The Profile

Warning: Public Copy Editor is always watching

November 6, 2015
Nic McPhee

Its emergence in your “mentions” brings a pang of guilt. It is nameless, faceless, genderless, and ageless, working swiftly and succinctly without pay or much praise. In better times, professionals were trusted to police this turf. In the Wild West of the Web, disorder gives rise to vigilantes.

I regret having provoked such an encounter on two occasions. The first time, in July, a 12th-paragraph reference to The Marshall Project somehow ended up “Marshal Project.” Later that month, a photo caption accidentally omitted the second word of “news conference.” In both instances, the Twitter account “Public Copy Editor” was there to alert me of the blunder.



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“Some people like to do the crossword puzzle,” explains Paul Southworth, a 45-year-old software engineer at Box, a California-based tech company. His preferred recreation is spotting proofreading oversights in online journalism. In outlets from The New York Times and The Guardian to, Southworth says the sport doesn’t require much sharpshooting. “I would guess I probably find an error in 10 percent of the articles I read,” he says. This spring, he decided to notify journalists of those oversights. Hence, @copyedt.




Error-prone prose is a much-bemoaned consequence of rapid-fire digital journalism. As Philip B. Corbett, standards editor at the Times, writes, “Mistakes in copy have been a problem since Gutenberg, but it is hard to shake the impression that we have been slipping more than usual, especially in articles that are rushed onto the Web site, bypassing some of our traditional steps.” Most of the copy that’s “rushed into print,” however, isn’t actually breaking news, notes Merrill Perlman, who managed copy desks at the Times, where she worked for 25 years, and now writes “Language Corner” for CJR. She says Southworth isn’t alone—many copy editors make a game of catching published errors. Nowadays, “it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.”



(The above typo, for what it’s worth, is unfixed. Southworth finds writers to be more responsive when tweeted than their outlets.) 


Southworth, who studied sociology at the University of Michigan, has never worked as a journalist or copy editor. Reviewing computer code, however, requires a textual eagle eye that naturally gets carried over to casual news reading. Confused homonyms and missing spaces are the most common slip-ups he spots; he’s less focused on tricky grammar rules. “There’s a surprising number of errors that would be caught by simple spell-checking,” he explains.



Since committing to this pro bono cause, Southworth has highlighted hundreds of typos. By no means, though, does he wish to come off as a curmudgeonly crank. The last sentence of his Twitter bio reads, “My proposed corrections do not imply disapproval.” If his tweets are ignored, he says he isn’t deterred. “Really, I’m doing it mostly for my own entertainment.” His hobby also helps fastidious journalists save face, but not without leaving them a little red in the face, too.

Danny Funt is a senior editor at The Week and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt