Here’s a piece of E-mail I received the other day, under the ominous subject line of “Too Many Typos:”
March 2, 2005 edition:
Front page: From Frazier to Stage, 20. Actually, it’s spelled F-r-a-s-i-e-r and it’s on page 22.
Page 22 & 23: From TV’s ‘Frazier’ to Paper Mill.
Spelled wrong in the headline and the boldface quote on page 23, but OK in the article.
Page 25, column 1: Freelon’s jazz singing career only began to take shape until after she’d gotten married . . . Delete “until”?
Dear Mr. Rein:
My name is Bob [———]. If you recall, we spoke a few months ago about a Production Editor position at US1. You thought I was overqualified.
You have a terrific newspaper and I read it every week. Sadly, I have been noticing that your number of typos has been increasing lately. In my 17 years of producing one [major market] catalog every week, it gave me physical pain to catch the rare typo that blemished the otherwise great work of my staff. I get that same pain when I see your fabulous paper besmirched by the occasional error.
If you need an extra, fresh pair of eyes to proof your publications before going to press, give me a call. I am currently freelancing and would love to help you out.
A few years ago I would have died a thousand deaths at the receipt of such an E-mail. Today I grimace, share the bad news with my colleagues (and institute a check list of page one items that need to be proofed and ask staffers to initial them as they do them), and then move on to the next issue. What’s happening to this “terrific” and “fabulous” paper, anyhow?
A few things, actually. First we all are using a new piece of software to produce this weekly monster, and while we are trying to separate our control-alt-shift-plus command (which gives us an em dash) from the control-alt-shift-hyphen (an en dash) our minds are being distracted from Frazier vs. Frasier and page 20 vs. 22.
Second we have some new people at various positions (both our longtime Preview editor and equally longtime production manager left us last year). And third I am giving both the new people and the old people more of the fussy work that is involved in tying up all the loose ends of every issue — yes, I am delegating.
And fourth and finally I am accepting mistakes in a way that I didn’t 10 years ago or so. It’s a sea change for me, but it is one that has to happen if you are going to survive in this business. When you spend your working days and nights gathering information, chewing on it, and sending it back for public consumption you will make mistakes sooner rather than later. Those mistakes will be the subject of inter-office memos, and everyone will know it was your mistake, and of letters to the editor. If you are torn up by that public exposure, you will not last in the business. Taken to the extreme, if you have no sense of shame whatsoever, you can be a radio talk show host or television pundit. Can you imagine, Bill O’Reilly, to pick just one example, being embarrassed by a factual error? Hey, that’s not part of the Factor.
All of which prompts me — at this time of year when I traditionally produce three or four columns in a row devoted to the art and craft of journalism — to consider some of the truly monumental mistakes I have made and the lessons learned over the 40 years I have now spent in this profession. Frazier or Frasier? It pales in comparison to some of the blunders I have made in the past.
But is perfect ever possible? And if so at what price? A decade or so ago U.S. 1 covered the opening of the new office of the Edison Venture Fund on Lenox Drive. We ran photos and text of the opening party in the picture perfect offices. Later Ross Martinson, one of the principals in the firm, called and asked if he could buy a reprint of our piece.
I hemmed and hawed. There were some typographical errors in the piece, and some unfortunate choices in the photo layout. I would have to do it over to make it good enough for him.
Martinson wasn’t interested in my vision of perfection. He just wanted the damn reprint. “I’m surprised to hear you talk like that,” he told me. “In our business we make plenty of mistakes. We can’t afford to be perfect. Can you afford it?” The venture capitalist, dealing in millions of dollars, had a point for me, dealing in thousands of dollars.
To our letter writer I say this: Clever job hunting letter and good, constructive criticism. Thanks. We will do better, but we will not add another staff person to catch typos. And by the way, next time you refer to U.S. 1, the newspaper, please note the periods after the letters and the space before the numeral.