Newspaper Corrections In a Time of Contraction

Newspaper Corrections In a Time of Contraction

A former colleague edited a newspaper in Alabama that goofed and referred to Birmingham’s director of public works as the chief of “pubic works.”

All “L” broke loose.

The chagrined editor took an angry call and apologized. A few weeks later, the typo happened again. Now convinced the paper was trying to make a fool of him, the city employee charged into the newsroom threatening violence.

We’ve all seen funny and infuriating mistakes in the paper, but this month Pine Bluff Commercial Managing Editor John Worthen used one to open a dialogue with readers.

In an unusual editor’s note, he said a decimated news workforce makes errors more likely. He discussed cutbacks at the Commercial, owned by Gatehouse Media, which has hundreds of papers nationwide. Coincidentally, Gatehouse announced that same week that it would consolidate seven of its 27 weeklies in Arkansas into two countywide weeklies.

The Maumelle Monitor, Sherwood Voice and Jacksonville Patriot were melded into the North Little Rock Times in Pulaski County, and the Cabot Star-Herald, Lonoke Democrat and Carlisle Independent became the Lonoke County Democrat. Along with the Commercial, Gatehouse owns the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith and three other Arkansas dailies.

None of that deals specifically with the mistake Worthen made, transposing the name of an animal control director facing charges with the name of a police lieutenant replacing him. But the Gatehouse mergers, made with savings in mind in an ever more digital media industry, reflect the thinking behind cuts that have reduced “dozens of reporters, copy editors, page design specialists and other workers” into a newsroom population of just six at the Commercial.

“Our time is very taxed,” Worthen wrote. While he hates errors and vows to keep them down, Worthen is bothered that readers think “these mistakes happen because we don’t know any better ...”

“Any errors we make are due to long hours and a short staff, not ignorance,” he wrote. He recalled the days when ranks of copy editors proofed all pages. “Those workers are now long gone.”

Worthen told Arkansas Business that his note was a form of community outreach. “People don’t understand the process of putting out a paper, and we wanted to make it clear,” said the 37-year-old editor, who was born in Pine Bluff and raised in Mount Pleasant, Texas. As a journalism student at Henderson State University, he learned the importance of copy editing, the unheralded fact-checking, grammar policing and minutia-tending that was once a specialty at all but the smallest papers. Nowadays, even The New York Times is willing to cause an internal uproar with a memo dismissing “low-value” copy editing.

“It’s an awful trend,” Worthen said. “Nothing should be taken more seriously than copy editing and fact-checking.” But those extra hands aren’t cheap.

“You have to pick your battles,” said Worthen, who became managing editor about a year ago after running the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Pine Bluff bureau for nearly five years. Now that bureau is defunct.

A Wehco Retirement
Speaking of the Democrat-Gazette, its parent company, Wehco Media Inc., announced this month that newspaper division president Jeff Jeffus is retiring after three years in the job and nearly five decades in the industry.

His successor will be Mark Lane, former vice president of sales for Morris Communications, the Georgia company that owns Conway’s Log Cabin Democrat.