Why you're seeing more copy-editing errors in The Post

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, January 17, 2010

When it comes to typos and syntax, retired English teachers and armchair grammarians delight in playing "Gotcha!" with The Post. They are regular (and often good-natured) correspondents, pointing out everything from misplaced modifiers to homonym errors.

In recent months, they've been joined by less genial readers who complain that increased copy-editing errors have become annoying and are damaging The Post's credibility.

"If they don't care about basics like grammar and spelling, how much do they care about factual accuracy?" asked Philip K. Cohen, a reader from Falls Church.

"For me, the errors have become like fingernails on a blackboard," e-mailed Linda Crawford, who works in Silver Spring.

And from Susannah Yovino, who works at the University of Maryland School of Medicine: "To see such carelessness in the editing of one of our most important and reliable news sources is concerning and disappointing."

I wrote a column about these kinds of errors in July, but readers say they have worsened recently. An increase in their complaints during the waning months of 2009 has continued into the new year. Michael Larabee, who handles letters to the editor, said he also has seen a "noticeable" increase, including "many letters complaining about multiple mistakes in a single story."

The errors are typically small but unremitting. A story about an Arlington National Cemetery burial described a soldier wearing "shiny black boats" (instead of boots). An item about an auto accident involving NBC newsman Tom Brokaw said he had "slammed on the breaks" (brakes). A listing of unemployment rates in foreign countries included "Cypress" (Cyprus). In a Sports story, the "principles" (principals) attended a dinner celebrating the hiring of Redskins coach Mike Shanahan.

Why the increased errors? Clearly, reduced staffing plays some role. A decade ago, at its peak, The Post's newsroom had more than 900 FTES (full-time equivalent employees), and that didn't include an online staff that was then working separately. Today, the now-integrated print and online staffs total about 650 FTEs, producing the newspaper and a dramatically expanded 24-hour online product. Through buyouts and voluntary departures, the number of full-time copy editors declined from about 75 to 43 between early 2005 and mid-2008. There was another round of buyouts last year, but it hasn't yet resulted in a sharp decrease in the number of copy editors. So what explains the recent increase in reader complaints?

The answer may be less about staffing levels and more about the changing duties of copy editors. Gone are the days when they primarily detected errors and smoothed prose for the next day's newspaper. Now they must also operate in an online environment where "search-engine optimization" is a key goal. That requires new skills and time-consuming additional duties. Separate online headlines must be written in a way that attracts attention on the Web. Links must be found, vetted and inserted into online stories, and so-called "keywords" must be highlighted. All of this is designed to make it easier to find Post content on the Internet and more likely for the Post to win the intense media competition to show up at the top of results lists when readers use search engines such as Google and Yahoo. And when readers click on those stories, it takes them back to The Post. That increases traffic to its Web site, which can boost online advertising.

"We're now multiplatform," said Anne Ferguson-Rohrer, who is The Post's "multiplatform editing chief." She noted that some of the additional Web-preparation duties for copy editors were implemented in the latter half of last year.

Some relief may be coming for beleaguered copy editors. This week, The Post will begin search-engine optimization training for the entire newsroom. Front-end help from reporters and other staff should ease the burden on copy editors.

Down the road, new technologies also may offer assistance. Many software programs already can detect spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. Others highlight words that can have dual meanings, prompting a second look by an editor. Programs are emerging that can be customized and "taught" the style preferences of individual newspapers.

But Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute on media studies in Florida, warns against overreliance on technology. "Instead of treating it as a safety net," he said, there's danger in "treating it as something godlike that descends out of the machine and corrects all your mistakes for you."

In the end, nothing can replace the experienced, fastidious copy editor. And nothing can help them more than reporters getting it right in the first place.

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

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