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 jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Monday, July 6, 2009

We told you so

Andrew Alexander, ombudsman at The Washington Post, conceded ruefully in a column over the weekend that reduction of the number of copy editors has materially increased the number of errors in The Post, some of them really embarrassing. “A story on Arlington County's plans for the old Newseum building misspelled Rosslyn as ‘Rossyln’ four times. ... Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter was described as a ‘ferocious’ (instead of voracious) reader.”

You may recall some of the claptrap leading up to this New Media Age — that employing copy editors for multiple checks of stories was an outmoded industrial process, that without copy editors reporters would become more accurate because they would be more responsible. Now you are beginning to perceive one of the realties of the New Media Age — a proliferation of errors in text, some of them minor, some of them egregious, all of them irritating to readers. (Mr. Alexander takes their calls.)

What may be a less readily apparent is a deeper degradation of quality. With the reduction of the number of “touches” by originating editors and copy editors, articles are not getting the attention they need. Stories that lack clear focus or betray slipshod structure are getting through to the reader because they are not being adequately challenged by editors.

It would not be surprising to register increases throughout the business in plagiarism and fabrication as well, because some of that used to be caught by editors whose functions went beyond mere spell-checking and formatting.

Mr. Alexander’s explanation is commendably candid: The Post, like virtually every other metropolitan daily newspaper in the United States, is suffering financially and has reduced costs by cutting employees. He doesn’t pretend, in the cant spooned out by apologists, that eliminating those “touches” in editing will somehow improve the quality of the product.

He quotes Chris Wienandt, president of the American Copy Editors Society: “If readers can't rely on our accuracy, why should they even pick up the paper?” That is the problem that haunts the industry, which is asking its customers to buy a product with reduced scope and reduced reliability. I have no better idea than the people who still have offices how journalism will proceed, but I don’t think that what comes next will be worth much if it continues to devalue editing.

12 comments:

  1. When it's all about the bottom line, all you have left is the bottom line.

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  2. OK, so holiday weekends can take a toll.
    --"You may have recall some of..." Something missing? Delete "have"?
    --"...some of the minor, some of them egregious..." Some of "them"?
    --"... readily apparent..." Doesn't "apparent" by itself do the trick?
    -- "articles are getting the attention they need." Are "not" getting?
    --"lack clear focus..." What is unclear focus?
    --"adequately challenged by editors" What editor would inadequately challenge?

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  3. pity about the typo in this post. or was that planted to prove the point?

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  4. Spot on with the superfluous "have," the missing "not," and the "the" for "them." My thanks.

    Otherwise: I'm inclined to grant you "apparent," "readily visible" in the dictionary definition, but it is common to read that somehing is not immediately apparent. I wonder whether the word has been stretched some beyond the definition. Unclear focus would be the same thing as blurred focus; perhaps I should have used "blurred" instead. And many an editor inadequately challenges, through haste, ignorance, inattention, or (when dealing with difficult personalities) failure of nerve.

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  5. The Post has something in common with the city schools -- I'm listed in the city email directory as "Rossyln" instead of "Rosslyn".

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  6. Oh Anonymous, you forgot "realties".

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  7. Gordon--
    Did not forget "realties." That's how we pronounce it here in Baltimore.

    John:
    I'd still say in the context of the use here, you could lose "clear" next to focus because you are talking about flaws already apparent--no need to modify them, If they "lackn (clear) focus" they are not focused and are therefore already unclear or blurred.

    The "adequately" before challenged saps the power of "challenged," a strong word in it own right. If you had said "adequately discussed" or "adequately debated" I'd say you had a leg to stand on. But "adequately challenged" is like saying "the duel was 50% offered," or" he woman was kind of pregnant"...

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  8. @Anonymous: You pronounce "realities" as "realties"? Really? Granted, I'm from New York, but that still seems odd to me.

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  9. Pronunciation that differs from one's own always seems odd. That's the way it goes.

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  10. Justice Souter might be a ferocious reader.

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