Mission: Quality Control

If you’re going to upend the old editorial process, you need to create a new one

At this time last year, I made a few wishes for corrections and accuracy-related developments in 2009. For the most part, I’d say my wishes went unfulfilled, and one of them is more pressing than ever.

Overall, 2009 was notable for a few positive advancements in corrections-related technology. I highlighted several of these in my annual round-up of the year in media errors and corrections, and all of them were covered in this column during the past year (including MediaBugs, Django-correx, and hNews). We can only hope that more journalists and programmers take time to think about evolving the correction to meet the online world.

That continues to be a major challenge, and wish, for 2010. The other is to develop and deploy new quality control processes that take into account the loss of copy editors within print (and some online) newsrooms. It, too, was something I hoped would emerge in 2009, as noted last January:

This process of reevaluation should take into account the layoffs and buyouts that have thinned the ranks of copy editors and other quality control experts. Rather than simply adopting the mantra of “do more with less,” organizations can deal with this new reality by developing new processes for verifying and checking stories.

Just this week, the Star Tribune announced layoffs that will result in the loss of up to eighteen copy editors. Here’s how a memo sent to staff explained some of the new procedures that will be necessary in light of the reduced headcount:

As we reorganize, our focus will be on streamlining how stories, photos and other content flow to the print, online and mobile editions … At the heart of this plan is the intent to have fewer layers of editing of all content.

… This will also require more individual responsibility: Reporters cannot turn in stories without running a basic spell check. Editors should have reporters read over every story they have edited. Photographers must turn in accurate cutlines that adhere to AP style. More staffers will need to be flexible about the work they do, meaning some reporters might serve a shift as a copy editor or line editor in any given week.

Asking reporters to use a spellchecker is not a path to accuracy. Spellcheckers can just as easily introduce as many errors as they correct. (Two words: “beef panties.”) The mandate for reporters to read over work after it has been edited is useful and, frankly, should already have been in place. But the larger issue is that these proposed quality control measures are unlikely to do much to enhance the level of accuracy. It would be a stretch to call them Band-Aid solutions.

If the Star Tribune—and the many other news organizations that find themselves in a similar position—wants to maintain or improve quality while at the same time employing fewer people focused on quality, it will need to come up with new training programs and new procedures. (I addressed quality control in a previous column.)

Simply put, it needs to innovate.

The old process is being stripped away almost beyond recognition. It wasn’t designed to shrink to this level. As a result, a new process is required—rather than a requirement to use a spellchecker. If they plan to have fewer people reviewing stories, then every person who touches an article or headline or cutline has to be trained to take on new functions and responsibilities. (I emphasize trained, as opposed to just being told.)

Yes, there is a crisis of a lack of skilled people in newsrooms. But it’s also a crisis of training and process in the sense that we don’t look to these areas when people get shown the door. If you’re going to upend the old editorial process, you need to create a new one.

This is the year to reengineer the quality control process at newspapers and other media organizations.

And that’s not a wish—it’s a necessity.

Corrections of the Week

“In a Dec. 28 story, The Associated Press, relying on information from Van Morrison’s Hollywood-based publicist and his official Web site, reported erroneously that the Irish singer had a new baby boy with a woman identified as ‘his wife, GiGi.’

“Morrison said Thursday in a statement through his Dublin public relations firm that the report was ‘utterly without foundation’ and planted by an unknown hacker. Morrison said he remains ‘very happily married’ to former Miss Ireland Michelle Rocha, with whom he has two children, aged 3 and 2.

“An e-mail sent to the AP on Thursday by the office of Morrison’s Hollywood publicist, Phil Lobel, said the publicist’s Dec. 28 announcement of the birth was based on information from Morrison’s hacked Web site and that ‘all those with Van Morrison regret any confusion this may have caused.’

“Morrison’s statement, issued by the Dublin branch of the U.S.-based public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard Inc., said his Web site has been hacked at least twice in recent months. The statement was issued by John Saunders, senior partner of the firm in Europe, who confirmed to the AP the authenticity of Thursday’s statement.” – Associated Press

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.