Friday, January 04, 2008

Many barbarians, few gatekeepers

One of the last of the great gatekeepers of the news died this week and the tragedy is not merely in his passing but also that we almost certainly will not see his like again.

Daniel T. Sullivan, who died at 88 on Wednesday, was the chief of the copy desk of the Chicago Daily News, when I, fresh out of college, was put in his care as a rookie copy editor in 1970.

He went on, as he noted in a “hold for release” obit he wrote himself several years ago, to become one of the earliest internationally recognized experts on Atex, a first-generation – but not always ready for prime time – computerized editing system.

For all his subsequent achievements, I remember Sully best as the steadfast guardian of the accuracy and credibility of the Daily News, where he sat quietly in the chaos of the clattering newsroom, reading every word of every line of every story headed for the next edition.

After reporters wrote, the city desk tweaked and copy editors tinkered with the stories, Sully, occupying the slot at the center of the horseshoe-shaped copy desk, almost always was the one who spotted the crucial error of fact, grammar or style that the rest of us missed.

The breadth of Sully’s knowledge and the depth of his attention to detail were best illustrated not in a heroic save on a big, breaking story – though there were many of those – but, rather, in an incident that occurred after the last deadline on a quiet afternoon, when we were moving some copy for the features department.

“Isn’t there too much curry powder in this?” Sully asked an astonished colleague on the rim, who had just finished editing a recipe for an exotic feast. As usual, Sully was right.

In these days of instant media gratification, when stories, pictures and videos can be posted to the web with abundant speed, minimal forethought and zero formal review, there’s not even the concept of a slot, much less someone like Sully to fill it.

Even all but the most lavishly funded media companies are looking for ways to reduce the number of people required to process copy as it races from the fingertips of the creator to the printing press or a PDA.

Greater information access and improved media efficiency are coming at a considerable cost: An increasing flow of inaccurate and misleading information that propagates itself, quite literally, at the speed of light.

Just this week, I am embarrassed to report, I contributed to the misinformation myself. I said the media were squandering their limited resources by sending one reporter for every 10 people expected to vote in the Iowa caucuses. In fact, I screwed up the math by a factor of 10. It actually is one reporter for every 100 attendees.

Before one careful reader alerted me to the now-corrected error, the item began popping up elsewhere on the web. Now, I am trying to find any such links so I can get them fixed.

My bone-headed stumble never would have gotten past Sully. With giants like him departing our midst, who in the future will protect us from ourselves?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

At least you didn't misuse "decimate."
I hate that.
George H.

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't you think guys like Sully will return, when online news becomes a healthy business? What's happening now is that online newspapers tries becoming businesses, and that has to be done cheaply. When that's done, quality decides who'll win.

5:11 AM  

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