We know they’re there, those pesky typos and grammatical errors that appear in the Missoulian despite our best efforts. Nearly always, we’ve caught them — too late — before getting your irate call/email/letter.
We’ve probably already fixed the problem online by then, and, if the mistake involves a factual error, written a correction for the next day’s paper.
But first, we’ve beaten our heads against the wall for a while because, truly, we hate them as much as you do.
Back in the day, the Missoulian, like most papers, had a protective phalanx of copy editors, armed with dog-eared copies of the AP Stylebook and the dirtiest minds on the planet, the better to catch those unintended double-entrendres.
They were the last lines of defense, after a story had already gone through at least a couple of layers of editing for factual and structural issues. The best copy editors possessed fearsome amounts of knowledge about grammar and style, and a horror of seeing either misused.
1. Wal-Mart, WalMart or Walmart?
2. Seven-11, Seven Eleven, 7/11 or 7-Eleven?
3. Is cellphone one word or two?
4. Does anyone with a Ph.D. get a Dr. in front of his or her name?
5. And is that the correct way to write Ph.D.?*
A copy editor knew the answers to all of those, and expected reporters to, also. Copy editors checked stories for typos, grammatical errors and style issues, and were empowered to kick stories back to the editors and/or reporters if they caught structural or factual issues that might have been missed. Depending on the size of a newspaper, a story could be read by as many as a half-dozen people or even more by the time the copy desk handed it off. (Yet even then, mistakes still made it into print.)
Copy editors also checked captions and wrote headlines, a little-known fact that for years gave reporters plausible deniability when the subject of a story complained about a headline.
But at the Missoulian, as at most newspapers around the country, copy editors were a lamentable casualty of budget cuts. Now, reporters are wise to be their own best editors, even though any writer can tell you that the quickest way to catch errors of any sort is with a second (and preferably a third and fourth) set of eyes.
Reporters write their own headlines, too, and ship their stories to an editor who’s getting stories from all the other reporters at once, with only a couple of hours to edit them — all of them — before deadline. Then it’s off to a design person, who thankfully reads the stories again, but quickly, quickly, before sending them to a center in Indiana, where more page designers work to lay out the Missoulian and several other papers.
The generally accepted wisdom has been that in the space of about 12 hours, newspaper journalists report, write and edit the equivalent of a book.
The Missoulian does this now with about half the news staff it had a decade ago. Our copy editors are long gone. These days, even as they report and craft their stories, journalists are busy tweeting, writing early versions for breaking news, and posting to other social media outlets.
Do mistakes get through in this kind of speeded-up, trimmed-down, multi-tasking environment? You bet. Do we hate that they do? Terribly. After all, our names are on those stories. And even though editors labor in anonymity, we’re painfully aware that with every missed error, we’ve let a reporter — and the readers — down.
So, we apologize for our errors. And as much as we cringe when you point them out, we ask that you continue to do so, because if we don’t know about them, we can’t fix them. After all, our ultimate goal is accuracy, even in the smallest details and even if sometimes it’s belated.
• Cellphone is one word.
• Only medical doctors get a Dr.
• Ph.D. is correct, but the term doctorate is preferred.
Missoulian city editor Gwen Florio spent years on copy desks at newspapers in Bucks County, Pa., Philadelphia and Baltimore. She’s among many people still recovering from the AP’s recent decision that “over” is permissible (instead of “more than”) for quantity.