New low recorded on Chicago Tribune weather page

“Thursday’s Highest: 8° at Laredo, Texas”

Only 74°off, because someone accidentally left off the second digit, 2, and someone else didn’t catch the error before publication.

I was really hoping that today would be another one of those rare days when the Chicago Tribune weather page didn’t contain a single mistake. Honestly, after chronicling errors on that page on seven of the past nine days, I was rooting for them.

This is what high school English teachers must endure while grading essays for advanced-placement classes, in which kids too bright to be making such ridiculous mistakes are sometimes too lazy to proofread properly before turning in their work.

It’s easy to imagine their excuses: “I didn’t have time,” “I did proofread it,” “What’s the big deal?”

It would be great if someone could honestly tell them that, in the real world of professional, grown-up endeavors, that kind of sloppiness isn’t allowed. But readers of the Chicago Tribune weather page know better.


Chicago Tribune standards editor elevated to mystery job

Today’s weather page in the Chicago Tribune looked free of errors for the first time in days, until I got to the forecast for Monday, Feb. 2: “Light southerly winds strengthen and become more SE at”

On today’s business page, the paper announced that “Margaret Holt, 63, will be elevated to recognize her role as standards editor for the newspaper.” This brief clause in one sentence is the only mention of Holt in the article, a lengthy description about five senior editors and their new jobs at the paper. The other four editors got a lot of attention: detailed descriptions of their past experience, explanations of their new jobs, compliments from upper management and quotes from the newly promoted editors about how they view their jobs.

How curious that Holt got none of this treatment. The article didn’t mention what her “elevated” role is to be, whether it will include her current duties or if the role of standards editor itself is being elevated.

Her Tribune bio says that as standards editor, she “works closely with reporters and editors about issues of accuracy, fairness and ethics.”

Too bad that the announcement of her promotion didn’t, in all fairness, give readers the same thorough reporting about her as about the other four. Perhaps an insult was unintentional, but an oversight of this size smacks of a put-down. Of course, someone whose job is to wield a critical red pencil and a sharp eye for mistakes is handicapped in any popularity contest. Or, perhaps she is held responsible for the frequency of errors and the paper didn’t want to raise that question in any description of past performance or future duties.

At a 2005 conference called “Editing the Future: Helping Copy Desks Meet the Challenge of Changing Media,” Holt described how the Tribune in 1995 began focusing on eliminating errors. It carefully tracked mistakes, categorized them and devised staff training to prevent them. Judging from its track record lately (and not just on the weather page), the Trib appears to have lost that focus.

The prevalence of typos, spelling errors and mangled syntax could be a result of the Trib’s squeeze-the-newsroom business model, rather than deficiencies in individual staffers, who probably feel frustrated and discouraged. These kinds of errors are characteristic of a business whose standards have slipped far enough to damage credibility with its readers and its industry.

As Holt wrote in a “Focus on accuracy” essay for that 2005 conference website, “We can never take these basics for granted. They jeopardize our business.”

Won’t somebody please helps them?

From today’s Chicago Tribune weather page:

“Winds start out from the east then gradually shifts southerly and increases…”

Actually, this is an improvement. During the past week, the weather page has featured two to four errors most days.

Let’s recap. Since Jan. 22, the following errors appeared on the weather page:

“Lake-efect snow”

“Pattern shift suggest temperature downturn late next week”

“Water vapor in clouds hold onto and re-radiates heat”

“Percent of possible sunshine in recent days”

“Fifteen-foot drifts stranded 50,000 cars, making it nearly impossible for snow-removal equipment to traverse the street and expressways…”

“High pressure builds across the Great lakes”

“Clouds dominate area skies early followed by periods of sunshine emerge through the day.”

“Windy snow-maker bring weavy snow totals”



Typos, cloudy grammar remain well above normal

From today’s Chicago Tribune weather page:

Photo from

Photo from

“High pressure builds across the Great lakes”

“Clouds dominate area skies early followed by periods of sunshine emerge through the day.”

“Windy snow-maker bring weavy snow totals”

Does Tom Skilling, the weatherman whose photo adorns the upper right-hand corner of the page every day, ever read it? Perhaps he makes the reasonable assumption, as do many newspaper readers, that a major news organization like the Chicago Tribune would do all it can to ensure accuracy in basic grammar and eliminate typos before publication. The page this day wasn’t an aberration; it’s one of four weather pages in the past six days to be marred by such flaws.

