating the value of copyeditors or saying copyediting was responsible for the drop in traffic. We, the top editors, were responsible for that. We were convinced that fewer, higher-quality stories would differentiate ourselves in the tech news world and would attract readers. We hired more editors, including copyeditors, and published fewer, better stories. We went from being a site that had 20+ posts a day – many of which were published within 30 mins of news breaking – to publishing at most 10, many of which were published hours and hours after news had broken. By that point, our audience had moved onto the next thing. That’s the nature of tech news.

The copyedited stories themselves weren’t the problem. Having copyeditors was. Having an editorial process that emphasized that slower, thoughtful editing ended up being a terrible idea.

I spent three years as an editor at the tech news site ReadWrite.com. Before that I was an editor at a print news magazine. The transition from print to digital was jarring and ultimately a lot of fun. But after my first six months, I still had one little vestigial wish from my print days: I wanted to hire a copyeditor. Just like Vice wants to.

It would be groundbreaking, I thought, to bring that kind of quality to tech blogging. And a few years later, I had the chance to do it. I found two very talented editors who worked from morning Eastern time to late afternoon Pacific time. Every story went through them before being published. They were fantastic.

They also slowed the publishing process to a screeching near-halt. And, even more importantly: No. One. Cared.

Hiring them was part of a larger, and ultimately failed, experiment to bring magazine-style editing and quality control to tech blogging. We would write fewer, better stories. Our copy would gleam. Readers would swoon.

It was a train wreck. Traffic plummeted. By half. Literally, month-to-month traffic cut in half. As we tried to right the sinking ship the first thing I did was fire the copyeditors. During the eight-or-so months they worked for us no one had ever commented on our clean copy. No one told us they came to our site because we had fewer typos than TechCruch. I saw the difference. It’s not that readers didn’t, they just didn’t care.

Vice’s vast audience isn’t the same as ReadWrite’s. Vice’s editorial strategy has made them hugely popular, unlike what was happening to ReadWrite when I was helping run it. But I strongly believe that online audiences don’t notice the majority of the work a copyeditor does. Readers see misspellings and blatant errors in grammar. But tense agreement? Using a plural pronoun for a singular antecedent? Failing to hyphenate a compound modifier preceding a noun?

Six months from now, Vice, let us know if anyone, anyone at all has noticed.