Anti-Semiotic Graffiti.

My local paper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette (published across the river in Northampton), has a lot of printing errors. A lot. I don’t mean just the normal kind, “it’s” for “its” and the occasional misspelled word, I mean total disasters, stories ending in the middle of a sentence, headlines like “Cleveland Browns sign give troubled RB Hunt” and “A racquet and some friends may be the key to a longer,” that sort of thing. My wife and I groan and pass them to each other for appalled inspection and wonder whether anyone actually reads the paper before it’s published. Well, apparently not; Brooke Hauser, the Gazette’s editor in chief, had a column yesterday in which she began by admitting that lots of people complain to her about this sort of thing:

Every once in a while, my neighbor, who is in his 80s and a faithful reader of this newspaper, walks over to my house and hand-delivers a fresh batch of typos clipped from our pages. The errors are circled, annotated, cut out and sorted. He is a wonderful neighbor who also has brought our family homemade pie, handmade wooden toys and a bird feeder. But the typos are not of his making — they are of the Gazette’s. And he just wants me to know about it. He’s not the only one.

A few weeks ago, I spotted a writer I admire at the grocery store and decided to introduce myself, with my 2-year-old daughter in tow. I recognized this writer from her author’s photo, and to my surprise, when I told her my name, she recognized me, too — as the editor of the Gazette. She reads the Gazette daily, she told me, as we chatted in the checkout line. She couldn’t start her day without it, she said.

After singing the paper’s praises, the writer, who shall remain anonymous, mentioned that she has noticed a decline in typos recently. And she has been keeping track. Somewhat sheepishly, she told me she keeps a file of Gazette typos and other copy errors. Her favorite one? A reference to “anti-Semiotic graffiti.”

I remember “anti-Semiotic graffiti”; my wife and I agreed it almost made the general sloppiness worth it. Then she goes on:

Every once in a while, a reader calls to ask me why our copy desk didn’t catch an obvious mistake. Here’s what I never say: What copy desk?

Our multitasking night managing editor, James Pentland, started out at the Gazette as a copy editor, back when the Gazette had a copy desk. But copy desks — and designated copy editors — are a relic of the past at many newspapers, including ours. In 2017, even The New York Times began the process of dismantling its stand-alone copy desk, which was responsible for catching factual and grammatical errors and keeping articles in line with the paper’s style guidelines.

I’m keenly aware of the fact that our readership includes lovers of the written word; not only celebrated authors but all kinds of close readers, including college professors, elementary school English teachers, Merriam-Webster lexicographers and even a few former Gazette editors.

When editors catch typos, we fix them online. But that doesn’t help when a reader has spotted an error in print. I regularly get handwritten letters, emails and phone calls from close readers pointing out copy-editing mistakes. Some might find this habit annoying, but I appreciate the effort that goes into clipping an incorrect usage of “onto” vs. “on to” or “affect” vs. “effect.” The effort goes both ways. As the former editor of the opinion page, I spent a substantial part of my day fact-checking and copy-editing reader-submitted columns and letters to the editor.

Without a designated copy desk, it’s all the more important that our reporters and editors also be trained as copy editors. And I think that’s a good thing. You can’t be a great writer if you don’t care about copy-editing.

I’m sorry, but however charmingly forthright the admission is, that’s nonsense. You can’t train reporters to be copyeditors any more than you can train copyeditors to be reporters; they’re entirely different jobs. And the editors have far too much work to do to look for mistakes — that’s why you need a copy desk. The allusion to the Times is disingenuous; true, it eliminated the stand-alone copy desk, which occasioned much hand-wringing at the time, but they explained they weren’t getting rid of copyeditors, just changing the work flow and structure. You can verify this for yourself by reading the paper — it’s not free of typos (nothing is), but they are far between. The Gazette is a demonstration of what happens when you literally stop bothering with copyediting. (Yes, we still subscribe; we know local newspapers need all the support they can get, and it makes great fuel for the wood stove.)

Comments

  1. John Kroll says:

    Former editor, current journalism prof here: You can’t ask reporters to be both full-time reporters and full-time copy editors, true. But you certainly can train reporters to be copy editors and vice versa. They’re not entirely different jobs, or at least they shouldn’t be; we’re all journalists. When I was a reporter, I read each story over carefully and was ashamed whenever someone had to fix a word or even trim some unneeded ones. I also read page proofs and suggested headlines.

