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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.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:19 AM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

In your third from last paragraph, you seem to be arguing for a new standard for copy editors and newspapers, that to which the greater public holds politicians.

I completely agree with your statement "no one cares how hard you work". I run a small press, and it amazes me how many people rag on me in forums because of tardiness when I've been very vocal about the fact that it's only me doing the work; or they point out small errors in type-setting or page layout that could easily be missed by even a team of designers. Then again, there are always those occasions where someone leaves me a note in my email saying how appreciative they are of the work that I do and the stories that I give to people. *Those* moments are make forget all the other ones.

Thanks, John. We *do* appreciate what you do.

Why do newspapers drive away those who care about them -- those who care about factual accuracy and literacy? Why do newspapers instead lose their souls in pursuit of those who would never touch them?

Businesses succeed by providing something cheaper, better or different -- preferably all three. Offering less with an indifference to quality while imitating rivals that have fewer expenses is the opposite of what papers should do.

Keep pointing out what should be obvious, John.


Perhaps in the wake of National Grammar Day, we should push for Unedited Raw Copy in Newspaper Day and allow the masses see the condition of untouched copy.

Or Let Readers Be Reporters And Copy Editors Day so their work under deadline pressure with reluctant sources and all te other fun stuff can be under the microscope.

My favorite complaint when I was a reporter was the reader who sent me a long missive complaining about a feature I had done on someone who ran a boxing club for youth. They were appalled I didn't ask the man if he was a former CIA spy and chronicle how many people he had killed. Because that's the first line of questioning for every sports feature.

As Boswell said of Johnson:

‘That part of his labour which consisted in emendation and improvement of the productions of other contributors, like that employed in levelling ground, can be perceived only by those who have had an opportunity of comparing the original with the altered copy.’

Who will care? My guess: Some readers will, and over time they will migrate to the sites that they can trust. And respect.
I'm with you, John - I genuinely believe that what might be described as a "reverse Gresham's law" applies to websites, that the public migrates from the bad, badly written, hard to understand and error-filled to the good, well written and easy to understand, simply because the latter is (a) more pleasurable and entertaining and (b) less hard work.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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