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Date: Mon, 28 Aug 95 17:53:41 -0700
From: Mark Seecof <>
Subject: Re: Risks of automatic newspaper publishing (Epstein, RISKS-17.30)

At the Los Angeles Times (where I work but which I DO NOT (generally)
represent at a policy level) we have several filters to avert the
publication of bogus news stories.  Basically, most writers do not have
sufficient system authority to put stories directly into the paper
(although, of course, certain editors do...  but they are trusted).  The
organizational method of planning how to fill the space in each edition
provides the basis for a later sanity check on the material which is
actually sent to typesetting (cold) and pasted up.

However, we no longer employ proofreaders.  Any glitch which isn't caught by
spell-check or a sharp-eyed editor will get into the paper and many typos
and editing mistakes do.  And, as with so many systems, a privileged person
acting maliciously could put something inappropriate in (at least on an
inner page).  Actually, we print more wrong stuff because our writers are
misinformed, or misunderstand their informants, or misrepresent something
out of ignorance than we ever do because of deliberate or inadvertent
sabotage.  (We have printed errors, but never of any great magnitude.  We
have never printed an improper front-page story for any computer- related

One reason we haven't yet replaced our TANDEM-based integrated software
package timesharing-terminal system for news writing and editing is that we
would have to address many system reliability and security requirements in a
new system that most microcomputer-based client/server system vendors don't
handle well or sometimes at all.

We used to proofread display advertising matter, but we quit doing that a
couple of years ago.  I myself once caught an ad with incorrect dates in it
when I walked through the composing room and glanced at the Travel section
being made up (we had been asked to run an ad which had run before.  The
salesperson didn't realize that the dates--of cruise-ship sailings--were
"out of date" and needed to be "updated").  I spotted the anomaly and
alerted the composing people, who yanked the ad and called the salesperson.
We were able to get the correction in time to run the ad.

We do proofread classified (liner) ads--more to catch crooks (who attempt to
cheat the public, or sometime us) and deadbeats (who owe us money and try to
run more ads without paying us for the old ones), and to censor "offensive"
stuff (e.g., real-estate ads that suggest some kind of racial exclusivity)
than to find spelling errors.  (Mind you, our classified salespeople don't
key in very many spelling errors.)

I might point out that we try pretty hard to keep advertisers who cheat the
public out of our pages.  Such advertisers often cheat us too, plus we think
that readers who get cheated will be less likely to buy our paper and
patronize our other advertisers, and that in turn would hurt our business.
I like to think we would censor racist/sexist/whatever advertising no matter
what, but we are given extra incentive to do so by the law (which I believe
is a wicked, wrong law) that makes *the Times* liable to pay damages to
victims of advertisers who violate civil-rights laws, and sometimes other
laws, *even though the Times is not a party to the transaction*.  (And
before any of you get too huffy about the benefits of 3rd-party liability as
a way of enlisting the otherwise indifferent in the war on -isms, realize
that we censor anything vaguely suspicious and be glad you're not trying to
rent out a house near a shopping center--'cause we may not let you advertise
"walking distance to shops" since that might imply you would discriminate
against cripples.)

Mark Seecof <>
Publishing Systems Department, Los Angeles Times

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