    As to the editors having too much work to do to look for mistakes … When I was a copy editor, I resented editors who considered it beneath them to fix typos or grammar, leaving it to the copy desk to sweep up. When I was an assigning editor, I took pride in wanting the copy I sent to the desk to be as clean as possible. If the main job of the copy desk is to fix things like “anti-Semiotic,” you’re wasting the copy editors’ talents.

    No writer is perfect, and the more eyes on a story, the better. I’m not arguing that eliminating copy editors is in any way a good thing. But if the paper is as full of errors as you say, the reporters and editors are bad at their jobs. Period. It’s not about training reporters and editors to be copy editors. It’s about training them to spell, to write proper English, to proofread their own work before they turn it in. Those are basic skills that should be an absolute requirement.

    What’s happening with the Gazette and other papers isn’t just a demonstration of what happens when you stop bothering with copy editing; it’s what happens when you’ve been using copy editing as a way to cover up the poor quality of your writers and editors.

  2. It appears Ms Hauser is severely downplaying how bad are the Gazette‘s troubles.

    an incorrect usage of “onto” vs. “on to” or “affect” vs. “effect.”

    is as nothing compared to the howlers Hat points out.

    I thought the reason copyeditors are also fact checkers is to avoid the paper printing something so untrue as to be libelous? (My local newspaper today had some mealy-mouthed apology for a factual error in an article I hadn’t read. It was International news, syndicated; so presumably a local editor had trimmed it down to fit, and thereby changed the sense.)

    Does newspaper production software not include a spell checker and grammar thingy that puts green wiggly underlines? Although we can all attest those are far from perfect, it would be better than nothing. I suppose it still needs someone to eyeball them/you wouldn’t want to autocorrect.

    The Grauniad has got better with electronic typesetting, but still its online edition includes typos that no wordprocessor would accept.

  3. David L says:

    I’m sure I’ve said this before — but newspapers are struggling and copy editors cost money. The Washington Post has all sorts of spelling mistakes and word confusions and bad grammar that didn’t use to happen. But when you have to cut costs to survive, what are you going to do?

    I don’t say this as justification, exactly, but something has to give. Lots of small town papers have closed down entirely, or been replaced by ‘local’ newspapers that are corporate productions for a wide area with a couple of local pages if you’re lucky.

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    Umberto Eco is meaningless, OK!

  5. newspapers are struggling and copy editors cost money.

    Sure, that’s the standard excuse. But everything costs money; it’s a question of what you care about, and clearly they don’t care about errors.

    The Washington Post has all sorts of spelling mistakes and word confusions and bad grammar that didn’t use to happen.

    Come now. You say “all sorts of,” but I read the Post (probably America’s best paper these days) and I don’t see anything like the stuff in the local paper. And sure, the Post has a lot more money, and I’m not saying I know what the answer is. Maybe there is no answer. But I don’t like it.

  6. SFReader says:

    Both examples you cite are articles taken from national news agencies (Associated Press and Mayo Clinic News Network) and slightly edited (for copyright reasons, I assume).

    That’s even worse, I’d say. Can’t even copy without adding a mistake.

  7. @SFReader: There’s no copyright reason to edit wire service stories, although such editing is commonplace for other reasons. For example, in the old days, the stuff that came off the wires was often riddled with errors. The contributing news organizations would often just put their first drafts up there, and they might add a fully edited version when that was ready. I don’t know how much these procedures have changed in the last fifteen years, now that most newspaper articles are natively digital.

  8. Stephen Carlson says:

    There’s no copyright reason to edit wire service stories, although such editing is commonplace for other reasons.
    Right, and slightly editing them won’t cure copyright infringement. Wire service stories are licensed for that.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    My first reaction is “give me 15 $/h, and I’ll do it”…

  10. John Cowan says:

    For some time now almost all AP stories on the national news wire have been written by AP-paid journalists. State wires are more likely to carry stories from members (AP is a consortium), but “contributor” is a mostly nominal title these days.

  11. AJP Crown says:

    If no papers can afford proofreaders, wouldn’t someone from the Amazon Mechanical Turk be better than nothing?

    I hate the typos in the Guardian. It makes me feel like I’m the only person in the world reading the article.

  12. SFReader says:

    the writer, who shall remain anonymous

    How many admired female writers could live in Northampton, Massachusetts?

    Dozens, apparently.

    They stumble on each other in grocery stores.

  13. Northampton is in fact chock full of writers and other cultural types. (It still has a number of independent bookstores!)

