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MEDIA-ASIA: Proofreaders Going Extinct in Newsrooms

BANGKOK, Sep 4 2009 (IPS) - They were usually the first to arrive at work and the last to leave, and often took the blame for boo-boos in the following day’s issue of the newspaper. Now the newsroom’s unsung heroes, who engage in a daily deadline battle armed only with their sharp eye for detail and those squiggly proofreading marks, are facing a new kind of threat — extinction.

The telltale signs have been present for the past 20 years or so — the advent of desktop publishing software, multi-tasking in the newsroom, streamlining of staff, upgrading of skills and cost-cutting.

All these have been spelling the demise of the paste-up and typesetting sections, which used to be an integral part of the news production process.

“Yes, maybe in the future, proofreading as a separate entity in the news process will become obsolete. (More and more) copy editors are already the ones doing the proofreading,” Bertoldo Deloso, editorial systems assistant head for the English-language daily ‘Philippine Daily Inquirer’, told the AMF.

Having been in the proofreading profession for the last 24 years — 18 of them spent with the ‘Inquirer’ — Deloso has been witness to the inevitable changes in the newsroom.

“We don’t use the term ‘proofreaders’ in the ‘Inquirer’ anymore. They are now called editorial production assistants, or EPAs,” he added.


EPAs, he explained, proofread copy and execute layouts based on dummy sheets on the computer. In effect, this set of combined tasks has absorbed what used to be crucial parts of the process — typesetting and paste-up.

Until up to more than a decade ago in many parts of Asia, the news production process involved a very tedious process of printed drafts shuttling back and forth between proofreaders, typesetters, paste-up artists and editors. Oftentimes, proofreaders, along with the night editor, would check for errors even after the first print-run of the following day’s issue.

But those days are gone, it seems.

“Proofreaders started to disappear with the advent of computers in the newsroom. They were replaced by technology,” said Kamal Siddiqi, editor of reporting of one of Pakistan’s leading English-language dailies, ‘The News’.

Traditionally, proofreaders are tasked to manually check for spelling and grammatical mistakes, coherence, and double-check facts. Subeditors are in charge of editing and cutting stories, as well as writing headlines and captions, among others.

Barbara Marchadesch, the editor of the Philippines-based online property resource ‘Global Property Guide’, thinks it is more likely a question of efficiency rather than technology.

“Proofreaders won’t disappear because of advances in software, but because companies might think it would be better to have just one editor do all the work,” said Marchadesch.

Nalini Rajan, a professor of the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, India, agrees that proofreading is fast becoming redundant given the present newsroom environment. “I would agree that subeditors are quite capable of proofreading, with computer aids like spell check and so on,” she said.

For ‘The Nation’ deputy managing editor Kumar Krishnan, a proofreader’s role in the newsroom “has been diluted to a great extent in the sense they don’t pore through every word of text” anymore.

‘The Nation’, one of Thailand’s leading English-language newspapers, currently has just a couple of proofreaders who are tasked to thoroughly check the pages’ printouts. The said pages also go through the paper’s subeditors.

“It would be physically demanding for a couple of guys to be reading through some 30 pages everyday. They mostly look for typographical mistakes in headlines, captions, font, style, intros and whatever else in their wisdom needs to be brought to the attention of the editors,” explained Krishnan.

Proofreading as a career “is almost finished”, he conceded.

“Publishing houses are increasingly likely to consider them a needless cost and prefer to pass on the responsibility to the subeditor. And then, who among the present generation wants to become a proofreader?” he said.

Deloso, who himself had no formal training in proofreading, believes that proofreading, at least in the Philippine print media, is “only a temporary vocation for most people”.

“Being a proofreader is a stepping stone toward a higher position, that is, becoming a reporter/writer in the future,” he said. In fact, the turnover of editorial production assistants in the ‘Inquirer’ is quite fast as the section is considered a breeding ground for future reporters, he said.

Admittedly, proofreaders are also “poorly paid and badly treated”, said Siddiqi, in many countries in the region.

“Wherever they exist in Pakistani newspapers, proofreaders are on the lowest rung of the editorial ladder,” said Siddiqi, who added that ‘The News’ itself does not have proofreaders any more.

Krishnan agreed: “Undoubtedly, the print media was never too kind to them. They were always the poorer cousins of subeditors.”

However, it’s difficult to generalise about whether “they have toiled without appreciation”, he added. “I, personally, have always been grateful to them for catching those elusive mistakes on the page,” said Krishnan.

In fact, said Marchadesch, errors are easier to spot in print than on the computer screen.

“Preliminary editing is often easier on the computer, because you can slash and burn your way through obvious errors, but in the final editing stage smaller errors are more easily spotted on hard copy,” she added.

Krishnan, too, does not want to let go of the proofreading section just yet. “I believe in looking at a printed version of the page before it is filmed. . . . It serves as the last line of defence to iron out any mistakes, or even make improvements,” he said.

Siddiqi, meanwhile, prefers to have proofreaders in the newsroom if only to act as perfect foil to complacency and laziness.

“Subeditors overly rely on the spellcheck function of the computer, which leads to many lapses,” he said.

But Deloso also pointed out that these hi-tech tools are rather fun and speed up the editorial production work process. “The computer helps EPAs tremendously in spotting typographical errors,” he said, adding that he does not really miss the old way of doing things.

Clearly, proofreaders are being asked to adapt. Krishnan believes that they “should evolve” and focus more on “only the most important and sensitive reports”, as well as those parts that have a “high visibility on the page”.

“That way, you would need fewer proofreaders while still having the last line of defence,” he said.

Whether employing the ‘dying art’ of proofreading marks or clicking on that mouse, editors “need a set of fresh eyes” in spotting errors on the page, Deloso maintained.

After all, he said, good proofreaders do not only have the ability to spot typographical errors, but factual errors and inconsistencies. “I think proofreading is still a significant part of the news process,” said Deloso.

*Asia Media Forum (http://theasiamediaforum.org)

 
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