I hear from my share (okay, maybe more than my share) of critical readers, but I also have the distinct pleasure of hearing from some very smart Canadians who love good journalism and expect perfection from The Globe and Mail.
One regular correspondent is Alain Gingras, a recently retired diplomat who worked in Malaysia, Syria, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and a dozen other places. In total, he says, he has visited more than 50 countries and gone around the world several times. He would be a great partner in a trivia contest (in fact, I have asked him for a little fact-checking help on place names in Southeast Asia).
Now living outside Gatineau, Que., Mr. Gingras is a voracious reader of the newspaper and a stickler for accuracy as well as the correct use of French accents (which should be a given in a bilingual country). He recently caught this in one of the sections he likes to read the most. "Dear obit people," he wrote. "In 1960, [the late Eldon] Comfort moved his family to Tanganyika, not Tanzania. Tanzania did not exist then. In 1964, Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged to form Tanzania."
It's not just The Globe and Mail. He catches errors in several leading publications – I have forwarded his e-mails pointing out miscues in The New York Times to its corrections desk.
However, like most readers, Mr. Gingras does not just expect journalism to be factual; he also loves great storytelling and clever writing. For example, he said, "they did some kind of survey in the States (no doubt) about the best journalistic title ever. The winner was 'Headless Body in Topless Bar.' It was written by Vincent A. Musetto, the desk guy of the New York Post, on April 15, 1983."
Tanganyika notwithstanding, a heading on an obit in The Globe – "Lauren Bacall, dead at 89: She knew how to do more than just whistle" – is also among his favourites.
"Congratulations, that's a headline! Dirty, risqué and learned," he said. "Ninety per cent of the readers of even The Globe and Mail will miss it. The other 10 per cent will have an intense intellectual pleasure.
"Was it borrowed or homegrown? Either way, thank you for publishing it. If it is homegrown, please give this person a raise."
Of course, Mr. Gingras is just one member of an incredibly knowledgeable and demanding readership that has little patience for bad grammar, poor spelling and factual errors. Even if arcane and technical, I will hear from scientists, professors and engineers when a detail mentioned in an article isn't quite right.
I appreciate the feedback – it keeps everyone at The Globe on their toes. But what motivates a reader to take the time and trouble to flag errors that may be somewhat obscure?
Mr. Gingras, for example, has caught mistakes in the Malay language used on a map and explained a discrepancy in the birthdate of an 18th-century economist: "Adam Smith's mother told him he was born on June 5, 1723. Your writer is telling us June 16, 1723. The 'invisible hand' of the Gregorian calendar played a part here but we are not told of that fact. When Adam was born, the U.K. was still using the Julian calendar. … Your writer converted his date of birth to compensate for the lost 11 days, fostering confusion for all. Dismal science?"
One of my regular correspondents considers catching mistakes his retirement hobby, but the motivation for Mr. Gingras is perfectly practical.
"I am paying for my Globe and Mail $3.45 (taxes included) on weekdays – that is why I am fussy," he said. "I want my money's worth.
"I read to elevate myself and find it intolerable if I have to look down. When I do, I write to you and everyone is elevated."
Happily, demand for his services is falling, he says. On average he writes to Globe editors and reporters about once a week – and is responsible for many corrections you see in the paper. But his correspondence is much less frequent than it was just a few years ago. Not only are editors making certain that French is used properly, "the factual errors I can catch are few and far between …," Mr. Gingras wrote. "That is what I am paying for. I am happy. Thank you."
Then he asked: "What did The Globe do, hire a guy like me?"