Focus on accuracy

"Quality is an on going journey. It's never done," said Margaret Holt, customer service editor of the Chicago Tribune. "Just when you think you've got something fixed, it ain't. It requires vigilance, and everybody internally needs to know that it matters."

Since 1992 the Chicago Tribune has hired a proofreader to do an errors-per-page annual report, so the newsroom can track errors from year to year. "We were abysmal starting out," she said. "I think we were as high as 4.82 errors per page."

However, the Tribune's accuracy program kicked into high gear in 1995 when it suffered an accuracy "meltdown." A senior writer misidentified a top Tribune executive in an obituary of a beloved editor. That executive was "not happy," Holt said. The obit was published on a Saturday, and by Monday, the executive ordered the Tribune to establish an error policy.

Holt and other editors began to research accuracy policies, investigated quality-control programs in other industries and held meetings for employees to vent - "and boy, did they vent."

Holt discovered a guiding principle: "In any enterprise, work is a process. At any point along the way that you can identify the systemic errors versus the human errors, you can address the systemic errors and do better work."

Holt's job is to deal with errors by quantifying the process. When people make mistakes, they fill out an error form and talk about what happened to "track back on every single error."

Internal credibility is key to the Tribune's process. Editors and reporters "need to know that you value accuracy, that you care about it and that you're going to act on it."

When the Tribune launched its program, which requires naming people who make mistakes, the reaction was "ugly." Copy editors were particularly concerned.

"Everybody on the desk was terrified," Holt said, adding that they feared the program would be "one more way to do a public flogging of the desk." Reporters were thrilled, she said, because they were sure the process would reveal editors to be "jerks" who "mess with my copy."

In fact, Holt said, she found that 50 percent of errors happen at the "front end of the process," which is newsgathering. Only 15 to 18 percent of errors related to copy and source editing.

"This is not a gotcha exercise," she said. "This is our good faith effort because we want to do better work."

Tribune editors learned that the people who make the most errors are sometimes the paper's best performers. This is particularly true on the desk, where stronger editors are more likely to handle the most difficult story. And weaker writing gets a lot of editing, so more errors are likelier to slip through with good writers.

A key question on the Tribune's error forms is how the error was discovered, which is a "huge indicator of the internal awareness about accuracy and how well we're doing in the newsroom communicating it." Holt compared the percentage of internally reported errors to a good cholesterol number. When that number reaches about 35 percent, she said, "that speaks to the health of the system" because people are aware of the need for accuracy and feel free to report mistakes. However, when that number drops, the total number of errors starts to climb.

"What we're about is doing better work, not necessarily reducing the number of corrections, because they are not the same thing," she said. "What we want is a place where people feel free to talk about mistakes and that we can be candid about them and really be almost clinical on behalf of the reader so that we can learn from them and do better work."

And don't forget to correct archived stories because there is no "statute of limitations" on errors. A mistake in a previous story is likely to show up again unless it's corrected.

"The sin is not making mistakes," Holt said, because making no mistakes means that people are afraid to take risks and try something new. "The sin is not learning from them."

In addition to ongoing training for all editors, the Tribune also held training sessions in writing and in libel laws. The result was a "dramatic" decline in errors.

She sat down with one department and went over its errors for the past year, which she had categorized. The department then went through training sessions specifically aimed at preventing those errors; staffers were encouraged to share ideas for preventing errors. A columnist with 35 years of experience suggested a "blindingly obvious" strategy: "You should not ever conduct an interview until you've asked them how to spell their name and what their current title is." Despite his long service, the columnist saw the value of the training.

"We can never take these basics for granted," Holt said. "They jeopardize our business."