Is an error-free newspaper possible today?

Posted: June 18, 2013 in journalism, Media
Tags: , , , ,

The Hindu was once known as the newspaper which had NO errors. I stress on the word ‘NO’.  This newspaper was the last word in correct English. It must be right, if it is in The Hindu, was the foregone conclusion. With due apologies to the Virginia Slims advertisement that appeared in the early 1960’s (I think), we’ve come a long way baby!

A few weeks ago, The Hindu had a word in the lede that would have made ALL their late editors turn cartwheels in the grave. It had used the word ‘catapult’ instead of ‘capitulate’ in a report about the Advani resignation farce. It got me and I am sure, a lot of others, smiling at the delicious irony of it. Imagine the blunder happening at The Hindu, which always prided itself for the correctness of its language. The same Hindu, in the early days, offered a generous sum of money to readers who could spot an error in the newspaper. It was reported that for many years there were no claimants for the prize. But this incident also got me thinking.

After having worked in the media industry for the past 23 years, this is a question that I have often pondered over but have always come up short for answers: Is it possible to produce a zero-error newspaper? And, if so, under what conditions?

During my stint with the Hindustan Times in Lucknow, the HR guys came over once to give us a presentation on Six Sigma which they wanted to implement in the newspaper. I sat through the lecture that stretched for a half a day and at the end of it, when I was asked whether it could be employed in the editorial department, I said a flat no. Here’s why. Feel free to correct me if I am wrong.

Let’s just step back a few decades and explore the work in newspapers between the 1950s up to the early 1980s. In those days, most reporters still filed only a story or two every day as per their beat requirements. Copy editors (then known as sub-editors) edited three to four reports on a shift ( I may be wrong here). There was more than one sub editor to do one page. Pages were made by layout artists supervised by seniors. There were no spell-checks. If you had a doubt, there was the fat dictionary. For grammar and sentence formation, your command of the language was what saved you or screwed you.  But of the people who worked there many were dons in the language and secondly they were passionate about the profession.

By the mid 1980s, when I joined a newspaper, sub editors were editing up to two pages per shift, again in hard copy, although computers were being used to type in matter. It was only in the 1990s that computers began to be used for editing and page-making as well. Cut to the present day and age, where with the help of computers copy editors not only edit, but also design up to four pages per shift. Journalism schools were not too much in fashion in those days, and as Kushwant Singh said in the foreword of a book on journalism, one could learn more journalism in three months working for a newspaper than by spending two years in journalism school.

Today media schools have spread across the country like the proverbial rash. But they are churning out graduates and post graduates with very little connect to the high pressure world outside. The quality of manpower emerging from here has a huge role to play in the product that they intend to promote. While there are youngsters who are (to use the phrase) to the manner born, there are numerous others who take up journalism because they couldn’t get into, maybe, medicine or engineering. So unless they discover the hidden talent and revel in the course, they are already facing the proverbial Mt. Everest. Then, a month’s internship is not enough. Today, a fresher is thrown in the deep end from the day he or she joins, and not everyone feels right at home. The smart ones learn to swim the rest struggle to stay afloat. It is the latter that is a cause for worry. This is where a mentor plays such a significant role at least in newspapers. Magazines are luckier, in that aspect I am told.

When we were trainees, there were seniors who were looking over our shoulder at what we were doing. Very often, we were told to watch how they edited a particular copy. So we did not just learn to edit, we also learnt to write better.  Maybe, that’s a practice we should resume, at least in a newspaper, even if it means extending work by a few hours. Today, that is missing, mainly because there is no time. If I make copy editors sit next to me every time I rework their copies, the deadlines will go for a six.

Take the example of the newspaper I work for. On any given day we have between 25 and thirty local and region reports, which are far more than what any other local newspaper carries, except maybe the vernacular editions. So, while I run my eyes over all those reports once edited and I still find mistakes, I correct them. When the copy has numerous errors I’ll call the copy editor and show him where he or she has erred. I don’t always have the time to individually call juniors over and explain to them the intricacies of editing and rewriting every time they make an error. I hope that they will read the newspaper the next day to see the corrected versions of their copies.

In such a working environment, can we ever produce a zero-error newspaper? Not everyone could produce it then, and with the kind of pressures we face, I just wonder whether we can do it now.

And if you need more proof, here it is. From the Indian Express of July 27, 2013.

 

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Comments
  1. My dear Sinha,

    To your question: “Is it possible to produce a zero-error newspaper? And, if so, under what conditions?” here is my reply.

    First, a clue: the answer lies in finding out how errors occur in print.

