What, me worry? When a copy editor reads the paper

My recovery from newspapers has hit a few bumps lately. I haven’t missed the work exactly, but I have seen a few lapses in my local newspaper, which happens to be my former employer, that caused me to cringe, left me irritated and made me wish I were still there to have (perhaps) averted the mistakes. I write today in sorrow that the organization I once worked for had to thin its ranks of more experienced copy editors. We truly are missed.

I started to write this post without identifying the paper because I have friends who work there and because I still respect the institution, even if I don’t respect the management that forced me and my fellow copy editors to leave. But it would be cowardly of me to write of a “well-respected, midsize newspaper in a Southern city.” The paper is The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., owned by the McClatchy Company. I worked for the N&O from June 1987 through March 2012, most of that time as a copy editor or a supervisor of copy editors.

There would be no reason for me to write about lapses I have noticed if I couldn’t make a point that would benefit copy editors. I don’t write this blog for newspaper management. I don’t even write for newspaper copy editors only. I hope that what I have to say will be valuable for any copy editor. Today, though, the results of newspapers’ placing less value on copy editing are on my mind.

Today (Sunday, Dec. 2), the N&O published a Q&A (a format that I am increasingly bored with, by the way) with a former MAD magazine editor.  The piece misspells the name of MAD’s famous mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, as Alfred E. Newman. This is a probably just a typo and you might think that a whole blog post based on a typo is going overboard. I hope that my larger point will come through.

Because I am not on the inside any more, I don’t know whether this mistake was introduced in the writing or in the editing. Let’s say the writer made the mistake,. then it tThe mistake should have been caught when 1) the writer fact-checked, 2) the line editor edited, 3) the copy editor fact-checked or 4) the slot gave the piece a last look. Such a mistake has been made many times, and I can’t say for certain that I haven’t let that one through. But I can say with 99 percent certainty that I would have caught that error if I had still been working at The N&O. Others among my fellow cast-off copy editors would have caught it, too. The error appeared in a section I regularly copy-edited, so I probably would have seen that copy before it was published.

Maybe I would have caught it because I have been editing professionally for 36 years and have read or edited copy referring to MAD many times. Or I would have caught it because my husband idolizes MAD and Alfred E. Neuman is well-known in our house. (It was my husband’s incredulous exclamation that alerted me to the error before I had read the paper this morning.) Or perhaps I, like many good copy editors, would have thought, “Hmmm, Newman doesn’t look right; I’d better check.”

This mistake got under my skin because it’s the kind of mistake that undermines credibility at a time when newspapers need trustworthiness more than ever, it happened in a newspaper I respect and it appeared in a piece by an excellent writer-reporter I like and admire. (And I would have been able to stop it if I were still working there! Yes, guilt even enters into it.)

Also, I worry that the mistake might never be pointed out to staff members, especially copy editors, so they could learn the correct way to spell Alfred E. Neuman or they could be reminded to check every well-known proper name they come across in copy. One of the most valuable parts of my training at The N&O was the ritual of markups that new copy editors went through with supervisors. Every piece of copy we edited for months was printed out and marked up for grammar, usage, spelling and style mistakes. We were confronted with our shortcomings and our mistakes. (I still remember missing Calvary-cavalry and Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh-Glendale Avenue in Durham.) We also learned the N&O way, what was expected of us and of the copy we edited. It was sometimes painful and inevitably humbling to sit through markup sessions, but I can say that period is when I truly became a copy editor. The training made me worry — a lot — about accuracy and credibility. When I became a supervisor, I passed that knowledge and ethic along.

The same piece about MAD misspelled foreword as forward (twice!), and another article in a different section of the same edition referred to seeing “the sites” in a town. Those are small word usage problems that copy editors can catch, but only if they know what to look for and have the time to do it. Copy editors can save any publisher from embarrassing errors and help raise the publisher’s credibility.

Perhaps a correction of the Neuman mistake will be printed in the N&O, and by the time I post this on the blog, perhaps the article will be corrected online. (Not as of 5 p.m. Sunday)

I have more to write about the newspaper lapses and shortcomings that have left me, a newly civilian reader, irritated and less informed but mostly sad. More posts to come.

UPDATE: I just checked the online version of the Q&A and saw that both Neuman and foreword have been fixed. (11:15 a.m. Monday, Dec. 3). 

UPDATE 2: I made a couple of changes in this post after a commenter (see below) pointed out some problems. See the strikethroughs. Thank goodness for editors! (2:27 p.m. Tuesday. Dec. 4)

13 Responses to “What, me worry? When a copy editor reads the paper”

  1. Garrick

    The same thing happened this week in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In a front-page story about Ralcorp, the writer referred to “Ready Whip” when he meant “Reddi Wip.” Two paragraphs later he used “it’s” when sentence called for the possessive.

    Small errors, perhaps, but it affects credibility.

    • Pam Nelson

      It takes training for a copy editor to know to check brand names, and it takes experience to look for the common problems. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Chuck Small

    Hey, Pam! Glad you wrote this. Lots of problems there lately, from misspelled words in headlines (“villian” in the Hagman obit) and cutlines (“a pivotal roll”) to awkwardly repeated first references in the Mary Easley story. Makes me wonder whether the Observer is getting the bulk of the hub’s attention.

    • Pam Nelson

      Thanks, Chuck. I am almost certain that with the Charlotte editors in the same room and with most of the experienced copy editors having a background at the Observer, the desk has more incentive to pay attention to the Observer. Perhaps, too, most of the mistakes that appear in the N&O also appear in the Observer. The trouble, as I see it, is training and lack of experience. McClatchy is getting what it pays for.

  3. Carol Saller

    In last week’s Hyde Park Herald (Chicago), an article about a Colombian dance company spelled the name of the country “Columbia” throughout and spelled the name of the company “Ecos del Pacifico AfroColumbia.” I thought about writing to the paper, but decided there was absolutely no point. I don’t feel good about that.

    • Pam Nelson

      I know how you feel, Carol. I hope that the paper’s staff realized the mistake and pointed it out, so people would know what to look for. It took me a long time to appreciate being confronted with my own shortcomings.

  4. Barry

    Looks as if they fixed the problem on their website. Shouldn’t there be some sort of indication as in “Updated December 4th”?

    • Pam Nelson

      Barry, I don’t think such small changes warrant a note about the update. If it were a major factual change, then I think an indication of an update would be necessary.

  5. Tom Slaiter

    Great read, Pam! It’s irritating to see/read such simple mistakes in big articles or headlines, ‘kinda funny actually!

    Thanks for the post.

  6. Jan Arzooman

    This just makes me sad. Checking the spelling of a person’s name was drilled into us in college journalism classes. And to me it’s just common sense to check the spelling of a brand name.

    Did they leave ANY copy editors at the N&O?

    • Pam Nelson

      In fact, there are some very fine copy editors who work at the McClatchy Publishing Center in Charlotte, where the N&O is copy-edited and designed, but, in truth, only a few of them came from the N&O. I was one of them for 7 1/2 months, until I found another job. I think the newspaper has suffered because there are few copy editors who are devoted to it in the same way the desk was in Raleigh.

  7. DD

    Good article Pam, except for the typos/awkward phrasings, such as “former employer, that” and “Let’s say the writer made the mistake, then it should have been caught,” and “This is a probably just a typo.”