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Andrew Alexander, Washington Post Ombudsman explains why copy errors are an increasing problem for the Post.

Only a month ago, Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander apologized to readers for long lag times in correcting factual errors at the newspaper.

Now, he’s offered an explanation for what readers say is an increase at the newspaper in, of all things, spelling errors. A smaller staff, and “the changing duties of copy editors” are to blame, he says.

Alexander says reader letters complaining about Post copy errors come in a steady stream. “An increase in their complaints during the waning months of 2009 has continued into the new year,” he writes. “Michael Larabee, who handles letters to the editor, said he also has seen a ‘noticeable’ increase, including ‘many letters complaining about multiple mistakes in a single story.’”

Alexander explains that the Washington Post saw a reduction in staff over the last decade, which cut down the number of copy editors combing the paper. “Through buyouts and voluntary departures, the number of full-time copy editors declined from about 75 to 43 between early 2005 and mid-2008.”

However, in recent buyouts, the number of copy editors has not declined sharply, while errors have still increased. This likely has to do with what Alexander calls copy editors’ “changing duties.” Alexander writes,

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Gone are the days when they primarily detected errors and smoothed prose for the next day’s newspaper. Now they must also operate in an online environment where “search-engine optimization” is a key goal. That requires new skills and time-consuming additional duties. Separate online headlines must be written in a way that attracts attention on the Web. Links must be found, vetted and inserted into online stories, and so-called “keywords” must be highlighted.

Of course, all errors start somewhere.  And while it’s copy editors’ responsibility to find and stop spelling and grammar mistakes, it’s also reporters and line editors responsibility not to make them at all. “In the end, nothing can replace the experienced, fastidious copy editor,” Alexander writes. “And nothing can help them more than reporters getting it right in the first place.”

This explanation, coupled with the ombudsman’s earlier post about error corrections paint a somewhat bleak picture of the error situation at the newspaper. According to Alexander, there just may not be enough eyes or ears at the Washington Post to prevent and correct errors both factual and copy.

It seems unfortunate that these fundamental tasks in news reporting are the ones sacrificed when there’s not enough to go around.

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