Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton earns his pay with this blog post, a slam on his employer for slow corrections and bad copy-editing. The point of departure for the item is the paper’s slow-footedness in correcting a mistake in a fantastic Sunday Business article on lightbulbs. It spoke of something called the “National Resources Defense Council.”
Pexton blasts away:
This mistake may seem minor in the grand scheme of things. But in the context of this town, it is almost unforgivable. The words are similar enough, sure — natural and national — but if you’ve spent any time in D.C., you know that the NRDC is about natural resources, not national resources. You practically can’t do any story on energy or the environment in this city without encountering NRDC. Its name should be on a basic copy editing test for anyone working at The Post.
Then the ombo transitions into a broader point about the Post and, for that matter, all of journalism. Pexton excerpts an e-mail sent from a former Post staffer who is wary of offending his former colleagues. So the staffer’s name stays out of the mix. Anyhow, the staffer is appalled:
“I have been reluctant to write this e-mail. But I can no longer hold my tongue. The quality of copy editing at the paper is abysmal. Yet again, while reading a story, I have found another error — a ‘they’ where it should have read ‘the’ — that literally made me stop reading the story and write this e-mail.
“Unfortunately, it’s not a rare occurrence — countless stories and blogs with words left out or misspellings or grammatical errors. Is anybody reading what goes on up on the Web site or in the paper?
1) This wouldn’t be the first time that a staffer left a newspaper and later reached the self-serving conclusion that things have gone to pot in his or her absence.
2) Sorry about the “they”-”the” mixup, former staffer. Perhaps you got over this atrocity and resumed your reading of the paper.
In contrast to the former staffer’s toxic reaction, many consumers of web news these days have grown to accept occasional sloppiness in hastily thrown-together news updates. They know that reporters are cranking at all times and that here and there, a word’ll get left out.
Pexton’s claim that copy-editing issues are hurting the Post’s “credibility” aligns with the oft-repeated and faulty thinking that “If you can’t get the little things right, how do you expect to get the big things right?” My experience with journalists is the opposite. They’re so obsessed with getting the big things right that sometimes the little things don’t get the proper attention.
3) Pexton writes: “I don’t mean to pile on, but copy editing mistakes are among the most frequent complaints to the ombudsman.”
And that’s a bad thing?
From where I sit, that’s a sign of journalistic good health, at least in the year 2011. Wouldn’t it be far worse if other categories of mistakes and nastiness were “among the most frequent complaints to the ombudsman?” Think about it: What if “rampant sexism among both male and female columnists” were among the most frequent complaints to the ombudsman? What if plagiarism or quote fabrication were among the most frequent complaints to the ombudsman? What if political bias were among the most frequent complaints to the ombudsman? What if a really slow website were among the most frequent complaints to the ombudsman?
Oops, scratch that last one.
Copy errors do stink. They’re annoying and distracting, especially to the educated audience of a paper like the Post. In January 2010, former Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander took a whack at explaining the paper’s trouble with copy, noting that buyouts had shrunk the copy-editing staff from “75 to 43 between early 2005 and mid-2008.” Plus, those who remained had a host of new duties relating to web optimization and the like.
The operative exhortation in newspapers these days is More! More stories, more blog posts, more sidebars, more web exclusives. If reporters are doing their job, they’re overwhelming their copy-cleaning operations. Achieving the same level of scrutiny for daily copy output in 2011 v. daily copy output in 1995 or even 2000 would require a ledger-straining new investment in human resources. Not going to happen.
An alternative would be to convert reporter slots to copy editor slots. Then you’ll have a new winner when it comes to categories of frequent complaints. How come you couldn't even see fit to cover the Neil Diamond concert? Does our region’s dominant daily have any idea what’s happening in Prince William County? Can the Mystics buy a word in your fishwrap?