By: Gilbert Cranberg

Newspapers Should Be Hiring, Not Asking For Volunteers

Editors of at least two newspapers have asked readers to volunteer their services as proofreaders. A trend in the making? Let?s hope not.

The managing editor of Florida Today in Melbourne described his paper?s proofreading experiment at the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) in April.

Then, a month or so later, The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah announced a similar program. What?s next? Newspapers listed among the 100 Neediest Cases?

Florida Today?s freeloading is an outgrowth of newspaper worry about credibility. Surveys by ASNE found disturbing levels of public discontent with the press, fueled in considerable part by perceived inaccuracy, including ?too many factual errors and spelling or grammar mistakes in newspapers.? The remedy: experiments for ASNE undertaken by members in eight cities to narrow the credibility gap.

Enter Florida Today with its volunteer proofreaders and, inevitably, such plugs as ?Wanted: Sharp-Eyed Readers to Help Us Eliminate Errors in Stories.?

Never mind that pleas for volunteers to spot errors invite a logical – and embarrassing – question: If more help can prevent mistakes, why not hire the help?

Bloated newspaper profits make that an especially pertinent question.

Actually, Florida Today experimented with a way to improve copy editing, and thus accuracy, without the implied-poverty downside of reader volunteers.

Unfortunately, at the ASNE meeting, it was the volunteer-reader gimmick that was highlighted, both at a general session and in a video distributed to editors.

The copy-editing experiment given scant notice at the meeting consisted of separating copy-editing chores from paginating – that is, the electronic makeup of pages. As Florida Today Managing Editor Bob Stover described it in an ASNE report: ?Copy

editors had been doing half a dozen duties in one night: reading copy, designing pages, writing heads, proofing pages, sizing pictures, paginating. We experimented with separating the duties, so an editor would spend an evening doing nothing but reading copy and writing heads. The work was rotated so they didn?t get in a rut. ? These approaches seemed to improve copy editing. ? Anecdotal evidence, testimony from copy editors, and reviews by groups of readers indicate they saw improvements.?

The shift of composing-room functions to newsrooms at many newspapers has put a heavier burden on editorial staff. The shift has enabled papers to eliminate composing-room personnel, but layoffs in composing rooms don?t necessarily pave the way for more staff to handle the extra demands caused by pagination, which usually fall on copy editors. There is good evidence that, as a consequence, pagination leads to an increase in errors – the very thing that bugs readers and undermines credibility.

In one of many examples, Editor/Publisher Jeff Ackerman of the Nevada Appeal in Carson City recently laid a good portion of the blame for mistakes at his paper to the way busy editors have been turned into page designers. Ackerman was so bugged by a particu-

larly egregious error that one day he gave papers away free.

Strategies to offset the nonediting work imposed on copy editors by pagination are a lot more worthy of attention than hokey schemes to ?connect? with readers. The newspaper business is not a charity, and it should not beg for handouts.

There?s a ready antidote to newspaper errors. It?s called, heaven forbid, hiring.

More trained eyeballs to ride herd on copy can?t help but reduce the typos, grammatical goofs, misspellings, and wrong addresses that plague papers and turn off readers.

Granted, copy editors do not receive the attention they deserve – and the more the public knows about their work, the better. But volunteer proofreaders?

There?s a place for volunteers who have proofreading skills. That place, among others, is in the schools, where overstressed teachers need help correcting student papers, or in understaffed community organizations struggling to publish newsletters. The mainstream press should pay what it takes to combat errors and not lay that responsibility on readers.

Gilbert Cranberg is George H. Gallup Professor of Journalism Emeritus at the University of Iowa.

Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.

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