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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Mistakes are built into the system

I've had a few interesting conversations this week about quality control in newsrooms, in part sparked by the diagram I posted last week showing how many pairs of hands various kinds of news stories go through before being published.

One thing that came up was how irritated people are by the number of typos regularly seen on news websites - including and As Nathan said in a recent comment, "I generally expect better of professionals."

I haven't worked at either of those sites so I can't speak for what goes on there. But in my experience the problem is twofold: inadequate systems (Content Management Systems (CMSs) that require users to undertake multiple steps for simple tasks - increasing the likelihood of mistakes); and poor workflows that were designed decades ago for print and haven't been revised to account for the website.

Some typos simply come from typing too fast - you'll find plenty of these in blogs and comments (including mine) where people type quickly and give only a cursory check before hitting 'send'.

More prevalent in news publishing are cut and paste errors - where a sentence has been edited or moved and during the process a word/punctuation mark/sentence has been inadvertently cut out, cut in half, transposed or reconstituted without due care for syntax or grammar. (That's why you see double words in text and missing full-stops).

How does it happen? Easy. Take a breaking news story. They're often bits of wire stories spliced together with a few paragraphs filed by an inhouse reporter. Very often those paragraphs will have been filed by email and copied and pasted into the web CMS. Just as often, the wire story will have been copied and pasted into the web CMS.

Take all that copying and pasting and re-working of sentences, throw in some time pressure and you've got mistakes waiting to happen. Speed is of the essence so the story goes live without anyone else reading it. Even with less urgent stories there's often only one duty web editor anyway, so there's no one else around to have a look at it before it goes online.

So why doesn't someone read it after it's gone live? Good question. Some structured peer review could go a long way here. And as I keep saying, readers would gladly help if you made it easy for them.

Most stories, though, are prepared for the newspaper first before finally being loaded online late at night by a tired person. On the way, they'll go through nine or more pairs of hands, typically, and two CMSs.

Most likely both CMSs will make hard work of cutting, pasting, categorising and styling text - increasing the likelihood of mistakes being made along the way. Cyber, a system widely used for print in NZ, would fall into this category I suspect, based on my brief encounter with it. If you have a different view, I'd love to hear from you.

What's the answer? One, news organisations need better CMSs which have been designed for neutral input and multi-platform output - no more cutting and pasting, easier editing and mark-up, and the fewer steps the better.

Two, they need to take a critical look at their workflows and redistribute resources: essentially take a couple of those people in the right-hand columns and move them to the left.


Poneke said...

Please, what is a CMS?

In my 20-something years in journalism and computers, it has passed me by, sadly

Command management system?

Computer management system?

Julie Starr said...

Sorry Poneke, CMS = content management system. The system you use to enter, edit, store and publish text, images etc.