    Another answer lies in studying how we can get “zero-accident” traffic on the road!!!! In our case, it’s the Road of Life!!!

    Though I broadly agree with you that, under the present circumstances, it is not possible to produce a “zero-error” newspaper, we can aim to minimise errors.

    Let us see how errors occur.

    *****

    Firstly, there are errors in general.

    1. Errors of commission: especially grammatical errors like “catapult” instead of “capitulate”.

    I am of the considered opinion that such ‘obvious’ errors can be eliminated.

    But managements simply do not care!!! They are not willing to devote enough editorial staff on the Desk for this purpose and delude themselves that they can get away by using FREE spell-check software to replace PAID human workers!!!

    Here is a silly poem that by-passes spell-check tech.

    “Eye have a spelling chequer,
    It came with my Pea Sea.
    It plane lee marks four my revue
    Miss Steaks I can knot sea.
    Eye strike the quays and type a whirred
    And weight four it two say
    Weather eye am write oar wrong
    It tells me straight a weigh.
    Eye ran this poem threw it,
    Your shore real glad two no.
    Its vary polished in its weigh.
    My chequer tolled me sew.
    A chequer is a bless thing,
    It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
    It helps me right all stiles of righting,
    And aides me when eye rime.
    Each frays come posed up on my screen
    Eye trussed too bee a joule.
    The chequer pours o’er every word
    Two cheque sum spelling rule.”

    “The original version of this poem was written by Jerrold H. Zar in 1992. See below:

    CANDIDATE FOR A PULLET SURPRISE

    I have a spelling checker.
    It came with my PC.
    It plane lee marks four my revue
    Miss steaks aye can knot sea.
    Eye ran this poem threw it,
    Your sure reel glad two no.
    Its vary polished inn it’s weigh.
    My checker tolled me sew.
    A checker is a bless sing,
    It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
    It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
    And aides me when aye rime.
    Each frays come posed up on my screen
    Eye trussed too bee a joule.
    The checker pours o’er every word
    To cheque sum spelling rule.
    Bee fore a veiling checkers
    Hour spelling mite decline,
    And if we’re lacks oar have a laps,
    We wood bee maid too wine.
    Butt now bee cause my spelling
    Is checked with such grate flare,
    Their are know faults with in my cite,
    Of nun eye am a wear.
    Now spelling does knot phase me,
    It does knot bring a tier.
    My pay purrs awl due glad den
    With wrapped words fare as hear.
    To rite with care is quite a feet
    Of witch won should bee proud,
    And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
    Sew flaws are knot aloud.
    Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays
    Such soft wear four pea seas,
    And why eye brake in two averse
    Buy righting want too pleas.

    Jerry Zar, 29 June 1992

    Jerrold H. Zar, Graduate School, Northern Illinois University
    DeKalb, IL 60115
    Email — jhzar@niu.edu
    (Current mailing address: Department of Biological Sciences, same university)

    (See: http://www.bios.niu.edu/zar/poem.pdf)

    (Overall source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spell_checker)

    Give it as a test, Sinha, to sub-editors!!! And how many will pass????
    (“By the author’s count, 123 of the 225 words are incorrect”).

    2. Errors of omission: most mistakes fall in this category.

    For example, enough information is not provided about a situation. Or, facts are not checked. For example, when the Latur earthquake took place in September 1993, most reporters did NOT go to the quake-hit areas but submitted “table copy” based on “official sources”, who also did NOT go to the spot.

    But Mr Bhajandas Deokar, reporter of the then Maharashtra Herald rushed to the spot and sent a figure of “10,000” (ten thousand) dead. I was the chief sub-editor on the night shift making the front page and put the figure in a banner head-line!!!

    The govt publicity dept contradicted us the next day!!! But MH stuck to its figure and when the final death toll, again official — 7,928 — came, we were closer to the facts (see: http://latur.nic.in/html/earthquake.htm)

    *****

    Secondly, there are specific errors, which reside in individuals.

    For example, I tend to mis-spell the following words:-
    “guard” as “gaurd” and “wield” as “weild” and “yield” as “yeild” and “receive” as “recieve”
    But this does not result in confusion, so it would not be considered a mistake.
    Because, the mis-spelt words do not carry another meaning.

    Such errors can also be eliminated. But editorial staff have to care enough and managements have to reward staff who care and punish the ones who do not bother!!!

    Who will bell the fat cats???

    *****

    This piece is a version of the first draft from my forthcoming book on editing. I am happy to share it with you, my dear Sinha.

    Because, you care.

    Peace and love,
    – Joseph M. Pinto.

    Post Script (P. S.): Sorry for the over-long comment in reply to your timely question.

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