Too many mistakes

Today my mum cancelled her subscription to the Waikato Times because there were too many mistakes in it.

Generally one of the most annoying things on Twitter is people who go on about mistakes that subeditors make, all “sack the sub” about online articles that aren’t allowed to be wrong for even a couple of minutes.

But what happens when you’ve bought a newspaper and you’re sitting down to read it while you have your morning muesli? You’d like to enjoy having a smooth read of the news of the past 24 hours, but instead all these trivial but annoying errors keep turning up.

This is the kind of crap that bothered my mum this morning:

To ‘to’ or not to ‘to’.
Coming soon: Byline3D: The Return
Curtesy would evade a spellcheck because it’s the word given to what a husband inherits upon the death of his wife.

My parents have been regular readers of The Times since they moved to Hamilton in the early ’70s. Not any more. Not with this complete lack of common curtesy courtesy.

It’s not reasonable to expect that Waikato Times and Fairfax reporters and contributors will have flawless spelling and grammar, but the paper’s subeditors should actually pick up all the mistakes and have near perfect copy ready to go to the press.

But is this possible anymore? I know newsrooms are getting downsized and that Fairfax outsource their subediting. Is this half-arsed standard just normal now? Are printed newspapers just a service for the fish ‘n’ chip industry, and therefore who cares what gets printed?

Well, I suspect the people who work at the Waikato Times and Fairfax still care but probably find themselves without enough resources to have things running at the previous standard.

I guess now it’s time to get my mum an iPad to read over breakfast.

Update: Thanks to alert reader David who spotted this in the same edition:

Skulduggery is not duggery of a skull. And let’s not ponder the placement of the hyphen.

15 thoughts on “Too many mistakes”

  1. I was a sub editor until three years ago. When I started in the job eons ago, before a story got into print it would be handled by the reporter who wrote it, the chief and/or deputy reporter, possibly the editor and/or deputy editor, the layout sub editor, the chief sub editor, the copy sub editor who edited it, the check sub editor, a proof reader and the ‘stone’ sub, whose job was to read each story on a page before sending it off to the presses.

    Usually, all of those people would have read every word of that story.

    Today, as a result of declining circulations and subsequent falling income, newspaper staffs are much smaller. Most papers dispensed with proof readers a decade or two ago, unfortunately, for they earned their keep. Now, the only people likely to have read the story from start to finish (unless it’s the front-page lead or potentially dodgy, legally) are the writer, the copy editor and possibly the check sub. The other editorial staff from the deputy chief reporter up are usually too busy multi-tasking to do anything more than quickly run an eye over a paragraph or two.

    If several staff are down with flu and deadlines are not being met by a considerable margin, it’s possible that even the check sub will do no more than read the headline and opening paragraph (aka intro), before flicking it through so that the page can be sent away as quickly as possible. Late pages mean late papers and late papers cost sales.

    Like the proof reader, the ‘stone’ sub is pretty much a thing of the past. When the check sub hasn’t the time to check a story properly, that means only two sets of eyes (the writer and the copy sub) will have read it from start to finish (and in the sub’s case it may have been subbed hurriedly).

    Compare that with three decades ago, when 10 or 11 people would have eyeballed every story thoroughly before it saw the light of day. Even in those earlier times, newspapers weren’t error-free but, of course, it’s easy to see why blunders occur more frequently today.

    Back in the day, we used to refer to the newspaper as ”the daily miracle”. Given the circumstances today’s newspaper staffs work under, I believe that epithet is even more appropriate now. Their numbers are down, they’re in a race against the clock, and the pressure is frequently intense.

    (If you find errors in the above, remember that I’m now retired — and there’s no spellchecker here!) 😉

    1. Thank you for that very interesting comment! I had this vague idea of how things used to be versus how they are now, but this explains it well. I don’t envy modern newspaper staff!

  2. Hi PN Cherrington I think what infuriates people is that we expect journalists to have at least a working knowledge of punctuation, spelling, and grammar.

    There are a lot of ex-journalists in “Comms” roles and my experience is that they have very poor written English skills. For example they don’t know the difference between a dash and a hypen, or how to use a dash or a semicolon.

  3. @ R Singers
    Older journos have noticed that the basics you mention — punctuation, spelling, and grammar — have fallen away among newcomers to journalism in recent years. It seems to start in the schools. Perhaps the kids spend a lot of time online, where grammar and punctuation often are ignored, and therefore bad habits are picked up. It isn’t uncommon for young reporters to put through stories sprinkled with American spelling and slang.

    This lack of basics is compounded by the fact the reporting and subbing staffs have shrunk and that, as another money saver, when older journos leave a newspaper they are often replaced by young, far less experienced people.

    Many of today’s newspapers have a very young staff. I’ve seen youngsters fresh out of journalism school given roles as court reporters in recent times — and they’re sent there alone, not under the wing of an experienced court reporter for guidance. Back in the day, that was unheard of because the potential for getting a court story wrong was greatly increased. The police won’t hesitate to sue a paper if, for example, it makes the mistake of naming the victim of a sex offence. Alas, it’s no longer unthinkable for young kids to cover the courts on their own. Court reporters I’ve known would have keeled over at the very notion.

    The two main newspaper groups, APN and Fairfax, chose to get rid of most of the subs on their dailies and outsourced the work to subbing hubs. Again, to save money. But with each paper retaining only two or three subs in the office, when many had 20 or more previously — eg, the Waikato Times had close to 30 subs handling news and features until a few years ago — and with the older reporters replaced by youngsters, newsrooms are greatly handicapped by their inexperience. It used to be that when a young reporter made an error, an experienced sub would take the errant scribe aside and demonstrate how it ought to be done. And the older reporters were willing to pass on their wisdom, so that the youngsters could grow in the job. But that’s all gone, there’s no one in the newsroom to perform these invaluable tasks.

