Yes, copy editors perform many essential functions. They clean up grammar, spelling, wordiness, and writing that just doesn't make sense, thus saving reporters embarrassment on a daily basis. They help protect the paper against libel. They write the headlines and photo captions, and if these elements are lame, vague, or inaccurate, readers won't bother with the underlying stories. At many papers, they also design the page layouts.
But reporters provide an even more essential function: producing the stories. (The same can be said for photographers.)
When staff reductions are needed (we don't even need to get into how newspapers are becoming increasingly less profitable in the Internet age), what makes the newspaper less worse off: having relatively fewer stories or relatively less copy editing? You can't keep both sides fully staffed, so which would you cut first?
When I worked at the Washington Post a few years ago, I was assigned to copy-edit two or three stories a night. We were expected to check every fact in every story, no matter how mundane. Spending an hour on a story was typical, even though the story had already gone through an assignment editor (who checks for bigger-picture issues) and would also seen by a slot (copy chief) and a proofreader.
For instance, in this paragraph from a baseball story:
But in the bottom of the sixth, Flores drilled a 1-1 change-up from Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez to center field, tough territory for even seasoned power hitters to reach at RFK. Flores's season, though, has been about defying expectations. He is 22, had never played above Class A, was a Rule 5 draft pick whom Manager Manny Acta said the club hoped to "hide," but he has long since proven they don't need to do that.I would check: Was it really the bottom of the sixth? Was it really Flores? Was it really a 1-1 pitch? Was it really a change-up? Was Sanchez really the starter, and is his name spelled correctly? Is Flores really 22? Did he really never play above Class A? Was he really a Rule 5 draft pick? Is Manny Acta's name spelled correctly?
The vast majority of the time, this was wasted effort. The hours spent fact-checking hardly justified the number of errors caught. In today's journalism environment, such extensive fact-checking is just too expensive.
It seems to me that cutting the copy desk in half (eliminating about 30 jobs, if I recall correctly) won't make the paper that much worse off. Sure, there will be more mistakes and slightly less compelling headlines, but this is a much better outcome than if 30 reporters were eliminated (and the hundreds of stories a week that they collectively produce).
In some cases, however, newspaper should be substituting away from reporters and instead use wire copy. I've long been critical of the Post for flying reporters to the Super Bowl, Olympics, American and National League Championship Series, and other national sporting events. Maybe there are local angles in these events, but why do the reporters need to be there to write about them? The expense of covering them is not justified, as the articles will just be needless duplication of whatever the Associated Press could have produced and thus will have dubious value for the paper's readers.
And this is all a matter of relative magnitude. If a paper has 100 reporters and three copy editors, it's better to lose one of the reporters rather than cut the copy desk by a third. Chopping the copy desk only works up until a point of critical mass, but it should still be the first department trimmed.
But in short, producing is better than polishing. The success of blogs and other online news sources shows that people are willing to put up with a little sloppiness if it means a steady stream of content.