Taking responsibility

I commend to your attention an excellent article by David Sullivan at the American Copy Editors society’s website, in which he addresses concerns about copy editing raised in an article by The Washington Post’s ombudsman.

The ombudsman observes, as does anyone who deals with readers, that there is irritation over errors of fact, eroding the publication’s credibility, and Patrick Pexton, the current ombudsman, lays the blame on the copy desk, where the blame is always laid.

Here’s the thing: As newspapers have increased the volume of content—print and electronic—they have decimated their copy desks. I’m not talking about the classical reduction by a tenth, but rather reduction to a tenth. The People in Charge think this is all right. The customers will just have to get used to a few more insect parts per million in the produce.

Since you are likelier to win the Powerball jackpot than see newspapers beef up the copy desk, concern about accuracy will have to be directed toward an unlikely target: the writers.

Don’t take umbrage, at least not immediately. I’ve worked with many writers who are scrupulous and precise, and when their copy comes across the desk I understand that I should mainly keep my hands off the keyboard.

But the culture that has prevailed in the business for a long time is that, like adolescents who leave their clothes strewn on the floor, the writers have expected that someone will be there to pick up after them.

I see that still today, when I open up stories whose web headlines, written by the reporter and already posted on the site, contain misspellings and errors in grammar. I see it when I ask about an article that contains two sets of numbers that appear to be contradictory, and the reporter’s response is that one set was just “picked up from the clips,” without noticing the discrepancy or making any effort to address it.

The writers, if newspapers are to shore up their eroded credibility, are going to have to take on a level of responsibility to which they are not accustomed. They will have to make sure that the names are spelled correctly and the numbers add up. They are going to have to be responsible for grammar and usage. They are going to have to spell-check their own work. They are going to have to learn how to write intelligible headlines for the web.

If they do that, the remaining copy desk staff, instead of having to fix everything, will be able to focus on the handful of minor slips that inevitably get past even the most careful writer.

All might do well to heed a couple of pieces of advice from fev at HeadsUp:

“1) Time that goes into enforcing every bogus secret-handshake rule in the AP Stylebook is not well spent.

“2) Time spent on taking a deep breath and giving the cop-blotter items a quick read for clarity and common sense before hitting the 'publish' button, on the other hand, is rewarded. The people on the receiving end of our prose appreciate it.” 



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