Readers fume over latest Post errors

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Friday, December 31, 2010

The holiday season is supposed to be a time of happiness, but there has been little cheer from readers upset about a chronic Post problem: a lack of quality control.

The past few years have seen a crescendo of complaints about typos, grammatical errors and minor factual mistakes. In recent weeks, a string of lapses has heightened reader despair.

For example, the Page One table of contents in last Sunday's Post referred readers to the Travel section inside the paper. But there was no Travel section. Nor were readers alerted to the change beyond a small editor's note a week earlier saying the section wouldn't appear the following Sunday. Travel Editor Joe Yonan acknowledged the misstep. That was little solace for readers such as Harry Seamen of Bedford, Pa., who complained of misspelled words and grammatical errors in addition to the missing Travel section. "It's almost like a pre-final edition of the paper got released," he wrote.

While typos have become common in The Post, few have been more conspicuous than one appearing in a headline over the lead story on last Sunday's front page. "Timing Promps Ethics Questions," read the second-tier headline on the story about members of Congress who ignore ethics rules by fundraising during crucial legislative debates. The misspelled "Promps" (instead of "Prompts") went through the full press run without being detected by multiple editors tasked with ensuring Page One accuracy.

"Why was prompt misspelled, on A1, above the fold?" wrote District reader Amy Schultz. "Not cool!"

"Please be more careful in the future," Joy Maloney of Ashburn implored in an e-mail. "It makes the paper look bad."

On the Wednesday before Christmas, the entire half-page package of listings for the financial markets was repeated from the previous day. Every chart and index, from the Dow Jones Industrials to currency rates to commodities prices, was identical. Some readers who rely on the newspaper to track investments expressed irritation and dismay. "I find it to be unbelievable that the editing has gotten so thin that something like this can happen," wrote Alan Negin of Reston.

Several others noted that the Federal Employees' Thrift Savings Plan, listed in each Sunday's Business section, contained months-old performance ratings from October. "This information is of interest to thousands of us active and retired feds," wrote District reader Sarah Rouse. "Please give us current data."

For astronomy buffs and others, the Dec. 21 total lunar eclipse was historic because it coincided with the winter solstice. As a story in that day's Post noted, this hadn't happened in roughly 2,000 years. Inexplicably, The Post wrote about the eclipse after - not before - it occurred. That especially rankled some readers who said they would have liked to view it. Although it was mentioned in a Metro section column in early December and there were pre-eclipse references online, Post print readers were essentially in the dark in the days leading to the eclipse.

"Unfortunately, the eclipse occurred at 3:17 a.m., long before the newspaper arrived at my front door," Capitol Hill resident James Wright complained in an e-mail. "The alert would have been more helpful if it had run . . . before the once-in-2,000-year event occurred. You certainly can't claim surprise as an excuse."

Reporter Martin Weil, who wrote the story that appeared after the eclipse, said, "Somehow, this one fell through the cracks, regrettably."

There were also complaints about coverage - or the absence of it - during the holiday period. Some readers focused on a Dec. 16 anti-war rally in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, by veterans and peace activists. The next day's Post noted the gathering with a wire service photo inside the Metro section. It highlighted Daniel Ellsberg, famous for releasing the Pentagon Papers, and said he and "several others" were arrested for not dispersing.

Actually, the U.S. Park Police arrested 131 protesters. "I believe that was our highest number for 2010 for a mass arrest," Park Service spokesman Sgt. David Schlosser told me. Staged events with mass arrests don't necessarily have high news value. But 131 arrests warrant more than an inaccurate cutline. The year's second-largest number of U.S. Park Police arrests took place in late September during a rally at the White House against mountaintop mining. A photo of that demonstration was featured on the Post's front page.

There's little doubt that reduced newsroom staffing has taken a toll on Post quality. But many lapses have little to do with how many are working and everything to do with whether they're paying attention.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the omblog at http://voices.washingtonpost. com/ombudsman-blog/.


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