Sunday, March 13, 2011

Getting it right is everything

Reading The Ombundsman column today in The Washington Post reminded me of why I canceled my 7-day subscription to the paper last year, and also why I renewed it last month.

This ombundsman (Patrick B. Pexton) is new to the job and was recounting his first week, filled with complaints from online and print readers. Some believe The Post is subjective instead of objective, or subjective from an opposing viewpoint.

Other print readers complained ”mistakes lead to a steady drip-by-drip erosion of their confidence in The Post.” I was one of those readers and I stepped off the print subscription bus last year. I was too tired of errors and lazy writing in the paper to have the confidence I once had in The Post. Writers were no longer trying to engage me before the jump and too often the graphics were obvious. The sports section gave little to mid-season baseball during the week, figuring readers would follow the season online. But online doesn’t get me through a morning Metro ride when I’m trying to read the box scores.

I wrestled with having the paper only on Sundays, then still railing at thin sections. But other small publications can still inform me and engage me. The Post seems to be saving it for the big stories on their own time. When The Post can roll out a Walter Reed medical story when it’s ready, it’s terrific. When The Post needs to run engaging features and explanatory packages on the Nationals and Orioles on a regular basis, I get writing at a 5th-grade level.

The Post has fallen most dramatically in the Style section, which I always thought was the differentiator from The LA Times. When I lived on the West Coast in the early 1990s, the LAT was tremendous: covering California and the Pacific Rim as if they were a suburban beat, sharply focusing on pro sports and major college events. They lacked a fun or critical Style section, mostly because LA is an industry town; if the paper crushed a new movie, they could lose studio advertising.

But in DC, the Style section was always sharp, biting and nearly always a must-read. Now it’s simply tired, with look-at-me-writing and Charlie Sheen focus.

I no longer felt luck to be in the subscription area for one of the great newspapers in the world. The Post had become a local paper, in which readership believes about 70% of what it reads, then cross-references it online against the New York Times.

What brought me back were my elementary-school kids. Where are the comics? Where’s the paper, we need it for a school project? I learned how to read from the NY Daily News, and I killed time in study hall in middle school with the Mr. Cohen’s New York Times, reading the Supreme Court docket for the coming week.

Was I denying my own kids the same opportunity? So when a Post telemarketer called and said I could get the rest of the week for 31 cents, I came back.

I still see the errors. While I understand why, they’re still unforgivable. In the ombundsman report, Pexton focused on one concrete issue: A print graphic that listed pension liabilities in millions of dollars instead of billions. According to Pexton, the online graphic was correct.

I can see how the error could have been made; I’ve been on both sides. Pexton credits the writer with having the figures right, but he probably never met with the artist who created the graphic. The information was most likely passed in an editor’s meeting, then through a graphics editor to an artist, who very well may have thought the millions figure was correct. The error could’ve been made by a content editor, graphics assignment editor, research or the artist.

Mistakes are made by the dozens daily at a newspaper. What keeps the information flowing – and correct – are the multiple readers by copy editors. In the old days, like 10 years ago, stories (and graphics) would’ve been read and cross-referenced by five different people, whose job it was to get it right and keep it right. Most stories are now getting two reads by people whose focus is split on multiple monitor screens.

I hope The Post gets it right and gets it right soon. This kind of close-enough communication leaves the online door open for the pros at Huffington Post, Slate and AOL, who simply aren’t good enough or too obviously biased. Digg amateur linkers give your money’s worth with their free service.

And good luck to us readers. We can only vote with our dollar, which equals about three weeks of weekday newspaper subscriptions these days.

1 comment:

Potomac Secret Agent said...

I have stopped reading The Post on a daily basis.

The only reason it is still delivered is I would get grief from my wife and kids if I cancelled it.

Selfishly - one of the only indulgences I get is doing the crossword puzzle along with my coffee between 6-7am each morning. So - the Style section does get opened - but is immediately discarded after the crossword is done.

Could I move to the NY Times for daily news and crossword? I could - but it would not be nearly as satisfying. You see - the NYTimes is a real paper that is all about challenging us as readers. They give us the story - without too much of a slant - and they don't give a hoot if the crossword puzzle is too hard.

Will Shortz will go down in history as a legendary crossword man - he is the best. The NYTimes always wants "the best" and generally gets them.

Tom - you have it right. I may be sticking to the Post and its slightly difficult crossword because it makes me feel good every morning. I already know that the other writing in the paper does not have the ability to do the same.

Great post! Nice to see you writing again...we missed you!