Gag me with a copy editor

January 17, 2012

I think it’s fair to say that Benjamin J. Marrison, editor of The Columbus Dispatch, is forthright. Here is what he said in an article in yesterday’s editions: “Thursday’s front page made me want to vomit.”

Thursday’s front page misspelled the first name of the president of the United States, twice. And Mr. Marrison went on to recount other instances of embarrassing errors creeping into his pages.

I’m not going to badmouth The Dispatch, where I have been a guest on a couple of occasions, and some of whose copy editors I have known for years and whose chagrin I can share. What Mr. Marrison describes can happen, and does happen, at any newspaper. At any publication. That is why I’d like to address the situation broadly, beyond The Dispatch.

The brutal fact is that American newspapers, coping with drastically shrinking revenue, have drastically reduced the levels of editing, with a concomitant increase in errors, slipshod writing, and other defects. Copy editing, in particular, was seen at the corporate level as a cost center, an expensive frill, money wasted on people obsessing with commas. Copy desk staffs have been decimated, more than once, or eliminated outright with the work transferred to distant “hubs,” where, unlike Cheers, nobody knows your name.

So let me pose a couple of topics for publishers and editors to consider.

It seems clear from the reports of the few remaining ombudsmen (another frill) that readers are complaining about errors in print and seeing their number increase. One of the unexamined assumptions of the War on Editing is that readers, comfortable with the lack of editing standards on the Internet, would be fine with low-grade stuff in print. I know that newspapers notoriously do little audience research, but have you made any effort to determine whether this is actually the case? Do errors make your readers want to vomit, too?

The other unexamined assumption was that, with the elimination of copy editors, reporters would pull up their socks and make greater efforts at accuracy, knowing that there would be fewer checks on their articles. How’s that working out for you?* Anybody holding the reporters responsible? (Remember that what is everyone’s job is usually no one’s job.)

Newspapers are struggling to learn new tricks. They are beginning to adjust to Web-first publication instead of holding on to stories for hours-old appearance in print. They are trying to juggle photo, video, Web, and print, though they have not yet figured out how to do so efficiently. They are beginning the attempt to engage with readers through social media. And they are doing this with fewer people than they have had in decades. It’s very difficult.

One can hope that in time, as they master the new tricks, they will relearn some old ones: accuracy, clarity, quality.

*I know that at The Sun I find typos and other errors in the SEO (search engine optimization) fields of articles reaching the copy desk. Since those articles are approved for the Web before reaching the copy desk, Google and the other aggregators that have made a pass at those articles will have picked up the errors and spread them abroad.

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