After serving overseas during World War II, Martin Lynch returned home to Vancouver without any definite career prospects. His father suggested he try newspaper work, although Lynch had never shown any aptitude for journalism. He never wanted to write. But without anything better in mind, he met with Roy Brown, then editor of The Vancouver Sun, who signed him on as a reporter. As Lynch recalls it, he did a lousy job, still Brown wasn’t ready to let him go. Lynch had impressed him with his photographic memory, with the way his mind seemed to focus naturally on fine detail and with his capacity to store all kinds of obscure facts and figures. Rather than reporting and writing, Brown thought Lynch would be better at editing other writers’ copy and preparing it for print. His instincts were right. Lynch was a natural, learning his craft at the Sun, but then moving on in 1952 to the desk of The Globe and Mail. By the time he retired in 1982, the commitment and style he brought to the job of desk editing had become legendary.

In Lynch’s day, the desk was the soul of the newsroom, assuming responsibility for making each day’s paper as perfect as possible. The desk was a horseshoe-shaped rim. The slot man (Lynch) sat in the centre of the horseshoe and delegated stories to editors sitting around the rim. They would meticulously scour copy for everything from factual errors to spelling and grammatical mistakes, incorrect word usage and potential libel – anything that might threaten the integrity or the credibility of the story.

John King, currently director of editorial production at the Globe, remembers the first article he handled under Lynch, a three-paragraph wire story out of India. King made changes, wrote the headline, then returned the story to Lynch. Lynch looked at it, shook his head when he came to the name of an Indian state and returned it to King. “There’s something wrong with that name,” Lynch told the young editor. “Maha means ‘great’, but what’s behind it doesn’t mean anything. Go and look in Whitaker’s Almanack and you’ll get the name right.” Lynch was forever referring his editors to reference works, making them use the full resources of the Globe’s library. If information couldn’t be properly checked there, Lynch would call his wife at home to check his own reference collection. He was a great desk editor not just because he was so detail-oriented, but also because he possessed an amazing repository of what some people might consider strange and useless information. He was adamant about the key role of the desk in producing a first-rate newspaper, insisting that publishing a “good read” depended on getting everything right to the smallest, most obscure detail.

But in the almost two decades since Lynch’s retirement, computers and cubicles have replaced the rim, and newspapers have diminished the desk editor’s role. Cutbacks and downsizing mean there are fewer people to do Lynch’s job, while the introduction of technology has radically changed the way copy moves from the reporter to the printed page. In Lynch’s day, articles moved through the process between people. Now they move between machines. There’s little hard evidence that these changes have led to a decline in the quality of newspapers, but there is a pervasive view both inside the industry and among readers that standards have fallen. Certainly, the role of the desk isn’t as strong as it used to be, and that shows in our daily papers.

We’re not talking about a lot of big mistakes so much as an accumulation of smaller ones: mistakes such as misspelled words in headlines like “Being John never felt so wierd” (The Globe and Mail, October 29, 1999) or “Canadians feeling pretty good as new millenium dawns, poll finds” (Edmonton Journal, December 23, 1999); mistakes in the use of words such as “The thesis of the first 372 pages of this taught thriller is?” (National Post, August 30, 1999); mistakes in detail like the reference to a “Man Licker” sporting rifle – it should have been Mannlicher (Globe, September 26, 1998); and the kind of embarrassing mistake that calls for a printed correction, as in “Yesterday’s report on the death of Camille Laurin said, incorrectly, that Laurin chose to dye his hair black with shoe polish. The intent was to say that Laurin’s hair was dyed shoe-polish black” (Montreal’s The Gazette, March 13, 1998).

According to the Canadian Newspaper Association, a 100-page newspaper averages more than 300,000 words (the equivalent of three full-length novels), all produced under the pressure of tight deadlines. Maybe such errors are inevitable and don’t do any harm to the overall product. But King firmly believes they do. “It’s very important to our credibility that we get all the information accurate. If somebody reads a story and notices something small is wrong, something that they know the answer to, it makes them question all the other information in the story.”

The evidence suggests he is right. In 1998, the American Society of Newspaper Editors completed a three-year study of newspapers’ credibility. The results, based on replies from readers, focus groups and journalists, cited six key concerns that affect credibility. The perception that newspapers tolerate too many mistakes in content and the use of language was high on the list. The study reported that 21 per cent of readers found a grammar or spelling mistake in their paper almost every day. “Even seemingly small errors feed public skepticism about a newspaper’s credibility,” the study concluded. “Each misspelled word, bad apostrophe, garbled grammatical construction, weird cutline and mislabelled map erodes public confidence in a newspaper’s ability to get anything right. Essentially, readers don’t care whether the reporter was rushed, or that the staff was down three people or if the copy editor was too busy laying out pages to catch misuses of the common language.”

