Rethinking the “Assembly Line”

Needed: a quality revolution in journalism

“When you think about the assembly line that was a newsroom, it’s changed,” Arnie Robbins, editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, says in the latest issue of American Journalism Review.

Robbins is quoted in“The Quality-Control Quandary,” a must read for anyone concerned about the state of accuracy, copy editing, and overall journalistic quality. The author, Carl Sessions Stepp, visited different newsrooms to see how their quality control procedures have changed in light of layoffs and the push to online. At one point in the story, he briefly lists some of the new types of editing that have emerged:

…”buddy editing” (where you ask the nearest person to read behind you) to “back editing” (where copy is edited after posting) to “previewing” (where copy goes to a holding directory for an editor to check before live posting).

Regardless of what you think of these solutions to the people/resources/time problem, at least some innovation is happening. Of concern, however, is the fact that we’re moving ahead with new forms of editing under the assumption that the old model (what Robbins likens to an “assembly line”) was the ideal quality control process. It wasn’t. As a result, we risk trying to innovate from a place of weakness, which could lower the quality bar even further.

We could only wish the old model of passing copy from reporter to editor and so on was as good as an assembly line. To name one example, car companies have spent millions, possibly billions, of dollars over decades to perfect their assembly lines and eliminate as many errors as possible. For them, “quality” is a defined term, something you can measure and constantly improve. I examined the issue of newsroom quality in a recent article for Harvard’s Nieman Reports. Here’s an excerpt that deals with how other industries see quality:

The American Society for Quality, for example, puts forth two definitions of quality: “the characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs” or “a product or service free of deficiencies.” And Six Sigma, which certifies if something is of quality, measures its presence by using a formula that calculates the number of defects per million opportunities.

We don’t apply that order of measurement and scrutiny to our processes. The noted newspaper expert and academic Philip Meyer dedicated time and study to defining and measuring journalistic quality. But inside newsrooms themselves, our version of the assembly line stayed relatively the same for decades. The only major change occurred when newspapers adopted desktop publishing and did away with the Linotype machines. Unfortunately, this innovation served to degrade quality, rather than improve it.

Desktop publishing hastened the end of newspaper proofreaders. Allan M. Siegal, the former standards editor of the The New York Times, described them as “those artisans in green eyeshades who pored over the printer’s galley letter by letter alongside the writer’s manuscript.” He also wrote that “their incidental discoveries rescued many a writer’s reputation.”

The loss of proofreaders eliminated an important final stage of quality control. Copy editors became the last line of defense at the same time some of them were being asked to layout pages using desktop publishing software. This further degraded the level of quality control.

Rather than taking advantage of new technologies as a way to improve their processes and end product, newspapers have, over recent decades, used them in ways that degrade quality. Now another new technology—the Internet—is again changing the way copy is checked and edited. This is a worrisome trend.

What we need is a quality revolution in journalism. Forget the patchwork solutions and quick fixes. Imagine if you could design a new process for reporting, writing, editing, fact checking and publishing. What would it look like?

I understand the resource and budget constraints, but we’re talking about nothing less than the future of how we verify, report, and edit our work. Let’s break the cycle and use technology to improve quality, rather than lower the bar yet again.

Correction of the Week

“A Starwatch column described a recent Hubble space telescope image of two spiral galaxies and their smaller neighbour (13 April, page 33). A mistyped unit of distance led to the following exchange, which also serves, correctionwise:

“Reader: ‘I am well aware that the credit crunch has made us wholly confused between millions, billions and trillions but can a spiral galaxy really be only 60 million km beyond two other spiral galaxies? They must all be very minute as this is only the approximate distance between Earth and Mercury.’

“Columnist: ‘You are correct, thank you. The middle galaxy of the three may only be 60 million light years beyond the other two galaxies and not 60 million km; a small factor of 9,460,700,000,000 (km per light year) in distance!’” – The Guardian

Typos for Two

“A July 5, 2006, article misstated the name of a float in the previous day’s Independence Day parade on Constitution Avenue NW. The float was called ‘Sikhs of America,’ not ‘Sheiks of America.’” – Washington Post

“The Sept. 26, 2008, obituary of Mickey Vernon mistakenly called Max Patkin the ‘Crown Prince’ of baseball. He was known as baseball’s ‘Clown Prince.’” – Washington Post

Parting Shot

“Writer wrong: American humorist S. J. Perelman and compatriot ‘jazz’ poet Langston Hughes might have shared a February 1 birthday, a love of the written word and a penchant for moustaches but they did not share the same face. A photo in Burning Questions (Today, page 16, April 23) under the caption S. J. Perelman was in fact Hughes.” – West Australian

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