Customer disservice from the Chicago Tribune

photo from Wikipedia

photo from Wikipedia

The Chicago Tribune wants to dump its print-delivery customers, but doesn’t want to say so.

It’s the only explanation that makes sense.

Or maybe they only want to dump Northwest Indiana, typically treated as the unwanted bastard child of the region.

For months, papers for Tribune subscribers here have arrived very late, then not at all.  Local retail outlets such as Walgreens would be allocated only one or two copies.

Sometimes I’d find a Wall Street Journal or a Post-Tribune in the driveway, neither of which I subscribe to, with these words scrawled on the plastic bag: “Sorry ran out of Tribunes.”

I finally cornered a carrier on one of the occasions he showed up with a Tribune, about 11 a.m. He said the Tribune had transferred its delivery duties in this area to the Northwest Indiana Times, headquartered in Munster. He said some carriers had quit. Those remaining, accustomed to having 500 papers to deliver, found themselves trying to deliver 1,000 papers. Since that many won’t fit into a carrier’s personal vehicle, they’d run out and have to drive back to the distribution point in Portage for more, then drive back to their customers in Lake County.

The Tribune’s customer-service phone number rang unanswered this morning before disconnecting itself. The message at the NWI Times customer-service number was, “Due to delivery challenges in recent days, your wait time may exceed 15 to 20 minutes.”

As in other crumbling relationships, the Tribune has been behaving badly for a while, probably hoping that its print-delivery customers would give up and go away because the paper lacks the courage to tell us it’s over.

Things probably aren’t much better in the newsroom, where many jobs have been axed and others outsourced. The remaining reporters continue to produce first-class journalism, but their heroic efforts are undermined by a system so shoddy it can’t deliver their work to customers. We’re being herded to the online version, kicking and screaming.

I’ll ask a few people at both papers if they’d like to comment on this. Maybe someone actually will.

 

Glazed and confused

Photo from veryveganrecipes.com

Photo from veryveganrecipes.com

Margaret Holt, standards editor at the Chicago Tribune, kindly responded yesterday to questions about why errors recently have plagued the paper’s weather page.

“The weather page is produced for the Chicago Tribune through a collaborative effort with the WGN-TV news department,” she wrote in an email. The Chicago Tribune owns WGN. “I asked the producer who coordinates the project for WGN about these errors.”

That person, she wrote, “explained that WGN editors had some recent schedule shifts and production issues that, in combination, reduced the amount of editing time on deadline. As a result of these problems, he says, a new deadline schedule has been implemented and he has been working with Tribune editors to give the desk more time on the print product.”

It will be gratifying to see the Chicago Tribune’s weather page meeting professional standards again, but it won’t be as much fun. Each day of reading it was like panning through the usual drab verbiage for gold, and these are the latest nuggets:

On 1/31: “Some lake effect flurries early the mixed sun and clouds.”

On 2/5: “High peak in the middle 30s then slide into the 20s as wind shift into the north and increase to 15-25 mph.”

On 2/6: “Some glazing late and overnight as temps slowly fall below freezing” and “Drizzle and light rain will develop this weekend, resulting in some glazing…”

It’s probably tough on weather-page wordsmiths to confine their writing to the repetitive phrases of forecasting. Boredom must tempt them to liven up the page with an occasional flourish such as “glazing,” which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as, “The action, process or trade of fitting windows with glass.” Not mentioned is this commonly understood meaning: “The process of adding a delicious, sugary coating on doughnuts.”

Readers aren’t likely to think that rain and falling temperatures will cause windows or sugar coating to appear on the landscape. But to eliminate any possible question about the substance, the word “iciness” would do nicely.

 

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  nickulivieriphotography.com

Photo from
nickulivieriphotography.com

“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 asktomwhy@wgntv.com.

 

 

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. wordpress.com.

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”

Photo by  bizjournals.com

Photo by bizjournals.com

“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.

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 Birthdaydirect.com

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.