Should Publishing Platform Impact Quality Expectations?

I admit it. I’m a slow reader. Maybe it’s because of all my years – many, many years ago – as a typesetter and proofreader. My job was to make sure every letter, every word, was correct and looked right. And indeed, everything I read on my own in print – books, magazines, newspapers – always looked perfect.

I would dare anyone to read just about any published work and find a typo or any other mistake. Or even find copy that didn’t look perfectly arranged, line after line. Unless a last-minute change in a newspaper story was made, and the paste-up person waxed a new line of copy down a little crooked. I actually felt a bit gleeful when I spotted it, knowing exactly what that process entailed.

Then, of course, came desktop publishing. Newspapers and magazines started realizing the huge cost  and time savings of producing fully laid out pages versus galley paste-ups. This also marked  the first significant drop in the overall quality of the look of the copy.

Remember when you read a newspaper and you started seeing weird things in the copy? There were dramatic differences in the way the text looked. Sometimes a line of text had just a few words spread apart with big spaces between the letters. Or you could see “rivers” that looked like snaking white space running down through the paragraph.

What we witnessed was the first compromise of quality in print, because desktop publishing software didn’t have the same typographic controls that the earlier typesetting systems offered. Publishing Industry expectations seemed to change a little, with a willingness to give up some quality standards in order to capitalize on the new technology.

Now I can’t say whether the consumers’ expectations changed, except maybe for all the other old typesetters and proofreaders out there like me. The technology certainly didn’t seem to compromise the quality of the written content itself. It just created a bit of a distraction that some people may have noticed.

Over time, of course, desktop publishing software got better and better. It offered sufficiently enhanced typographic controls, such that the printed newspaper story and magazine article started looking pretty good again.

Fast forward to today. Like millions of others, I do most of my reading online – particularly articles on news web sites as well as opinion pieces on other editorial web sites. I still like to read magazines in printed form.

It is evident that the proliferation of current events – in politics, world affairs, natural disasters – has resulted in an enormous volume of published digital content for voracious readers, with updates added constantly. The more I read online, the more I noticed an unusual trend.

I started to see all kinds of errors in the way the copy was written. Double words, wrong words, wrong tense, wrong possessive, missing words. Sometimes it subtly affected the meaning of the content itself. (Interestingly, however, I rarely saw a misspelling. Thank you, spell check?)

I realized that I was seeing these kinds of errors in one or more articles just about every day while reading stories online. I began to ask myself: Does the volume of content required to stay in front of consumers mean sacrificing quality? Quantity over quality?

As I thought about these questions, I was reminded of what I knew was happening in the publishing industry. We were aware of organizational changes taking place in publishing organizations – many of them our customers. Staffs were shrinking, editorial teams were consolidating around content groupings rather than individual brands, and with print becoming less profitable and less prevalent and digital content more prolific, some brands were even shutting down their print issues.

My thinking reached a tipping point when I read about the hundreds of employees who staged a walk-out at one of the largest newspapers to protest the elimination of the copy desk and the resulting layoffs of half the copy editors. Like many other news organizations, the goal was to streamline editorial operations, to support hiring more journalists, in order to support the growing need for digital content.

Why should the delivery platform impact quality expectations? Or eliminate quality checks altogether?

Considering the amount of digital content published, and the number of errors I saw every day, it seemed clear to me that the copy editor was needed more than ever.

“For those in the business of words, copy editors are considered the ‘safety nets,’ the meticulous proofreaders who catch everything from spelling mistakes to major factual errors,” wrote Samantha Schmidt, The Washington Post, June 30.

Camryn Bell, in a blog post for The Daily Californian on August 31, wrote, “Copy editing is a quiet business. It is behind the scenes, and much of the work is felt in the negative space – in grammar errors that aren’t there, or mistakes not made. But in this space, copy editors are also responsible not just for spelling mistakes, but tone, accuracy and the reliability of sources. These are the things that keep content reliable, and part of why it is so alarming to see a nationwide trend of publications laying off their copy editors.”

Other manufacturers figure out how to build quality into their process, instead of simply relying solely on inspection. During my years at a large prepress company, we focused on how we could change production processes to improve quality as well as reduce errors. Our answer was to reorganize from functional department structures to customer-focused teams, with each team made up of workers from all functional areas, handling a specific group of customers. The result was reduced errors, faster cycle times and increased quality.

I recall a similar organizational change made several years ago by a larger publisher. They brought high-resolution color management processes into each magazine’s editorial/design team, instead of funneling all the work into a separate prepress department. The result? Better quality, reduced cycle times.

There was a time when we readers were quite used to the “errors that aren’t there” and the “mistakes not made.” News organizations should be able to figure out how to produce higher volumes of digital content without sacrificing quality, without “throwing out the baby with the bath water.”

In the meantime, I may need to learn to speed-read.