But herein lies the problem. Readers demand high standards in their newspapers, but the kinds of change experienced by the industry in the past couple of decades make this demand harder and harder to meet. The kind of care and attention that was a hallmark of the copy desk in Lynch’s day isn’t a priority anymore. The result is that while newspapers may worry about a credibility problem, the way they do things tends to make it worse, not better. Consider the case of Canada’s newest paper, the National Post. The principal job of the copy editors there, says deputy editor Martin Newland, is to get the copy on the page “because the people who decide what goes into the paper are so hands-on, the desk actually has less to do with content. What they’re [the desk] getting is a pre-existing format. They just have to put the right fonts on the headlines, make the headlines and shoehorn it all into what is a rather difficult design. Their skills are primarily pagination, not content.”

In addition, the Post launched without the benefit of a style guide or any other formal guidelines to guard against such gaffes as inconsistent spelling and irregularities in syntax. “When you’re launching a newspaper, you have nothing. You establish your style and that’s where a whole lot of inconsistencies and mistakes can come in,” says Newland.

At older newspapers, however, it seems that inconsistencies and mistakes come in for the opposite reason. Copy desks that used to have established ways of doing things have been eliminated or downsized in the name of economics. At the Winnipeg Free Press, for example, editor Kelly Taylor says the average number of copy editors per night has gone down to seven from nine, though the elimination of the slot position (the position Lynch had at the Globe) was the most significant result of downsizing. Now, there’s nobody to check the copy editors’ finished stories – they go straight from the copy editor to the page. “Pages are printed and, hopefully, a copy editor or two gets a chance to scan them for obvious errors,” says Taylor. “It’s not a perfect system, but it did answer the demand for a cutback.” The story is the same at other major newspapers. The Vancouver Sun had 23 editors in 1992; it now has 20. The Edmonton Journal had four desk editors, but by 1992 there were three. In July 1999, the Globe cut its “read-back desk,” which reviews edited copy one last time, from four editors to three, and then to two. “I was working at a level that I thought was below my professional capabilities,” says Sandy McFarlane, one of the editors who left last year. “Stuff was getting into the paper I was ashamed of.”

While the hard facts of newspaper economics have driven publishers to cut costs, the introduction of computer technology has made these cuts possible. Computers and the development of sophisticated publishing software have made it faster and easier to produce newspapers, reducing the number of steps in the process and, to an extent, the number of people required. But technology is a double-edged sword. While it certainly streamlines the production and editing process, many professionals believe that the technology itself is responsible for some of the errors that get onto the page. Bill Turpin, editor of Halifax’s The Daily News, for example, is convinced that it’s harder to spot errors on a computer screen than it is on paper. At the Globe, John King agrees, adding that computers have also subtly changed the way editors view their work. “There’s a tendency among people doing electronic layout these days to concentrate on the look of the page rather than the words on the page,” he says. “That’s something that, as a manager, I’m always trying to push back and try to reverse.”

To date, the only evidence that copy is harder to read on a computer screen than on paper is anecdotal; there has been no formal study on the effects of on-screen editing. Nor has there been any study to show whether newspaper readers, increasingly used to reading words on screen (in email and on websites, for example), are developing a greater tolerance for mistakes. Natalie Klym, research consultant and senior editor for the Alliance for Converging Technologies, thinks that people may be starting to put less value on the written word. “As more people use the Internet to communicate, they effectively become ‘writers,'” she says. “But they are unskilled and untrained writers, whose job is not to worry about spelling and sentence structure. Messages get sent out full of ‘innocent’ mistakes. We become accustomed to seeing them in type and our tolerance goes up. Standards go down.” Younger copy editors who have grown up with the new technologies might see things the same way. “If there’s a sentence that is passive rather than active in a newspaper, people probably wouldn’t notice,” says Laura Koot, a 23-year-old copy editor with the Post. “It’s a newspaper, not a novel.” Computerization and downsizing also undermine the traditional strengths and skills of the copy desk in a way that is irreversible. It used to be that experienced editors like Lynch trained younger copy editors, instilling in them the standards and practices of the desk. “There isn’t anywhere else in a newspaper where corporate memory resides,” says Sandy McFarlane. “That memory – how things were done in the past and what the standards of the paper are – is in the heads of older copy editors.”

Today, however, the memory is fading because there aren’t many veterans left. Younger copy editors are likely better educated than their predecessors, but because of their age lack experience and knowledge. “As a young person still learning a lot, you want to have legends or at least near-legends to learn from,” says Mo Gannon, a former Globe copy editor, now editor of The Toronto Star’s Entertainment section. The problem is that the old system of apprenticeship, in which copy editors learned from experienced mentors, has all but disappeared.

Now 75, Lynch lives near Kaslo, B.C., far from the hustle and bustle of the newspaper copy desk. He still looks things up and uses an old Underwood typewriter – he won’t put his trust in computers. He concedes that he’s from a different era of newspapering, but he’s as adamant as he ever was about the importance of the copy desk. He’s just as adamant that the quality of our daily press weakens as the influence of the copy desk erodes. For him, the problem and the solution are straightforward. “I won’t call it electronic editing, I’ll just call it the results of cutting back on the number of people who see copy – and it has a bearing.” We may be getting something to read every day but, says Lynch, “we’re not getting the good read.”