Skilling has a daily column, “Ask Tom,” in which he answers weather questions from readers. It probably isn’t his job to proofread the weather page, but given his prominence on it, he might like an explanation from the page editor about why these sloppy errors keep occurring. If you’d like to know, too, try contacting him at



News flash: Chicago had only one street in 1967!

Chicago's Lake Shore Drive after the blizzard of '67.

Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive after the blizzard of ’67. Photo from chuckmanchicagonostaliga.

From today’s Chicago Tribune weather page about the anniversary of the city’s 1967 “Big Snow:”

“Fifteen-foot drifts stranded 50,000 cars, making it nearly impossible for snow-removal equipment to traverse the street and expressways…”

Partly cloudy, chance of error

After reading about “lake-efect” snow on yesterday’s Chicago Tribune weather page, it seemed like a good idea to check that page today.

One of today’s headlines reads, “Water vapor in clouds hold onto and re-radiates heat.” This error are especially puzzling, since the correct usage appear not only in the same headline, but in the one just above it: “Layer of clouds prevents heat from escaping.”

Maybe the headline writer hadn’t meant to drop the required “s” from “hold,” but a copy editor should have caught and corrected that before publication.

Time was when every newspaper reporter, copy editor and editor had a well-worn edition of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” on their desks. Those who do can look under “Subject-Verb Agreement” for advice on when to use singular or plural forms of verbs.

Why, you might wonder, would anyone but a nitpicky English teacher care about this?  Because, as the author of “1984” and “Animal Farm” wrote, “If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.”

This doesn’t mean you have to write as well as George Orwell to have a coherent thought. But competent use of basic grammar in one’s native language doesn’t seem too much to ask of anyone with at least an eighth-grade education, much less of professional wordsmiths.

Newspapers used to be regarded as bastions of proper English, one of the few places a person could reliably expect to see it used correctly. After all, their avowed goal was to provide an essential element of successful democracy – a well-informed public of people able to think for themselves.

Looks like those days is over.

And by the way, what is one to think about “Percent of possible sunshine in recent days,” which then informs us that there was zero sunshine on the three previous days? Wouldn’t the word “possible” be better used to predict the percent of sunshine in coming days, where the element of uncertainty justifies use of the word? Is it possible that there’s some uncertainty here about an easily measured and verifiable quality of weather during the three previous days?

Better add a dictionary to the desk, also.




Chicago Tribune death watch

“Lake-efect snow potential late Sunday”

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Photo by

“Pattern shift suggest temperature downturn late next week”

Both of these come from the paper’s weather-page graphic by WGN-TV, a Chicago Tribune property. Both appear to have been composed by someone for whom English is a second language and then published without the benefit of copy editing.

As every die-hard delivery customer knows, the Chicago Tribune has shriveled in size and deteriorated in quality. Publishers blame shrinking revenues caused by the Internet luring away advertisers. But that explanation doesn’t go deep enough.

Readers and advertisers abandoned newspapers because, like dinosaurs, newspaper publishers couldn’t adapt to a new environment. They clung to an old business model that included spending as little as possible on the newsroom. This worked well enough when times were good. Now that times are bad, they’ve doubled-down on it, starving the newsroom much like conservative Republicans aim to shrivel government by refusing to fund it adequately.

Newspaper publishers (not all of them, but in general) tend to loathe newsrooms, regarding them as nothing but overhead full of employees with bad attitudes who bring in no money but produce plenty of complaints from government officials and chamber-of-commerce types. When revenues began to tank 10 years ago, their first instinct was to cut newsroom budgets, lay off reporters, copy editors and photographers, outsource or centralize editorial functions, hope to get by with lower-paid, less experienced staffers and demand more work from them.

In the last gasps of its death throes, the Chicago Tribune still has produced some outstanding exposes, such as its stories about the ineffectiveness and dangers of a red-light camera program shot through with corruption. Imagine what it could do if it reinvested in its core function of delivering news, redefined its mission as in-depth explanation and analysis and gave up publishing a print edition of “daily” news already outdated by digital sources the day it’s printed.

It even enjoys the advantages of a huge market free from any competing papers and a large pool of unemployed, experienced ex-newsroom staffers.

All it needs is a publisher with imagination and guts.

State of the unions 2015

labor unionPresident Obama used his 2015 State of the Union address to describe how he hopes to help middle-class Americans struggling with low or stagnant wages, poor job opportunities, staggering college costs and unaffordable health care.

