Get It Right the First Time

Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon said something in an online chat a few months ago that has stuck with me:

Since I'm just about to start a new project that some will call a "blog" … I want to work with an editor just the way I have for 28 years…It's a new world we're moving into, a world I'm clearly not entirely comfortable with but excited about. 

Wilbon's a terrific columnist and writer, and I'm as excited as he is about his purported blog (which still hasn't launched). But there's an implication in that statement that's troubling: That he's worried that without the protection of an editor, the quality of his work will suffer. Shouldn't he be confident enough to stand on his own and produce first-rate work without help?

That question reoccurred recurred to me when I read New York Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt's scarifying dissection of chronically error-prone TV critic Alessandra Stanley's trainwreck of an appraisal of Walter Cronkite. By failing to check some of the most basic facts, and having several layers of the Times' vaunted editing apparently fall asleep on the job, Stanley managed to bungle everything from well-known historical dates to the nature of Cronkite's participation in D-Day—and set some sort of record for a Times correction in the process.

That's stunningly sloppy work, but it points to a broader issue: Have (some) reporters, consistently bailed out by their editors, gotten terminally lazy about the quality of their work? In a time of thinning newsrooms, with people fighting for their jobs, you have to wonder how somebody like Stanley (who at one point was assigned a personal copy editor!) still is employed by the Times over somebody who, say, actually knew when man walked on the moon. (A note to people who don't know how newspapers work: Contrary to common misconception, newspapers don't employ fact-checkers, as some magazines do. Reporters are directly responsible for the facts in their stories.)

There's is a bit of a journalism dirty secret at work here: Everybody who's worked as an editor knows that there are certain reporters whose copy needs to be carefully checked and/or essentially translated into English on a regular basis. I edited a reporter who had little or no concept of how to use commas; another who would submit long stories with gaps labeled "insert transitions here;" and a third who infamously spelled a type of citrus fruit as "greatfruit." And these were experienced reporters at major papers, not rookies at the Podunk Press.

I suppose that sort of editorial backstopping was an acceptable luxury when newsrooms were fat and happy, but in today's budget-conscious world, it's unacceptable. (At least a spellchecker would catch "greatfruit." I hope.) Reporters turning in work that's got factual problems or is laden with spelling errors, in hopes that the desk will cover for them, are like an autoworker who puts a car door on crooked and hopes that the quality-control folks further down the assembly line will correct the mistake. It's just wrong, and unprofessional. And as a smart editor I worked with once wondered out loud, you always have to worry a bit more about the factual skills of a reporter who's careless about things like spelling.

Blogs, chats and other new forms that expose writers' raw copy only highlight the problem. I've cringed reading some blogs by respected reporters who apparently can't take the time to be sure that words are spelled correctly or that their syntax isn't tortured. We all make mistakes, but the writer's goal should be perfection, the first time. It's not that hard to, at minimum, backread a post or story for errors before pressing "Send" or "Save." Have some pride in your work, for God's sake.

Journalism may be the rough draft of history, but that doesn't mean that rough draft should be rife with factual errors and misspellings. As in other industries, the standard for errors should be zero tolerance. And a consistently sloppy worker like Stanley should lose her job in favor of somebody who can produce something much closer to error-free work. 

15 thoughts on “Get It Right the First Time

  1. Your assembly line analogy is accurate and I think the assembly line deserves the blame.
    Copy editors don’t tell reporters the mistakes they made (unless they’re gigantic) and reporters generally don’t bother to study their stories for fixes.
    There needs to be more of a feedback process so that the same mistakes aren’t made repeatedly.


  2. You’re quite right about journalism’s “dirty secret.” Some of the “best” journalists I’ve known (and edited) are among the dirtiest when it comes grammar, punctuation, AP Style and, yes, accuracy.
    Copy editors have long made mainstream journalists look much better than many have deserved — and with little thanks. Now, with cutbacks, particularly on the copy desk, many journalists are being exposed (I’ve never seen Mike Wilbon’s copy raw, by the way).
    There’s an honesty to blogging — to putting yourself out there to the best of your ability for public scrutiny. Yet it’s the bloggers who take the brunt of the criticism from the mainstream folks for being inaccurate, poorly written or poorly edited.
    That Alessandra Stanley was exposed (at least in the story mentioned) DESPITE still-existing layers of editing protection is even more troubling institutionally.
    Long ago, I tried out for the NYTimes sports copy desk. Over the course of a week, I edited an average of four stories a night! And I was not the only read on each story. I was bored to tears and didn’t like the copy desk environment (for a wonderful overview of the Times’ copy desk, see Robert Lipsyte’s “SportsWorld: An American Dreamland). Didn’t take the job.
    But I just checked the copy of “SportsWorld” on my book shelf to make sure I got the title right AND spelled Lipsyte’s name correctly. Lipsyte would have, too.
    But the “dirty secret” is that many mainstream journalists don’t.


  3. And despite my best effort in the item above, there’s at least one AP Style typo! Copy editing and editors matter if you hold yourself to high standards. I know Mike Wilbon does. But these days, that degree of quality is often a luxury. We now fly without the safety net of the past. That puts the onus on each of us.


