The Times’s Al Siegal retired last month. Siegal was The Authority at NYT on standards, ethics and language and was surrounded by what the Observer accurately called an “Old Testament sort of awe.” He also has the byline on a little item called The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.
In my final weeks at The Times, I had a meeting with Siegal to talk about the paper’s plans to overhaul its process for receiving and responding to corrections. This was well before the Jayson Blair troubles broke.
The newsroom wanted to be more responsive and field more inquiries and complaints more quickly. I was invited to the table to offer thoughts about how the web site or web tools might help gather, route or respond to inquiries.
I’d had the chance to interact with Siegal a few times before, but he rose to mandarin heights in my admiration when he made a tiny correction to his own phrasing as we spoke. The newsroom wanted to find a more efficient and timely way to respond, he said, to anyone with a concern or correction who was “manifestly not a kook” – then quickly and in the same breath he revised that to “not manifestly a kook.”
In its precision and nuance, this itsy bitsy correction convinced me I was in the presence of one of language’s greats. It may sound trivial and I know it reflects only a sliver of what “AMS” knows and cares about. But to this acolyte of words it was so deft, and so second-nature, that I quietly switched into awe mode.
(My idea for the corrections area, by the way, was to use the web to make the process more transparent, and display some of the complaints and responses publicly, giving all readers a glimpse behind the scenes and a sense of how their fellow readers were thinking and reacting to the paper. That idea didn’t get much traction and the process remains email and phone-based. But when The Times created the Public Editor position after the Blair scandal, a move overseen by Siegal, they definitely added a new sort of transparency and interactivity.)
Thanks to Jade for sending me the Observer clipping.