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By Gina Channell Wilcox

Citizen editors: New solution to an old problem?

Uploaded: Jan 29, 2014

I've heard of citizen journalists, and now there are citizen editors. Or at least that's the descriptor I'm using for the folks in a program Delinda Fogel, publisher of the St. Augustine (Fla.) Record, has launched. It's called "Catch the Typos" and is a contest to help Fogel achieve her New Year's resolution -- "to eliminate the typos and grammar mistakes in the newspaper."

Apparently the paper has had a run of bad luck when it comes to catching the typos that inevitably show up in page proofs. At the Record, as well as most other papers, the proofs are read by multiple people before the paper is "put to bed" and sent to the press. But typos still get through.

It happens all the time? and some are so funny they end up on late night talk shows. A somewhat funny one happened to a local newspaper, The Novato Advance, earlier this month. The headline in the January 9, 2014 paper was "Horney boys, Mustang girls split." It was a game played by the Hornets. A Facebook commenter wrote, "I think it's a mistake, but maybe not."

Ouch, that stings.

Fogel understands that all mistakes are embarrassing and is trying her best to correct the problem despite having a very small staff. In a January 19 column, Fogel wrote, "I hear from some readers that part of the entertainment value of The Record is counting the number of errors. I'm not proud that we have a problem. It is very humbling, but it seems to take an army to help turn this tide. Lord knows, it's something I've been battling since last summer."

She wrote, "To all of you who have extended me an invitation to come down here and help me fix this, here's your chance. I need your help. I'm going to hold a contest called 'Catch the Typos.'"

The volunteers report for duty every night between 8 and 11 p.m. at the newspaper's office. The Record rewards the volunteers who catch the most typos by entering them in a drawing for a dinner for two.

The overworked, "lean" editorial staffs endemic in today's newspaper business model is not a secret. Back in the "good ol' days" before the late 1990s, newspapers had "copy desks." Editors did a "line edit" to look for bias, completeness, accuracy and so on, and the copy editors checked for typos and grammar problems. Copy editors also wrote the headlines and cutlines (the information under the photos). Copy desks are mostly gone, or they have been combined with design and / or line editing.

In our operation, the journalists write, edit and proof pages. Well, everyone is responsible for proofing pages - even our business manager and sales reps get involved! It is much easier to spot problems in another person's work, which is why the copy desk concept was perfect, but then financial reality hit.

In a later email explaining the move to some critics who thought Fogel should just hire copy editors (obviously they don't work in media), Fogel said a dozen readers, including retired English teachers, have volunteered in what she said is a "temporary exercise aimed at process improvement, with help from the most important people ? our readers."

"We'll pay them for the inconvenience of sitting in on our production times for a couple of weeks, and we'll buy them dinner to discuss their experiences with me and the staff, once the exercise is complete."

I admire Fogel's resolve to fix the problem but, in my humble opinion, I don't see it as a permanent solution. It will be fun for these volunteers to "play newspaper" for a while, but eventually I predict people will not want to continue unpaid. And it sounds like Fogel feels the same.

I look forward to hearing how the "exercise" goes ? and how long it goes. Innovation is the key to life in media nowadays.