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.”

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