Tuesday, July 16, 2013


A friend of mine -- Elliott Potter, publisher and executive editor of the Jacksonville (N.C.) Daily News -- had a Facebook post this morning that made me smile. Here it is:

"People are pretty tough on the newspaper business, and I like being held to higher standards. But there are plenty of mistakes made in other enterprises, as well. FOR EXAMPLE: The AC in my personal office at the JDN has been out for a week while the company that was contracted for the $700-plus repair waited for "parts" to come in. Well, the parts arrived -- just in time for the hottest week of the summer -- only they are the wrong voltage. So... another week of waiting."

I have to say that in the a little over two months since my retirement, one of the things I have missed least about being the editor of a newspaper is the almost daily complaints by someone who managed to find a spelling or grammar error -- or, frequently, what they thought was a spelling or grammar error, but, in fact, wasn't -- in the paper.

Over the years, I found that the complaints came in about equal numbers from callers, most of whom would refuse to give their name and some of whom could be amazingly nasty and insulting, and from letters that would usually arrive unsigned in a plain white envelope with no return address that also contained a clipping with rabid little scrawls all over it. Also, when I would make an appearance in public at perhaps a Lions, Kiwanis or Rotary club meeting, someone would invariably bring up a question about spelling and grammar errors in the paper.

Let me make it perfectly clear that my point of reference here is not just The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, my last paper, where I was editor for almost 12 years before my retirement on April 30. In my nearly 44 year career, I was a senior editor of some sort at six different newspapers -- The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.; The Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram; The Cincinnati Post; The State Journal-Register, in Springfield, Ill.; The Morning News in Florence, S.C.; and The Monitor. The number and frequency of spelling and grammar complaints received was about equal across the board.

Granted, the vast majority of complaints were valid and we had screwed up because someone, or even several someones, had suffered a brain burp or because a reporter's fingers on the keyboard had overridden his or her brain. Unfortunately, it happens, but not just to newspaper people. It happens to almost anyone who spends much time writing anything whether it's news stories, manuscripts, work memos or even letters to family and friends. That point, however, seems to get lost on the most self-righteous of grammar and spelling complainers who call or write to their local newspaper.

Now, you may think I am being an apologist for newspaper spelling and grammar errors. I am not. I used to (and still do) hate seeing them. I find them to be embarrassing almost beyond belief and feel that readers have the right to expect that their newspaper will not only get its facts straight, but will also present them in a written form that is free of stupid spelling and grammar mistakes.

But, I am also a realist and realize that when you process as many words per day as appear in the average newspaper and do so in the amount of time a newspaper has to process them, mistakes will happen. It is almost an unfortunate inevitability regardless of the newspaper or its circulation size and despite our best efforts avoid mistakes. Over the years, I have found that even the nation's largest papers -- including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and USA Today -- publish their share of grammar and spelling errors.

Unfortunately, I think the problem has grown at least marginally worse in recent years as hard-pressed newspapers across the country have cut staff, particularly among desk editors -- like metro or city desk editors -- who give the first read to copy produced by reporters and among copy editors who do the final reads before committing copy to print. Today's newspapers have far fewer sets of eyes going over copy before the presses start and each set of eyes left must deal with a greater volume of words in a fixed time frame in the newspaper's daily race with the clock. The result is that far less editing time is spent with each story today than was spent 10, 20, 30 or more years ago, increasing the chances for spelling and grammar errors to slip through.

Of course, one of the problems that newspapers face is that our readers don't really have a good understanding of what it takes to produce "the daily miracle." That's due, certainly in part, to the fact that we don't do a particularly good job of explaining to our readers what we do and how we do it day in and day out, a problem exacerbated by editors who either react badly to complaints or listen politely, apologize, shake their heads, hang up and move on to the next problem rather than trying to explain the process in a way that will at least enlighten the complaining caller.

After years of listening to, being embarrassed by and internalizing spelling- and grammar-error calls, I finally developed an explanation that seems to have worked with all but that nastiest of complainers who were dead set on not listening. I used this explanation with both individual callers and when I spoke to groups and was called upon to answer the inevitable questions about grammar and spelling mistakes.

The average daily newspaper contains about the same number of words as the average 250- to 300-page paperback novel and a Sunday paper has about the same number of words as "War and Peace" -- possibly the longest and certainly the most boring novel ever written.  However, where the average paperback novel typically goes through an about six-month editing process, the daily newspaper typically goes through an about six-hour editing process. That's why we have come to refer to it as "the daily miracle," and part of that miracle is that while we do occasionally have grammar and spelling errors, it's a wonder that we don't have more.

Of course, there are always those who come back with the retort: "Well, don't you have proofreaders?" The answer to that being "no." The proofreader job pretty much disappeared from most newspapers with the death of hot type and the advent of computers. Perhaps, in retrospect, that was a mistake, but most newspapers paid for their computers, at least in part, with the money saved by doing away with proofreaders.

That explanation, I found, was often countered with: "Well, don't you have spellcheck?" The answer to that, of course, is "yes." We have spellcheck, but, unfortunately, we often become innocent and/or senseless victims of that bit of software since spellcheck doesn't always know what word we MEANT to use. There is little protection for errors in usage of words like bear, bare; where, wear; here, hear; there, their, they're; its, it's; deer, dear; kernel, colonel, etc.

One of the worst spellcheck victimizations I witnessed at a paper where I was editor occurred at The Morning News in Florence, S.C., when a reporter wrote a story that included a reference to a doctor who he meant to describe as "a prominent local allergist." The reporter's fingers apparently got tangled up, but the mistake was caught by spellcheck and changed. The reporter, however, failed to double check the spelling change before accepting it. So, when the story was published, the doctor wound up being described as "a prominent local ATHEIST." Needless to say, the physician, a deacon in his church, was quite upset with that designation.

I have also found that Microsoft Word's spellchecker hasn't a clue when to use "who" instead of "that" and often doesn't realize when you have left out a word.

While this explanation seemed to satisfy and give an understanding to most of those who would listen, it sometimes was not enough for the most self-righteous of complainers, who I often found to be current or former English teachers. For them, particularly the nastiest and most insulting, I would make a somewhat extraordinary offer -- come to the paper and spend a evening on the copy desk and experience, firsthand, what's it's like to work under the daily deadline pressure copy editors face. As part of that, I offered the same rate of hourly pay that I paid a copy editor for the level of experience the complainers had at their jobs, but they had to handle the same volume of copy as every other copy editor, including writing a cogent, interesting headline, and had to meet the same deadlines our regular copy editors faced. Although most people opted not to take me up on the offer, a few did. None of them, however, made it through one entire shift before tossing in the towel and admitting that didn't have a clue how copy editors could handle the pressure and time constraints.

One English teacher in Springfield, Ill., who took me up on the offer lasted a little over two hours before coming to my office to apologize for her "nastiness and lack of understand" and admitted that she didn't know how copy editors kept their sanity. (She, of course, was suffering under the misimpression that copy editors are sane to begin with.) Before she left the building, she stopped by my office again and assured me that "the next time I hear someone complain about mistakes in the paper, I'm going to just punch them right in the nose."

Seems to me that sometimes if you make a little extra effort to engage people and proactively explain what it takes to put out the daily newspaper you run the risk of turning a bitter complainer into an active ally.


(BTW: I apologize from my too long blog hiatus. I'll try to keep it from happening again)
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