Saturday, January 16, 2010

You can always blame the customer

Andrew Alexander, the ombudsman for The Washington Post, once more takes on the thankless task of explaining to readers why the number of irritating errors has increased:

When it comes to typos and syntax, retired English teachers and armchair grammarians delight in playing "Gotcha!" with The Post. They are regular (and often good-natured) correspondents, pointing out everything from misplaced modifiers to homonym errors.

In recent months, they've been joined by less genial readers who complain that increased copy-editing errors have become annoying and are damaging The Post's credibility.

Everything would be swell if it weren’t for those damn readers.

Here are some of the things the armchair grammarians and their recent recruits are whingeing about:

The errors are typically small but unremitting. A story about an Arlington National Cemetery burial described a soldier wearing “shiny black boats” (instead of boots). An item about an auto accident involving NBC newsman Tom Brokaw said he had “slammed on the beaks” (brakes). A listing of unemployment rates in foreign countries included “Cypress” (Cyprus). In a Sports story, the “principles” (principals) attended a dinner celebrating the hiring of Redskins coach Mike Shanahan.

Reasons, Mr. Alexander concedes, include the reduction in the number of copy editors at the paper, from seventy-five to forty-three over a three-year span, and the requirement for the remnant to concentrate on “search-engine optimization.” The latter is formatting and tailoring articles to attract the attention of Google and thus additional readers.

Mr. Alexander has more faith than I do about the possibility that new grammar-check software will help ⎯ that Cypress for Cyprus looks like a spell-check-induced error, or Cupertino, to me.*

The increase in errors that make the writer, and the publication, look stupid comes in part from the current belief that getting it fast counts more than getting it right, and the corollary that you can eliminate copy editors, or assign them more and more non-editing duties, because nobody cares about quality, except maybe a few cranky retired English teachers.

Just refer the fusspots to the ombudsman and let the search-engine optimization roll.

*Or maybe, as at the Star Tribune, the writers will spontaneously start using the spell-checker and learn to distinguish homonyms.