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Half a century ago, when I was in elementary and high school, our English teachers would advise us to read the larger newspapers (The Globe & Mail, The Calgary Herald) and national mass market magazines (The New Yorker, MacLean’s) because that’s where we would find the very finest writing – quality writing on which we could model our own writing.
I would never make that recommendation now, and I hope neither would any responsible English teacher. How disappointing to see basic errors in the feature story on the front page of today’s (March 13, 2014) Kingston Whig Standard. How heart-breaking to see similar easily caught and corrected errors replicated in stories throughout this and other daily newspapers, even the national papers.
You might ask why the editors are not catching these errors. The fact is nowadays there are few if any editors between the writer and the press.
I started my writing career in the newsroom of The Calgary Herald, then an anchor in the chain of newspapers owned by the Southam family. I credit my year at that newspaper for giving me the foundation upon which I have continued to aim for quality in my own writing.
Here’s what I remember.
One of forty or so reporters would type a story on paper. When it was done, a copy-runner (essentially an intern) would take the story to the copy editors who would read it carefully and mark any errors of grammar, spelling, syntax, and so on. If there were serious errors, the story was sent back to the reporter to correct and type again.
The corrected story would be sent to the Linotype operators to be typeset and printed as galley-proofs, which were then proofread by more editors and corrected. At some point in this process, there was a separate group of editors who did nothing but write headlines. They read the stories very carefully and the headlines they wrote were often pure poetry. They also noted any errors and sent the stories back for further correction.
There were other editors whose task was to arrange or lay out the stories on the pages, and who also read the stories. When the stories had been set into pages, page proofs were printed and also read by editors. There was very little chance an error could slip through, and rarely did one reach the end-reader.
While I freelanced articles, interviews, and reviews to various media for many years, I’ve now been out of the newspaper business for a very long time. However, I’ve maintained a personal and professional interest.
Here’s what I’ve observed.
The newsrooms are smaller and there are far fewer full-time reporters. This must create greater pressure on each reporter to produce quantity over quality. Further, many reporters are part-timers and sometimes amateurs who may also be under pressure to deliver copy. It’s true that in my day there were “stringers” who freelanced stories to newspapers, but they were mostly already experienced newspaper writers.
While there are still assigment editors such as the city editor, sports editor, or entertainment editor, copy editors or proofreaders seem to be a dying breed. Certainly there don’t seem to be as many levels of editor quality control as there once were.
Now, it appears, writers type into terminals that are hard-wired into the press and deliver the stories straight to print without their copy being checked by anyone but the writer. However, in my opinion, that there are fewer if any editors really shouldn’t matter. The quality of the writing should be a matter of professional pride for the writer.
There are still a few old-school writers working at newspapers or submitting stories to them as freelancers and part-timers. These are the exceptions who prove the rule. In their stories you rarely if ever see the sort of basic and correctable errors the new journalists make.
The types of errors being made are ones that fifty years ago any grade six student, even one not motivated to write, would have caught and corrected. Where has the pride and professionalism in writing gone? Where has the striving for excellence gone which was once practiced by professional writers? Don’t blame the word-processor terminals. A writer can still proofread his or her own material before sending it to press. That writers don’t check their work before hitting the send button is a big letdown for one who remembers the excellent writing for which North America’s media was once known.