Inside the Post-Dispatch: The View From AJR


American Journalism Review just published a piece about newspaper accuracy where layoffs-meet-the-Internet, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is the main character in the 3,530-word article.

Only hard-core media wonks will appreciate all three-thousand of those words, so I've taken the liberty of posting a few excerpts about the new news culture within the P-D.

Let's start with AJR author Carl Sessions Stepp's great lede:

Sunrise approaches on a Friday morning, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Web site is being updated early - from Mandy St. Amand's bathroom.

St. Amand, the Post-Dispatch continuous news editor, has balanced her laptop on the toilet lid and, while drying her hair and prepping for the office, is reworking homepage headlines.

Not surprisingly, no copy editor is handy at 5:30 a.m., so St. Amand's work goes online unchecked by a colleague. She estimates that between 40 and 50 Post-Dispatch staffers can post directly to the site, often remotely and without a second read - a growing, troubling trend in these days of never-ending news cycles and ever-dwindling editing corps.

The thrust of the story is that layoffs, combined with the give-it-to-me-now appetite of Internet media consumers, have crippled big newspapers' ability to copy-edit articles and headlines.

As AJR reports, the local daily has lost nineteen copy editors in the last several years, and now employs 21 copy editors. That means errors get through more often than editors and reporters would like.

Bill McClellan had it happen to him recently, as AJR recounts:

[...] he recently experienced a "brain cramp" and called Missouri a blue state, even though it has gone Democratic only twice in the past eight presidential races. The error zipped past editors and ended up in print.

McClellan won't blame the copy desk, which he says is "astoundingly good," and regularly calls to check things like song lyrics he's tangled. "Nine times out of 10 the copy desk catches things," he says, "and the red-blue error was the tenth."

But, he adds, "You never do more with less. You do less with less. You have fewer copy editors, more mistakes get through."

AJR crunches some other numbers:

A news staff of about 340 five years ago is about 210 today, [executive editor Arnie] Robbins calculates. Some 40 pages of space per week have been lost in the newspaper, which is introducing a narrower page width that could cost another 5 percent of newshole.

These challenges are not unique to St. Louis, but the Post-Dispatch seems a symbolic place to examine their impact on editing. It is a 241,000-circulation, middle-American, blue-collar institution, founded in 1878 by Joseph Pulitzer, the editing giant famous for preaching "accuracy, accuracy, accuracy."

AJR reports that readers on the P-D website are becoming default copy editors, noticing errors and pointing them out to the paper's staff by posting comments on the stories.

This was the kicker for me:

Will Sullivan, the Post-Dispatch's 28-year-old interactive director, appreciates the concerns of veteran colleagues but also welcomes a future of new thinking and tools.

He envisions that editing will become "more of a everyone-is-an-editor model," where "the concept of news is a wiki" and a story becomes "a kind of rolling document" moving through a continuous editing process.

The thought of my daily newspaper becoming like Wikipedia is scary...

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