    Without the traditional guidance from those who have been there, done that, the younger journos who arrive with suspect grammar and punctuation are behind the eight ball from the start and struggle to improve. The execs — editor, news editor and so on — simply do not have the time, in a day spent scrambling to get the paper out, to take these kids in hand.

    For the experienced journo who’s seen newspapers run the right way, this is all incredibly galling. Had you told me even a decade ago that the industry would come to this, I’d have thought you needed to see the men in white coats. It’s very sad.

  4. When a journalist presumes you have read yesterdays instalment… “Jim Blogs, in response to Jill Bogs, suggests that xxxxxxxxx”. I spend ten minutes reading, re-reading and attempted to cross reference the material only to be told by friends that Jill Bogs was a blog poster who said yyyyyyyyyy late last week.

    [name calling deleted] The least you can do is introduce us to the main characters in the plot.

    You would not believe how often this happens. Try NOT reading a newspaper for a week and jumping back in.

    Even the MUPPETS circa 1980 used to cover their collective rotund asses with lines such as “join us next week for another riveting episode of Pigs In Space where you will hear Ms Piggy say xxxxxx”, or every Americanisabastardized tv show which spends more time repeating what you saw before the break than it does showing you new material.

    [name calling deleted]

    I am getting my news from FACEBOOK. Where I don’t have to pay a single cent to get really crap news.

  5. And here’s the most salient points: The story would have been passed to a linotype operator who would frequently correct all literals missed by the aforementioned journos and then on to a compositor for page placement. The “stone” sub has not existed since the advent of computer pagination. Stone subs worked at the foot of the “stone” on which the newspaper page was laid-up in a chase by the compositor. Ahh, those were the days of real newspaper excitement.

    1. Gosh, words we don’t hear any more: compositors, linotype operators … the days when you could smell the ink, see the hot metal, with the stone sub reading the pages as the lines of type went in … and woe betide any comp who crossed his hands during the process! Newspapers seemed to have a bit more soul, more character back then. Even on the very rare occasion a page tipped up, the lot ended up scattered across the floor and the red-faced head printer looked ready to strangle whoever was responsible … it was still magic to be a part of it. It was never the same once the linotype was consigned to history. Paste-up killed it for me.

  6. Of course that sort of thing shouldn’t make it into print. I’ve tried to explain why sometimes it does. This isn’t just a problem in NZ journalism. Once upon a time, the Fleet Street papers would appear each day with scarcely an error among them. Today, That’s far from the case. Presumably they, too, have learned that a skeleton staff and subbing hub do not a quality product make. It might not be a bad idea if Tonyhitch and other frustrated readers complain to the Newspaper Publishers of NZ and to the newspaper concerned, in this instance the Waikato Times’ general manager. I’m not sure if it would achieve anything but these people don’t want to lose readers, so perhaps it’s worth a shot.

    [By the way Robyn, I’m not sure whether the name calling was directed at me but it doesn’t bother me. Name calling’s part and parcel of the internet these days. Still, it’s nice to see a corner of the web in which it’s frowned on. :)]

  7. Someone sent me this link as they know it is a subject dear to my heart, and I am pleased to inform you that all is not lost.

    Many years ago my wife and I left Auckland to live in Dargaville and started our life there by creating a company based on old-fashioned publishing values.

    We do care about the English language, we do care about punctuation, we do not run press releases, we use them as a lead for a well-crafted story written by a trained professional.

    Each story is read and checked by the writer, then goes through a reading room process before it is checked by a copy controller. Then each finished page is finally checked by a senior journalist before being sent for printing. Our error rate is very low.

    My wife and I are both ex granny Herald and have adopted many of their
    old philosophies when owned by Wilson and Horton. We use computers to produce our newspapers the way we want them to look and refuse to change our layouts to suit computers.

    We write local stories that we believe people are interested in, and don’t just find stuff to fill the white space left after the adverts have been placed.
    We have a style book that probably looks very similar to the old granny Herald one and we strictly adhere to it.

    Watching the major newspaper publishers heading into the digital age at warp speed, we believe that hard copy newspapers (and they are the ones that still pay the bills) still have a very long and profitable future.
    We have also entered the digital age with our websites, but they will be produced using the same values that are applied to our printed newspapers.

    We started NorthSouth Multi Media Ltd with just the two of us working out of our garage at home. We now have a company that has a multi-million dollar turnover, publishing five monthly regional farming papers and two weekly community newspapers. Our company now employs 40 staff, 32 of those in Dargaville and eight in our Christchurch office.

    Someone once said that History is a Window of the Future.

    I started my journey in this industry hand-setting type out of a case and today am doing the same job, just using different tools.

    May all seem so very old fashioned, but it still works.

    Allan and Pat Mortensen
    NorthSouth Multi Media Ltd

  8. @ Allan Mortensen
    That’s a wonderful story at a time when the newspaper game is at a discouragingly low ebb. It sounds to me that your stable is precisely what newspapers have always been meant to be. Congratulations and may your success continue. Even in this hi-tech age, sometimes the old-fashioned methods remain the best. Fairfax and APN, are you listening?

  9. Thank you to everyone who has left all these great comments. It’s an extra treat reading comments with such superb grammar. Despite this conversation taking place on line, it seems there’s still a lot of life left in print.

  10. Hi there, I’m the mother in question who cancelled her Waikato Times subscription. I am surprised to see all the comment that my action has caused. Really, when I buy a newspaper, I expect to be able to read it without stumbling over missing words, misspelt words and wrong words being used. We are paying more and more for fewer and fewer pages, and the least you expect is to be able to read the day’s news without irritating errors. I can now get all the news I need to know from TV and online. What I do miss, however, is the puzzle page!

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