  14. Yes, everything costs money; but it’s not clear that they don’t care about errors. Just they care more about what would happen if their little profit turns into a loss.

    On the whole (speaking as a retired newspaper employee myself) I think the proprietors of newspapers have wrecked the industry by squeezing high profit levels out of their companies in the golden days instead of investing for the future. But newspapers are where they are, and much as I regret the war on editing I’d be more convinced if someone would come up with an alternative way of keeping the ship afloat.

  15. I know, me too. But I gripe anyway.

  16. I don’t know how to save newspapers either. Before Jeff Bezos bought the Post for a bargain-basement price, it had been shrinking for years — shedding reporters and editors, losing subscribers, and becoming physically much smaller. I stopped getting the print edition some years ago because I was paying more and more for less and less. The digital edition is pretty good and the paper seems to be stabilizing. I don’t know to what extent Bezos is subsidizing it or whether it is becoming more commercially secure.

    I don’t know that even the most far-sighted newspaper proprietors could have planned in any way that would have counteracted the damage done by the internet. The almost total loss of classified ads was a huge factor. And as circulation fell, other advertisers began to put their money elsewhere too.

    I have a friend who teaches writing and journalism at a state college. The focus has shifted to writing for online publications, understanding social media etc etc. The traditional path of starting at a local rag and working your way up to the big leagues doesn’t really work any more.

  17. It’s a sad and apparently hopeless mess. So it goes.

  18. Northampton is in fact chock full of writers and other cultural types.

    And where many of the college/indie rock icons of my youth seem to have retired. It’s a great town.

  19. It is indeed.

  20. AJP Crown says:

    In today’s Guardian typo, Trump sums up the British position:

    He said he thought the UK could do “a very big trade deal” with the UK after Brexit.

  21. And so it could!

  22. UK could do “a very big trade deal”

    And let’s not forget, Deal is a town in England

  23. David Eddyshaw says:

    On current form, I am not at all sanguine that the UK could manage a good trade deal with the UK. I suspect both partners in the deal would end up losing out.

    Zero-sum? You wish.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    Now, now. We all know Trump is a genius, and a very stable genius at that. And so, here’s the Guardian wondering if the constituent countries of the UK, including hen wlad dy nhadau, may need to make trade deals with each other soon.

  25. SFReader says:

    New Continental blockade will be declared after Brexit and smuggler boats will roam the Channel once again.

  26. AJP Crown says:

    Lovely marmalade eyebrows, that Plaid Cymru guy.

  27. “hen wlad dy nhadau” would be “hen wlad dy dadau” (soft mutation after “dy” = English _thy_ versus nasal mutation after “fy” = English _my_ in “hen wlad fy nhadau”, “old land of my fathers”, from “tad”= “father”. )

  28. David Marjanović says:

    …Fascinating. Do you know why they don’t both trigger nasal mutation? Or, actually, given the lack of a nasal in Latin meus, tuus, suus, why fy does?

  29. David Eddyshaw says:

    Fy, dy, ei, ein, eich, eu are (descendants of) genitive pronouns, not possessive adjectives.
    No idea why fy triggers nasal mutation historically (and strongly suspect all “explanations” are really ex post facto rationalisations anyway.)
    Fy is pretty much the only remaining word which actually does induce nasal mutation in real modern Welsh (as opposed to Cymraeg llenyddol.)

    Incidentally, the spellings ei ein eich are basically errors canonised by long usage, going back to the wholly mistaken idea that ei comes from the Latin eius: the words are really i yn ych and always have been. They are orthographically convenient, though.

  30. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40997524 tries to explain why Welsh has nasal mutation and Breton spirant mutation after the first person singular genitive, on the basis that the original form of the genitive pronoun in both was ‘min’ but that there were differences in timing and details of assimilations and losses involving final nasals. Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru cites Old Welsh mi, Breton ma and derives it from “Brythonic *men, from IE *me-me cf Sanskrit máma” (I’m translating). But I’m not sure whether there is anything in the way of evidence for this final nasal apart from the Welsh nasal mutation itself, so things may be somewhat circular. Certainly no evidence of any similar nasal ending in Goidelic as e.g. Irish ‘mo’ triggers lenition.

  31. melboiko says:

    In São Paulo uni the linguistics department had, for historical reasons, a small nucleus for French/Greimasian semiotics. One of the few things that the linguists agreed was that Greimas isn’t linguistics. I would not be surprised at all to see anti-semiotic graffiti…

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