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To factcheck or not to factcheck

November 22, 2011

I happened upon this article on Twitter recently, which got me thinking about the future of my profession. Is it long for the modern world?

At first I thought it was a great indicator that my role is safe, but then I realised I work in magazines, not newspapers, and the role of a magazine subeditor is different, in one vital way: we must factcheck.

Colleagues who started out as subeditors on newspapers are often surprised at the intensity of what is involved. Every website, address, phone number, statement and statistic must be verified. However, we usually don’t touch quotes, unless clearly wrong, and then we just leave them out.

Interestingly, I approached @guardianstyle on Twitter – which you must follow if you’re a language lover – great style advice delivered with humour – to find out whether the subs on that newspaper factchecked. “UK newspapers generally regard factchecking as a quaint US thing” was the response, which I feel is probably a similar attitude adopted in Australia. And that may be why it’s more common for newspapers to outsource the role to organisations such as Pagemasters.

So why is it different for magazines? I think there may be a couple of reasons.

1. Longer shelf life. The magazines I’ve worked on are usually monthly or bimonthly, which means, unlike the daily churn out of news – read today, forgotten tomorrow – readers have more time to think about the articles – and find fault with them. And for magazine subeditors, in the constant pursuit of written perfection – our Holy Grail – that can cut deep, though less so the older you get and the more you understand the role. Critical readers usually have no idea about what a subeditor’s job involves: the pressures of deadlines, editors and publishers.

The subeditor is also often the easiest person to blame when a reader complains. Recently, I overheard a managing editor say, “Oh, we’ll just tell them it was the sub’s fault”, when the art director pointed out a potential issue with a layout that readers could complain about. I think it was supposed to be a lighthearted joke. I laughed, but I can’t say that laugh didn’t have a bitter tinge.

2. Use of experts. Magazines often feature experts who, while proficient about certain subjects, can not write well. The relationship between a subeditor and a magazine’s expert ‘writers’ is therefore very important. The expert provides the information, which is well-informed and often unique, and the subeditor spruces it up so it reads well.

The other thing I should mention – as an afterthought and as something I’ve spoken about before – is press releases. PR spin is the way of the modern world, but while some writers may refer to press releases as gospel – how much easier is it to take quotes from a press release rather than seek original ones? – most subeditors approach anything written from a press releases as highly suspect. As one example of many in my 15-year career, a book publisher recently sent out a book with a press release that had the title written out incorrectly.

As a magazine subeditor, it pays to check everything. It’s a role I don’t think is going to die out in the near future.

What do you think? Is factchecking important or a waste of time? I’d love to know what people think in relation to writing fiction, as well.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. November 22, 2011 14:49

    Hi Rachel,

    I have to agree with you on the longer shelf-life of magazines…I often read magazines that I bought months ago (some for the first time) and am always interested in the accuracy of the articles. Newspapers do little for me – each seems to have its own political bent and take what they say with a grain of salt.

    As for fiction…I do like to know certain details about cars or guns or architecture…authentic details add to an authentic read. Nothing worse than reading a really good story only to find that glaring mistakes (for those in the know, obviously) can severely damage the experience.

    Glad to see a new post from you – always a guaranteed learning experience.


    • November 23, 2011 21:40

      Do you do a lot of researching for your stories, Paul? I’m so glad you get something from my posts. Good to know someone is. I think you hit the nail on the head with the word ‘authentic’. Authenticity is something I strive for in my writings.

      • November 23, 2011 21:48

        I wouldn’t say I do “a lot” of research – I know the things I need to dig and discover – so certainly not to the extent that historical fiction authors would have to delve.

        Authenticity is something I appreciate. I am reading Stephen King’s (surprise, surprise!!) 11/22/63 – about the assassination of JFK. The work he has put into that time period is amazing. The shops that would have existed as well as the prices of goods, the people involved, the politics of the day, current fads and hit songs…just adds flavour and texture to his prose – and you can submerse yourself in the story and feel like you are standing outside Oswald’s apartment…

        And yes, I do get a lot from your posts. There is always something that you mention that applies not only to your line of work but also to writing fiction. And for that I am grateful. Glad you are still going with them – makes my day!

      • November 24, 2011 22:18

        I’ve heard favourable reviews about 11/22/63. I feel I have JFK-assassination fatigue; I’ve read about it so many times! But do you feel King offers something else to the re-telling of the story?

      • November 25, 2011 07:51

        I wouldn’t say there was anything new in the re-telling…the one thing that is interesting is the main character puts himself in places where he can keep an eye on Oswald and the reader gets a different impression of the guy by following his day-to-day habits (which have been pulled from many, many different sources apparently. We learn a lot about Oswald and the people around him which makes it interesting – SK sticks with the “lone gunman” theory, but doesn’t go to any great pains to prove it – he just tells a story.

