Fewer Copy Editors, More Errors

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, July 5, 2009

The front of Tuesday's Metro section directed readers to turn to Page B3 for a story about the suspected kidnapping of a Wheaton woman. But no story could be found.

The previous day, a key passage in a Metro feature about gay and lesbian families living in the suburbs ended in mid-sentence, leaving readers hanging.

Errors such as these seem to have increased in recent months. A story referred to the "Democratically" (instead of Democrat-) controlled Congress. Another mentioned the Marine "Corp" (instead of Corps). A story on Arlington County's plans for the old Newseum building misspelled Rosslyn as "Rossyln" four times. A column about plans to fire a federal employee said he had "spitted" (instead of spat) on his boss. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter was described as a "ferocious" (instead of voracious) reader. A photo caption mistakenly referred to a boy with the odd first name of "Jacon" instead of "Jacob" (clue: "b" is next to "n" on the keyboard).

Growing numbers of readers are contacting the ombudsman to complain about typos and small errors.

"As a virtually lifelong subscriber, I am disheartened by the increasingly poor quality of the editing of The Post," wrote Richard Murphy of Alexandria. If typos can't be caught by a spell-checker, "then The Post should restore a couple of copy editor positions. You have cut that staff too much."

The Post's copy editors are among the best I've worked with during nearly four decades in the newspaper business. But they've been badly depleted by staff cuts as the money-losing paper struggles to control costs. Those who remain are stretched thin while The Post expands to a 24-hour news operation in print and online.

Between early 2005 and mid-2008, the number of full-time copy editors dropped from about 75 to 43 through buyouts or voluntary departures. It has declined further since then, but Post managers won't provide precise figures beyond saying that six took a recent buyout offer. The need is so critical that most are being hired back on contract through at least the end of the year, and part-timers are taking up some of the slack.

Copy editors are the unsung heroes of newsrooms. Unknown to the public, and often underappreciated by their colleagues, they're the last line of defense against a correction or, worse, a libel suit.

They're skeptics who revel in the arcane. They know the difference between median and mean, and can speak knowledgeably about topics from Methuselah to the Milky Way. They write headlines, design some pages, check facts and make sure assertions are supported. They spend entire careers working horrible night-shift hours.

"By definition, you'll see more errors when there's reduced staffing," said Bill Walsh, the A-section copy desk chief. On a typical weeknight a few years ago, Walsh said, the three copy desks handling national, foreign and business news could rely on perhaps 20 editors. Those desks have since been combined into one desk, headed by Walsh. Today, he said, "there are some shifts where I'm looking at seven or eight people total."

Little mistakes take a huge toll on credibility. A groundbreaking newspaper industry study on credibility a decade ago warned that "each misspelled word, bad apostrophe, garbled grammatical construction, weird cutline and mislabeled map erodes public confidence in a newspaper's ability to get anything right."

"If readers can't rely on our accuracy, why should they even pick up the paper?" asked Chris Wienandt, an editor at the Dallas Morning News and president of the American Copy Editors Society, which has roughly 600 members.

He said technological tools, such as computer programs that check spelling and grammar, are of limited value. "It won't catch the difference between Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan," he said. "A copy editor will."

The Post this week began moving to a new, centralized "universal desk" intended to streamline the editing process for readers to get information in print, online and on mobile devices. Numerous copy editors told me they anticipate more errors will slip through as the kinks are worked out.

Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli did not disagree that more errors have appeared lately. But over time, he predicted, a universal desk will be "more effective" in serving print, online and mobile audiences.

Post managers have few choices but to cut staff while restructuring for the future. To survive, The Post must simultaneously hold on to its print readers while expanding its online audience.

It's a tall order. Small errors will continue. Loyal Post readers should continue to note them when they're small and complain loudly when they're large.

But I hope they also show some patience and understanding.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.

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