John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Friday, May 15, 2009

You get what you pay for

Pam Robinson’s Words at Work blog has a recent post about the mixup at The Washington Times in which an article about murdered Chicago schoolchildren was accompanied by a photo of President Obama’s children. The editor gave this explanation:

“The theme engine, through automation, grabbed a photo it thought was relevant, and attached it to the story,” Solomon said, acknowledging that the photo had gone up without a person seeing it. “There was no editorial decision to run it. As soon as it was brought to our attention, we pulled it down.”

“The theme engine,” some kind of robotic search-and-attach mechanism, operating without human oversight. Perhaps the other sense of oversight is apt here.

And over at That’s the Press, Baby, David Sullivan takes on Steve Yelvington’s quaint belief that copy editors can safely be dispensed with because, because, because reporters will write better. They’ll just have to. And the lion will beat the sword into a plowshare, and the lamb a spear into a pruning hook, everybody’ll get together, try to love one another, and Wikipedia entries will be trustworthy.

Getting things right is not easy, and publication, either in print or electronically, involves managing a multitude of details, any of which can go badly wrong. Making prose clear is not easy, either, and the most effective way to accomplish that is for writers to work with editors. You can take shortcuts, but the results will be less accurate and less clear, and sometimes downright embarrassing.

This is not sour grapes because I was turned out of the paragraph factory a couple of weeks ago. I’m a reader — a customer, if you will — and I want better stuff.

Follow-up: Yesterday I wrote about sloppy science reporting. Click over to Headsup for a couple of examples of corrupt science reporting.


  1. No writer is above the pencil, although I've met some who thought they were. When the world comes to an end, copy editors have to be the last to go. Otherwise, accounts of the end will suffer.

  2. It's actually a spear to a pruning hook, not a sword, I think

  3. "everybody’ll get together, try to love one another, and ..."

    That sounds suspiciously like a pop music reference. Are you sure you're not sitting in a bean bag chair in your blue jeans listening to the Youngbloods?

  4. I just love the notion that removing editors will make writers better. Does this mean that the more editors you remove, the better the writers get? And by extension, as the number of editors approaches zero, the writing approaches infintely good.

  5. as the number of editors approaches zero, the writing approaches infintely good

    Approaches but never reaches...

  6. No matter how able a self-editor a writer is, mistakes will elude the writer's self-editing. Another set of eyes can see the piece as it was written, not as the writer's eyes think it was written.

    That is the part of editing that Steve Yelvington and other copy-editing-deniers fail to understand.

    Barbara Phillips Long

  7. Another common "theme engine" that can cause problems: programs that automatically link stories on your Web site to a list of "related stories."

    They can result in unfortunate juxtapositions, such as a cute little feature about a 7-year-old who volunteers and nursing homes being linked to court stories about convicted pedophiles.

  8. Yet another theme engine is the one that places an advertisement boasting "Low prices on hoity toity on" on a web dictionary page defining hoity toity.

    I imagine we'll be seeing more "tombstones," too.

  9. I've been looking for some decent, low-cost hoity-toity. Thanks.

  10. Umm, a confusing interface for commenting, in that if you type something lengthy and then click "Comment as ..." and choose your Google ID, you lose whatcha typed. Caveat hunt-and-pecker.

  11. I think that the idea of how wrong it is to think that "removing editors to make writers better" can best be displayed at sites like and where there are no editors, just people writing bad articles that other people pay for. If there are no editors, then there's no fact-checking, language checking, or even just plan content-worthiness. It's ridiculous to think that writers are - by their nature - infallible, which is what "taking away the editors" implies.

    And I'm a writer.