Just stupid, I guess
The lady was angry. She had been reading The Sun for years, and she was irritated — no, annoyed — by the rash of errors in the paper. The members of her bridge club had all given up on the paper and had stopped reading it, but she wanted an explanation. Were we all just stupid on Calvert Street?
Of course she was referred to me.
What about the real estate sale listings? Lutherville, where she lives, was listed in Baltimore City in the paper. Who could have been so stupid as to have done that? I told her that I would have to check and talk to the copy editor responsible for checking that page. (It turns out that someone had transposed the “Baltimore City” and “Baltimore County” labels in the listing, and that had not been caught on proof.)
What about the duplicate death listings? I asked, was that in the news obituaries or the paid death notices? She was irked to learn that I have no control over the death notices, which are prepared by the advertising department. (If you went to Sears with a complaint about an appliance, would you be irate at learning that the cosmetics counter couldn’t help?) I did give her a number to call.
And those reporters who don’t seem to know the area or where anything is? That, I glumly told her, is not a new phenomenon. The in-house editing newsletters of the past 35 years show the same sorts of mistakes being repeated annually. We once published an article locating a Maryland town 30 miles east of Ocean City, presumably in Atlantis. (I didn’t tell her about the reporter who filed an article about then-U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio in which he misspelled DiBiagio 14 times. Or that when we saw that he had at least misspelled the name consistently throughout, we registered that as an improvement in his work. At least the copy desk caught that one.)
She wasn’t impressed by my explaining that our copy editors catch scores of errors every day, or that the need to publish tens of thousands of words, under deadline pressure, every 24 hours means that no newspaper has ever been error-free, or ever will be. Or that I wince at every error the copy desk misses. Not mollified, she ended the conversation curtly.
Encounters with readers are bracing. They remind us that nobody cares how hard we work, what obstacles we face, how good our intentions are. They don’t see that, and they don’t want to. They see the product. When the product is defective in some way, they conclude that we are dim-witted, lazy, incompetent or all three.
Perhaps that attitude is limited to readers of the print edition. Perhaps the executives who conclude that it’s OK to publish raw copy on the Internet because no one there gets fussy about, you know, factual accuracy. So it’s OK to dispense with all that expensive and time-consuming editing. Who will care?
My guess: Some readers will, and over time they will migrate to the sites that they can trust. And respect.