"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

From Ali to Xena: 16

The Enemy Within

By John Schulian 

What a nightmare the Post’s copy desk was, its few capable pros outnumbered by drunks, burnouts, incompetents, and one hostile ex-marine. The worst of all, which is really saying something, was the slot man, who had covered University of Utah basketball for the Salt Lake Tribune during the Billy (the Hill) McGill era. I’d read every word he’d written when I was a kid and I thought he’d be an ally, maybe even a friend. Instead, he spent his time combing his vanishing pompadour and looking down his nose at writers. I don’t know that I ever met a bigger horse’s ass in the business.

One Sunday, after covering a Bullets game I swung by the office just in time to see page proofs. The slot man had rewritten the top of my story. Okay, you don’t like what I write? Fine. I don’t like a lot of what I write, either. But give me a chance to rewrite it in my own words. That’s why I called the office when I finished the piece, to see if there were any problems with it. The slot man hadn’t said a word then, and I wouldn’t have found out until I opened the paper the next morning if I hadn’t got lucky. The first thing I did was make the slot man take my byline off the story. That was my right, according to the Newspaper Guild. Then I sat down and wrote a new top for the story, and I wouldn’t leave until the slot man had signed off on it. Now he was pissed off. But I can tell you for a fact that I was more pissed off.

Things with the copy desk finally got so bad that when I wrote a piece that was supposed to be special in some way, I’d stay at the office until the first edition came up so I could check it. Nuts, huh? But maybe you’ll understand why I did it if I tell you about a long feature I wrote about spending the day of a fight with a heavyweight named Larry Middleton. Went to his pre-fight meal with him, hung around his overheated hotel room with him, watched him warm up in his dressing room, then go out and lose to Duane Bobick in Madison Square Garden. Last scene of the story: he’s out on the street hunting for a pay phone so he can call his wife in Baltimore and tell her what happened. When I dictated the story the next day–it was still the typewriter era at the Post–the girl getting it all down told me it sounded just like a short story. Made my day. But when I came home a couple of days later–-no short road trips when you worked for George Solomon–I discovered that there was an entire section missing from my story. The section about the fight. Call me foolish, but I thought it was critical, seeing as how the fight was the reason for the story’s existence. Maybe it got sacrificed for reasons of page make-up. (Not an acceptable excuse.) Maybe it was incompetence. Maybe it was sabotage. There wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent because I was on the road. But I promised myself that when I was in town, I was going to do some serious lurking in that goddamned office.

George Solomon finally told me I couldn’t talk to the copy editors the way I did. I told him I was going to keep talking to them the way I did as long as they kept screwing things up. Poor George. You have to remember that he was still getting used to being sports editor, and I was one of the first real tests of his patience and managerial skills. I know he liked my writing and I think he liked me as a person-–we still trade e-mails occasionally all these years later-–but I also think I made him uneasy. I was the first writer he ever had who fought back loudly and passionately. You’d think it would have been different on what was considered a writers’ paper. But the Post was also a serious newspaper, a newspaper of record, and when you’re dealing with an animal like that, editors ultimately carry more weight than writers.

My salvation was a copy editor named Angus Phillips, who later turned to writing and did beautiful, even poetic work covering the outdoors. Maybe he was worried that violence would erupt or maybe he actually liked to read what I wrote. Whatever, when a story of mine came in, Angus would raise his hand and ask to handle it. If he had questions about the piece, he’d ask me. If he made changes in my copy, I trusted him enough not to argue. I believe this is known as mutual respect. You’d think someone at the Post would have thought of it before.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.


1 Alex Belth   ~  Jul 7, 2011 1:59 pm

I never had to deal with nasty copy editors. That's one good part about writing a blog. The downside, and I've spoken to John about this, and other veteran writers too, is that there are no editors. Mistakes, careless, sloppy mistakes go out there with nobody to check up on it. We have alert readers and my fellow writers at the Banter will point out mistakes but still there are too many that get by. I'm guilty of being lazy, well, not so much lazy, but in such a rush to get the next post up that I don't go over it thoroughly. A copy editor wouldn't let me get away with that crap.

2 Jon DeRosa   ~  Jul 7, 2011 2:18 pm

Alex and John, thanks for this incredible account you guys have put out.

For some reason, I can't find the mistakes until they're posted and then they stick out there like glowing xmas ornaments.

3 Alex Belth   ~  Jul 7, 2011 2:26 pm

I've got nothing to do with it. This is all John. But you are welcome! Yeah, the good thing is that we can go in and correct mistakes but we should have a higher standard not to make them at all. I've started to print things out to proof read because I can read more thoroughly off a piece of paper than I can off the computer screen.

4 Jon DeRosa   ~  Jul 7, 2011 2:55 pm

[3] somebody had to click "post," right? and don't forget the pics.

5 Shaun P.   ~  Jul 7, 2011 2:57 pm

[2][3] Among lawyers, there's a saying that great legal writing is great legal editing. Its never said, but that includes great proof reading. In law school, my first year writing teacher, an Assistant DA, gave a great practical lesson on becoming a great legal editor.

After we turned in our first assignment, he made two copies of each one. Everyone in the class received one copy of their own assignment, and one copy of someone else's. He then told us to find whatever typos we could in both pieces. To a person, we all found more typos in the assignment someone else wrote, and missed many in our own assignments. It was a lot easier, he said, to find typos when your eyes and brain are fresh - that is, when you read something for the first time. Since then, when a typo is unacceptable, I always have a fresh pair of eyes proof read my writing. I'm constantly amazed at the typos I still miss, no matter how careful I am.

The longer I practice law, the more I realize that I, too, am a professional writer. I'm just on the flip side of the coin that one conjures up when one hears the word "writer". I'm grateful for the opportunity to read and learn about the more typical side, from the inside.

[3] Alex, if you really wanted someone to help catch mistakes pre-posting, I would think there must a retired or semi-retired copy editor who reads the Banter and could help out. I am neither of those things, but I'd gladly volunteer to do it, if we could make the timing work.

6 Alex Belth   ~  Jul 7, 2011 2:57 pm

I wonder what the culture of the Times was like at the time. If it was editor-driven like the Post because it was a paper of record.

7 Alex Belth   ~  Jul 7, 2011 2:58 pm

5) I may just take you up on that, man. Thanks.

8 Bronx Boy in NC   ~  Jul 7, 2011 4:09 pm

Alex, I'll second Shaun's offer. Fits right in with what I'm doing for a living all day anyhow. If you're trying to keep things moving at different hours of the day and night, it can't hurt to have some bench depth. You know my background and where to grab hold of me.

9 Alex Belth   ~  Jul 7, 2011 4:39 pm

5 and 8) You guys rule.

10 Dina   ~  Jul 7, 2011 7:10 pm

I'll toss my name in the ring too. I was a copy editor for about 20 minutes on my college newspaper and now I do a lot of editing on grants and other documents.

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver