Zero tolerance? Yeah, that'll work

The Baltimore Sun

Modern frontiers in fatuity: Last week at Jim Romenesko's website, we learned that Chris Quinn, the content chief of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, was so incensed about the profusion of typographical errors at that he announced a zero tolerance policy in a memo. 

Some salient passages: “We hear from people about typos every day. It’s a genuine crisis, and it threatens our long-term success. So I’m taking the drastic action of instituting a zero-tolerance policy for typos.”

And "Ask a colleague to read your stuff before you post it. Or your spouse. Or your significant other. I can’t tell you how many times my wife has caught typos in my stuff. ... The key is that you or someone you trust has to actively read your copy to find the spelling mistakes."

It seems odd that a content chief should betray so little awareness of the realities of publishing. So, in a spirit of magnanimity, I'll review some of the basics.

Item. People make mistakes. Philip B. Corbett's After Deadline blog examines errors published in The New York Times. If The Times, which employs some of the best copy editors alive (I know; I trained a couple of them), isn't error-free, then, which appears to have curtailed or even dispensed with the services of copy editors, is going to bear blemishes. 

Item. People are not the best editors of their own work. H.L. Mencken wrote, "When, as occasionally happened, an error in an article of mine got into the paper, I refused to take responsibility for it. No man, I argued, could be expected to read his own copy; it was a psychological impossibility. Someone should be told off to go through it, and that someone should be responsible for undetected slips." I'm not the best editor of my own work either, as you can see from the glee with which readers comment on my typos. 

Item. Spouses and significant others are not a substitute for professionals. I wouldn't dream of asking my wife to look over this post. She thinks I spent altogether too much time blogging when I could be doing yardwork. And if I were at the office today instead of at home, you can imagine the reaction if I called her at work to say, "Honey, I've got a story here that they want me to post right away, so could you give a quick scan at the spelling?" You may remember the sardonic remarks occasioned when Delinda Fogel of the St. Augustine Record proposed to get retired English teachers to come into the office and proofread the paper. 

Trained copy editors are not merely spell-checkers and punctuators, though they are competent at both those tasks.They have expertise. They can identify that the wrong homonym has been used. They can untangle knotty and awkward syntax. They can see that an article is ineptly organized or badly focused and fix it. They can protect you, if you will let them, from plagiarism, fabrication, and libel. Most civilians are not up to the task. 

Item. That "zero tolerance" talk amounts to bovine feces. What are you going to do when someone types recieve instead of receive and it gets published? Dock them a day's pay? Suspend them? Fire them? It sounds as if you don't employ a staff adequate to the purpose to start with. Making vague and empty threats hardly seems to be an effective motivational tool. (You might instead have strongly encouraged them to use the spell-check function, something that I have noticed over the years many reporters apparently think is beneath their dignity.)

Item. You get what you pay for. If you increase the demand on writers to produce and diminish the role of editing, then you have decided to run a quick-and-dirty operation, and you might as well stop pretending otherwise, because the readers are clearly aware of what you're doing. The familiar quick/cheap/good principle (You can only get two of the three at a time) continues to operate.  

Item. Circumstances require more than bluster. You're in a fix. Pretty much all American journalism is in a fix. The pressure to produce online and in print has increased, and the revenue no longer supports the extensive operation, with scores of copy editors, that we used to rely on. Reporters do have to learn to do better self-editing, and the increasingly scarce editing forces have to be deployed to achieve the greatest efficiency. No one appears to have figured out how to accomplish this, and the task, the challenge for all of us, requires something more thoughtful than "zero tolerance" blather. 


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