When Delinda Fogel, publisher of the Saint Augustine Record, invited members of the public to proofread the paper in a campaign to eliminate typos and grammatical errors, she got for her pains some attention from Jim Romenesko's site and a horselaugh from Saturday Night Live.
I think that consulting readers about their preferences, concerns, and issues is generally a good thing, but I suspect that Ms. Fogel's effort is misguided.
Let me suggest what crowdsourcing the editing in this manner will turn up, even if the crowd is made up of retired English teachers.
It will indeed identify any number of typographical errors and slips in punctuation, grammar, and usage. Some newspapers are cleaner than most, but no newspaper is ever free of them. Local readers will also identify slips in factual details about local matters.
It will also turn up things marked as errors that are not wrong, even retired English teachers of the noblest stripe having been inoculated with bogus rules. And unless the civilians have been instructed in the paper's house style (if any), the presence or absence of capitalization and abbreviation will draw attention to no particular purpose.
I further suspect that this enterprise will not go far, if at all, in vital macro-editing issues, identifying articles that are thinly sourced or superficially reported, given to implying conclusions for which insufficient support is offered, ineptly organized with salient facts interred deep in the text, or merely padded.
If the publisher is really serious about improving the quality of the paper, rather than indulging in a stunt, there is a ready solution: Staff the copy desk with qualified editors. An adequately staffed copy desk will reduce those embarrassing typos and grammar slips to an irreducible minimum, while also addressing those larger questions.
One reason for the shoddy quality of much journalism, print and online, is the decision by publishers and corporate types that copy editing is a frill they can dispense with. To be fair to them as they have made extremely difficult choices about staffing and resources, the public often appears to tolerate the shoddier product.
But if I were the publisher of a newspaper,* I would invite readers to sit down and talk, though not in one of those contrived focus groups designed to produce the conclusion the management wants, about what they would like to see in the paper, what concerns them, what bores them, what irritates them.
Then I would have to figure out what mix of staff, including copy editors, I'd need to meet their expectations.
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