  4. Some of this comes back to economics and again underscores just how “rich” journalistic institutions once were (and how relatively threadbare they are now).
    When I started writing for a national newsweekly in the Eighties, a lot of the writers didn’t even bother to put in facts. We all had researchers, so you’d just write “This stunning shift in the proportion of never-married, from TKTK in TKTK to TKTK in TKTK…” and so on.
    One-researcher-per-writer, of course, was one of the first things to go in the Nineties.
    Ironically, those who have spent a lot of time as freelancers are probably better equipped for the new environment than elite reporters who have always been employed by the large institutions.


  5. This is an observation I made on Twitter after reading the Stanley saga.
    In my old-media days, I was part of the intervention layer, in a variety of ways … dating back to a job in my late teens as a very young typesetter/proofreader at a long-defunct daily newspaper in Vegas, where I audaciously padded out of the back room and into the newsroom, dangling the brown-paper, typewritten work of the star columnist (which already had gone through a copy editor and M/E) as if it reeked, and saying, “Um, Mr. (columnist name deleted), did you REALLY mean to say (phrase that would have embarrassed the hell out of him if it had gone to print)?”
    Sometimes I think part of our current semi-success is due to the fact that I retain the capacity, even at an advanced age, to be something of a “human spellcheck” (which was the name of a blog-before-we-called-them-blogs that I published for a while a decade ago), which means our site is rather low on errors.
    While “everyone needs an editor” – these days everyone needs to be capable of functioning without one. For each precious staff position that can still be funded in a news organization of any size, there are higher priorities than having to check and doublecheck and triplecheck someone who is chronically incapable of getting it right the first time.


  6. Great post, Mark. Another analogy is to all the mid-level executives in corporate America who used to have their own secretaries. In the past couple of decades, secretaries have gone the way of the buggy whip. Some executives learned to use their own computers; write their own emails place their own phone calls; make their own travel arrangements, etc. They flourished.
    Others were completely lost. They withered and died.


  7. Worse than good repoters who make lots of little screwups are reporters who got all the little stuff right but never found good stories.
    As an editor I always preferred the former: the desk can fix the style, fix the writing, but can’t do a damn thing about the reporting.


  8. So your response to poorly edited copy is that the writer has to do better? How about hire a copy editor? Hooray for Wilbon recognizing the need.


  9. Editors are good for any of us who write. I agree. I also think some reporters depend on an editor to be a backstop so they have gotten a little lazy.
    For example, you use the word “reoccurred” in your third paragraph. No such word. It is “recurred”.
    To eliminate mistakes, go to the root of the problem, where the mistake occurred. Too many reporters think they can be lax and it is some editor’s job to clean up their copy. In their mind, if something gets through, it’s the editor’s fault.
    Mistakes cut into our credibility. Readers do notice these things.


  10. William: Thanks for the catch on “recurred.” Spellcheck had cleared that one. And don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge fan of and advocate for copy editors. But writers should strive to make editors’ jobs easier, rather than depending on them to clean up after them.


  11. That you acknowledge this as a “hidden secret” is naive. Newspapers, even august publications like NYT, are suffering in part because these practices have been conspicuous for decades and finally the blogosphere is calling them out on it. I think there is a decidely false impression among journalists/newspaper folk that their audience believed them to be some sort of metaphysical guide to the experiential realm, that only through a newspaper could a reader come to grasp reality. Not true: readers have been laughing at us for as long as we’ve been around. Especially since they’ve become a lot more educated and skilled, while we journos practiced our craft for the same way for 100 years or more. I worked at the south’s largest metro for nearly a decade and came to realize what a joke that place was — and it had all the same throwback problems as the rest of the big dailies. I realize I had to switch careers to take myself seriously.


  12. I interned at a college-town paper where I now do some occasional freelancing (I’m still a student). There’s no more copy desk, and the editors are so overworked they can hardly be expected to catch everything. The experience has been extremely valuable – I was loathe to hit “send” on anything with so much as a comma splice.
    I think experiences like that prepare members of my generation for this brave new world where we have to be our own quality control. It’s one of several advantages I think we have over the dinosaurs in the new media landscape.


  13. I totally agree with you! I am a copy editor, the ONLY copy editor, at a small-town newspaper aka Podunk Press. I am the ONLY one most of the time that reads ALL of the copy every night. I ask a million questions to the reporters, who get annoyed at me for doing so. We have to constantly remind them to use spell check. I think in this day and age of technological advances, it is so much easier to check our work and spell-check it, too. I agree that as newsrooms get smaller, the reporters need to own up to their work and start checking it. I have to make the newspaper look perfect every day, that is my job and I take pride in it. However, when I make a mistake, I am the only one that gets yelled at, while the reporter gets a pat on the back. If it was a bigger newsroom with more copy editors, sure, yell at just me. BUT with a small newsroom, the reporters should be their own copy editors, too. I have to be a reporter from time to time, so they should have my job for a little part of their day.


  14. Thanks for writing this… as a copy-ed for a national daily in Asia, all your words ring true.
    I (idealistically) hope that one day my job will be superfluous so I have some more time to get my teeth into other challenges


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