Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon said something in an online chat a few months ago that has stuck with me:
Since I'm just about to start a new project that some will call a "blog" ... I want to work with an editor just the way I have for 28 years...It's a new world we're moving into, a world I'm clearly not entirely comfortable with but excited about.
Wilbon's a terrific columnist and writer, and I'm as excited as he is about his purported blog (which still hasn't launched). But there's an implication in that statement that's troubling: That he's worried that without the protection of an editor, the quality of his work will suffer. Shouldn't he be confident enough to stand on his own and produce first-rate work without help?
That question reoccurred recurred to me when I read New York Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt's scarifying dissection of chronically error-prone TV critic Alessandra Stanley's trainwreck of an appraisal of Walter Cronkite. By failing to check some of the most basic facts, and having several layers of the Times' vaunted editing apparently fall asleep on the job, Stanley managed to bungle everything from well-known historical dates to the nature of Cronkite's participation in D-Day—and set some sort of record for a Times correction in the process.
That's stunningly sloppy work, but it points to a broader issue: Have (some) reporters, consistently bailed out by their editors, gotten terminally lazy about the quality of their work? In a time of thinning newsrooms, with people fighting for their jobs, you have to wonder how somebody like Stanley (who at one point was assigned a personal copy editor!) still is employed by the Times over somebody who, say, actually knew when man walked on the moon. (A note to people who don't know how newspapers work: Contrary to common misconception, newspapers don't employ fact-checkers, as some magazines do. Reporters are directly responsible for the facts in their stories.)
There's is a bit of a journalism dirty secret at work here: Everybody who's worked as an editor knows that there are certain reporters whose copy needs to be carefully checked and/or essentially translated into English on a regular basis. I edited a reporter who had little or no concept of how to use commas; another who would submit long stories with gaps labeled "insert transitions here;" and a third who infamously spelled a type of citrus fruit as "greatfruit." And these were experienced reporters at major papers, not rookies at the Podunk Press.
I suppose that sort of editorial backstopping was an acceptable luxury when newsrooms were fat and happy, but in today's budget-conscious world, it's unacceptable. (At least a spellchecker would catch "greatfruit." I hope.) Reporters turning in work that's got factual problems or is laden with spelling errors, in hopes that the desk will cover for them, are like an autoworker who puts a car door on crooked and hopes that the quality-control folks further down the assembly line will correct the mistake. It's just wrong, and unprofessional. And as a smart editor I worked with once wondered out loud, you always have to worry a bit more about the factual skills of a reporter who's careless about things like spelling.
Blogs, chats and other new forms that expose writers' raw copy only highlight the problem. I've cringed reading some blogs by respected reporters who apparently can't take the time to be sure that words are spelled correctly or that their syntax isn't tortured. We all make mistakes, but the writer's goal should be perfection, the first time. It's not that hard to, at minimum, backread a post or story for errors before pressing "Send" or "Save." Have some pride in your work, for God's sake.
Journalism may be the rough draft of history, but that doesn't mean that rough draft should be rife with factual errors and misspellings. As in other industries, the standard for errors should be zero tolerance. And a consistently sloppy worker like Stanley should lose her job in favor of somebody who can produce something much closer to error-free work.