The Washington Post discovers that fewer copy editors = more errors

Craig Silverman at Regret the Error has an excellent post about an important but underreported problem– the increasing number of errors in newspapers caused by the decreasing number of copy editors:

Just over two years ago, the public editor of the Orlando Sentinel wrote a column alerting readers to the fact that the paper had experienced a spike in the number of corrections. He was clear about the cause of the increased errors:

When the Sentinel tightened its financial belt back in June, it lost a wealth of seasoned veterans, many of them editors. Those journalists not only wrote headlines and captions. They also scrutinized the work of reporters — correcting spelling, straightening out syntax, double-checking facts — before publication.

With fewer people to do that now, less of that important work gets done, and the result is more published errors.

Yesterday, the ombudsman of the Washington Post wrote basically the same column:

…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…

“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.”…

These papers are by no means the only ones experiencing a spike in errors due to the loss of bodies on the copy desk. Adding to the problem is the fact that the move online means papers are churning out more content than ever before. Yet copy editors — and magazine fact checkers — are being shown the door.

Carl Sessions Stepp examined how some newsrooms are coping with this challenge is his recent article, “The Quality-Control Quandary,” It’s a must-read. I fear, though, that few organizations are rethinking their quality control process and means of verification. They’re just trying to do more with less. It’s a recipe for disaster.

I looked at this issue in a recent essay I wrote for Harvard’s Neimen Reports….

Here are the related links:

July 5, 2009 column by Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander, “Fewer Copy Editors, More Errors”

April/May 2009 article in the American Journalism Review by Carl Sessions Stepps, “The Quality-Control Quandary”

Craig Silverman’s essay in the Nieman Reports (Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard), “Reliable News: Errors Aren’t Part of the Equation”

Craig Silverman’s “Regret the Error” blog and his column in the Columbia Journalism Review

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One response to “The Washington Post discovers that fewer copy editors = more errors

  1. I’m finding more and more problems in published books. (I read many ARCs, so I had hoped all the errors were getting caught between the “uncorrected proof” phase and publication, but now I’m not so sure.) For example, I’m loving “Twenty Chickens for a Saddle” by Robyn Scott, except I keep finding copy errors. I got into a snit after finding “untill” in my reading last night. It’s the paperback version, so you’d think they had more chances to make corrections; maybe paperback publication means just more chances to make errors.
    I feel like typo or corrections hotlines for publishers and newspapers would help catch some of the blunders, but what we really need are some paid professionals who take pride in their work, and supervisors who actually check to see if they’re getting it right.

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