One of the answers to these problems lies in revitalized labor unions.

After decades of continual corporate assault on collective bargaining rights, union membership in the United States has fallen from a high of 35 percent of the workforce in the mid-1950s to less than 12 percent. The power of unions helped American workers – including those who didn’t belong to unions – gain their fair share of the country’s post-war prosperity, and it didn’t prevent American companies from growing into international behemoths.

They aren’t perfect. Like all large, powerful, wealthy organizations, successful unions have harbored the same kind of greedy, corrupt officials found in business, government and sports. Even so, unions propelled some of the biggest advances in working conditions involving safety, pay and fairness. Their members shed blood and died from attacks by police and troops during strikes to wrest improvements from employers.

Next time you’re told wage increases, full-time hours, regular schedules, paid vacation time, sick days, parental leave and affordable health insurance will make your employer’s business “less competitive,” take a few minutes to check out what advice or help a nearby union local might have. Here’s a place to start:

“What can anyone do about it?”

Between Oxfam’s report claiming that 1 percent of the world’s population will soon own 50 percent of its wealth and perennial presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s new packaging as an anti-poverty warrior, it’s understandable if most people just want to throw up their hands (and maybe their latest meals) in utter frustration, discouragement and anger.

Naturally, if you’re not among the 1-percenter billionaires, it’s easy to think that no individual could possibly make a difference in anything. But that kind of I’m-on-my-own thinking is precisely what keeps people from acting. It’s no coincidence that those few at the top of the income scale insist that individuals alone are responsible for overcoming all obstacles to improving their situations, that unions and government regulation threaten freedom and that their own advantages of wealth, the best schools and knowing the right people had nothing to do with their success.

But we’re not helpless.

Take one hour a week and do the following:

1. Pick a couple of potential candidates for elective office and find out how they voted in the past on taxes, regulation of banks and Wall Street, student loans, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, Medicaid, corporate incentives and other pocketbook issues. Never mind what they say. Past actions, not campaign promises, are the best predictors of what they’ll do in the future.

2. If you find a candidate whose voting record pleases you, spend that weekly hour working for his or her campaign.

3. Don’t overlook people running for local offices. They have a great impact on where you live.

And just for fun, take a look at how self-described capitalist tool Forbes magazine tries to discredit the statistical validity of Oxfam’s findings. Using Oxfam’s charts, Forbes proclaims that there isn’t enough data to reliably predict when or if Oxfam’s 50-percent conclusion will come true. What the charts show has already happened, however, is that between 2000 and 2014 the world’s 1-percenters owned between 44 percent and almost 49 percent of the globe’s wealth.




Introducing Forked Tongue: Don’t say what you mean

With admiration for the annual Doublespeak Award given by the National Council of Teachers of English, I offer a modest effort called Forked Tongue. It will be a category of posts about words people use to obfuscate what they really mean.

The inaugural entry is inspired by a sentence in the front-page Chicago Tribune article about John Fox, newly hired coach of the bad-news Chicago Bears: “Fox’s resume is a glass of water for a team that has been wandering in the dessert.”

chicago bears cake

Photo from

This kind of silly, obvious error, in which a word meaning “a typically sweet course which concludes an evening meal” is accidentally used instead of one meaning “a barren area of land where little precipitation occurs,” is the result of newspapers firing thousands of copy editors, whose jobs were to prevent this kind of embarrassing lapse in standards.

Newspapers exile (excuse me, they outsource) copy editing to companies that offer editorial services cheaply. This is called “reallocating resources,” which here means spending less money on employees, and “trimming waste,” a euphemism for dumping the experienced but costly human resources who held full-time jobs paying liveable wages, plus paid vacations, sick leave and health insurance in favor of using part-time, low-wage hourly workers with no benefits.

In fact, the Chicago Tribune created its own in-house editing gulag in 2009, which produced ready-made pages already written up for seven other papers in the company’s chain, allowing those papers to dump some of the employees who wrote articles, or designed pages or checked articles for accuracy while eliminating typos, grammatical mistakes and errors of fact.

Such centralization is supposed to be more “efficient,” which means using fewer and lower-paid people to do a job that’s just good enough. This degradation of quality is helping speed newspapers to their demise, while their publishers pound nails labeled “reallocation” and “trimming” into the coffin lids.