Wednesday, March 15, 2006
During employee orientation at a newspaper for which I once worked, the publisher asked everyone in the room: "In any given newspaper, how many mistakes are acceptable to readers?"
Hands shot up, and the answers started. Two. One. Three or four. Somebody said "about 10."
The right answer, of course, is zero. No error is acceptable.
Sadly, as the responses to the publisher's question revealed, it is newspaper employees who sometimes become too complacent about such errors. They begin to accept that to err is newspapering.
That's simply unacceptable.
From time to time, a reader will send in a tearsheet with a misspelled or misused word circled in red. "Don't you have any proofreaders down there?" the reader will write.
Others think we rely solely on spell check, which readers note isn't foolproof, because spell check can't differentiate between using farther when we meant further or whether the pronoun agrees with the antecedent.
The truth is that we use spell check. But it is only one of many tools to help us get things right. Far more important than spell check is making sure our employees are diligent about using all of the tools available to avoid mistakes.
If we do it right, we get it right. Some of our procedures:
Our reporters and photographers are required to ask people how to spell their names or, absent that, check the spelling against another source, such as a phone book.
Reporters are required to type "all names checked" at the top of their stories to assure editors that they have gone through their stories and double-checked the spelling of every name in the story.
All stories must first be edited by the city editor or the editor. Once the story has been edited, the responsible editor initials it and moves it to a folder specifically for stories that have been edited.
A copy editor -- whose duties include proofreading -- then edits each story a second time, places it on the appropriate page and prints a copy of the page.
A second copy editor then proofs the page, providing a third edit of the story. The edited page is returned to the first copy editor, who makes the appropriate corrections.
The final step is to run spell check on all headlines and stories before sending the page to the press.
Despite such procedures, we still make mistakes. Why? Because sometimes we take shortcuts. Because sometimes in trying to correct a mistake, we insert a mistake. Because sometimes we simply miss errors we should have caught. Because sometimes mistakes happen that, for the life of us, we can't explain.
When I stop to think about what we accomplish -- publishing a daily newspaper containing dozens of stories and tens of thousands of words written and edited in 24-hour cycles -- it's surprising we don't stumble more often. But such thinking leads to complacency. Mistakes damage our credibility; they take away from the things that we get right.
I'd love to promise that you'll never see an error in our newspaper again. I can't. I can promise that, yes, we do have proofreaders. And if they are diligent about following our procedures, we will get a lot closer to what our readers expect every day -- no errors.