  2. November 22, 2011 20:25

    I was a proofreader at Time Magazine in the mid-1970s. In my blog (Doonan diddly-squat) I’ve written a four-part story about my experiences there, where everyone was expected to scour text for errors of any kind. We mere proofreaders were not allowed to change one letter of a writer’s original text, but we could query. Upstairs, copyreaders went through every line of every story, placing a tick over every fact, every proper noun, every unusual spelling – to show that each of these had been checked. The proofreading process was equally rigid and slavishly applied. Parts 3 and 4 of my story describe this process: My time at Time: Learning the ropes and My time at Time: How proofreading was done.
    (This is a repeated comment – I hope these links work OK this time. Please delete previous version.)

    • November 23, 2011 21:34

      I just read the entire four parts with gusto. What a great read (and beautifully written). No wonder Time has the reputation it does. I enjoyed reading about the deadlines, and the hours you were expected to work to meet them. Every so often, I have a similarly hectic deadline to meet, on a monthly magazine I help out on as subeditor. Our meals, however, are somewhat less refined, often local takeaway Thai.
      In some ways it’s so much easier to check facts today, with Google, and yet you must be sure facts come from reliable sources, which can be time consuming. That’s why, as a subeditor, I make a good feature writer, as I always supple a detailed list of where every fact came from. (Actually, it’s a topic I am going to write about in greater detail next week.) Do you have an idea of how facts were checked back then. Was there a big research library?

      • November 24, 2011 02:10

        First of all, I must have had a memory lapse. I said I worked there in the mid-1970s. That’s wrong. It was the mid-1960s! By 1970 I was living in Australia and writing for The Australian Women’s Weekly!

        But to answer your question: Yes, we had a very extensive library serving Time, Life, Sports Illlustrated and all the other Time-Life publications. It took up a whole floor of the Time-Life Building, as I recall. (I always borrowed most of my reading matter from there, too.) So that was obviously an important source of information for writers and researchers. And each section of the magazine had a number of (female) researchers supporting their (male) writers on all subjects. Researchers did the majority of fact-checking and were responsible for most of those ‘ticks’ on the file copies of final stories. The library also kept a detailed clippings file and had a few people who spent their whole week ‘clipping’ stories from a variety of sources and filing them away for future reference.

        A photo library was similarly well stocked. The magazine had its own darkroom, of course, which received countless rolls of film from a variety of freelance photographers who’d been dispatched to cover particular stories or events. A unit in Time’s production department contained a number of picture researchers, too, who were responsible for ensuring that every new picture or roll of film was appropriately labelled with the correct names of people, places and events portrayed.

        There was also a worldwide network of Time ‘stringers’ – freelance persons in most of the major cities and regions in the USA and in countries around the world. Stringers might be journalists, academics or specialists of various sorts, many of whom had other jobs but who also answered Time queries or were available to cover and report on local stories as requested by Time researchers and writers. Telegrams, ‘wires’ or even phone calls would go out to relevant stringers each week. Even for just answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a fact-checking query, a stringer was paid a minimum freelance rate (I remember once relieving for the woman who managed all the administrative work of dealing with stringers, receiving their bills, verifying the work with whoever had requested the service and then OK’ing payments. It was a fascinating few weeks with some interesting correspondence.) Stringers could also send in original material ‘on spec’, and be paid if the material was used in any way.

        Oh, and there was a separate maps department responsible for creating a few maps and charts every week. A special map researcher worked alongside the artists who designed the concepts and prepared the final artwork, which consisted of black base art plus overlays for any additional colours. It’s hard to believe this all happened without computers or mobile phones. In fact, I don’t even think we had fax machines then, just teletype machines, phones and pretty primitive photocopiers that were forever breaking down on ‘closing’ day. But copiers were so simple then, I could manage the basic repairs myself. For most copy work, though, we still used carbon copies. (Who remembers Tippex sheets in various colours, used to make corrections on the original plus two or more different coloured copies at the same time!)

        But I digress. Suffice to say there were very few boring work weeks.

      • November 24, 2011 22:20

        Just wow, Chartreuse, your tales of your time at Time interest me so much! What kind of writing did you do for AWW? And do you still write for magazines today?

    • November 23, 2011 21:37

      Btw, none of the links worked, but I simply went to the main page, then easily found the four parts under On-the-job tales.

      • November 24, 2011 02:16

        How strange that the links to stories didn’t work, but the link to the blog did – and yet I used the same HTML tags for both! These things are just sent to try us, right?

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