Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hey, would you lay off newspapers when they maik mistakess?

My former paper in Fargo was a popular topic on the web yesterday for an unfortunate reason. The Forum published a picture of two guys shoveling, with a straightforward caption describing the action. It identified Gene Masseth and Haywood Jablome in the pic. Good ol' Haywood.

It's the plight of papers. A reporter can write an exposé about the local mayor's corrupt behavior and everyone yawns. A columnist pens an emotional tribute to a little-known teacher who died and everyone turns the page, seeking the comics. But a mistake makes it in and everyone's in on the fun. God, how could the paper be so dumb! Stupid mainstream media!

During my time at newspapers I had my own share of cringe-inducing moments. North Dakota State hired a new football coach following the 2002 season, a former Nebraska assistant named Craig Bohl. Shortly after the hiring we ran a mug shot of Bohl for a story (mug shot in this case meaning the small pics papers run, not the frowning portraits police use).

Unfortunately, the picture we published was of a different guy named Bohl, a small-town business owner or local politician, I forget. Probably a nice guy. Middle-aged. But he definitely wasn't the newest football coach at NDSU. The next day at work, I opened my email to see a note from the sports editor, with the simple, yet jarring subject line: Wrong Bohl.

Six years later, those two words - Wrong Bohl - remain a punch line for me and my former co-workers who worked at the paper that night. We were eventually able to laugh about it, but at the time we were mortified and embarrassed.

It wasn't just big mistakes that had readers picking up their phones to complain. A paper can print tens of thousands of words each day, with nary an error. But it's almost a guarantee that if a grammatical mistake appears somewhere in that mass of words, a retired English teacher who's lonely and still bitter about being forced out of her job will take pen to paper. She'll helpfully write, in perfectly maddening handwriting, "In your paper's story about the local baseball team's trip to Cleveland, your reporter wrote, 'their going to be in the city for 10 days. Please note the incorrect use of their. It should have been they're. As an English teacher who taught for 45 years in our underfunded public schools, it troubles me that the local newspaper - which I assume is populated with college graduates and people who care about the English language - would allow such a mistake to be published. It's a disgrace. I'm making a copy of this letter and sending it to each editor and the publisher, in the hopes that this mistake will not occur again."

We accept the written lashing like a chastened student, promising to do better.

For a short time I worked as a night editor at the paper in Worthington. Part of the job involved checking the page negatives that came off the printer at the end of the night, specifically the front page. It was a last chance to catch a typo, and I was also supposed to check to make sure all of the color separations came through correctly.

One afternoon, as I settled into my desk, optimistic about the day ahead of me, my editor approached, a tight smile adorning his face.

"Have you seen the paper?"

"No, why?"

He held up the front page. The main picture on the page, which was a large, four-column color picture, was...no longer large. And wasn't four columns. And no longer in color. It was black and white. Tiny. And it now sat at an angle on the page, as if a third-grader had glued it there the night before as part of a project called "My first newspaper." I'd apparently failed to properly check the color corrections, leading to the printed fiasco that my editor forced me to look at while shame crippled my body. I apologized. What else could I do, except hope it wouldn't lead to a firing.

Everyone in publishing has similar stories. Sometimes it's the fault of an editor, sometimes a production person or faulty printing press is to blame. The hope is that no one loses their job or receives an angry, taunting email from a reader.

Mistakes can be innocent, like the ones above, or the result of a joke gone horribly wrong. Often, when waiting for a story or information to come in, editors and reporters will put dummy text in until the real stuff arrives. Unfortunately, sometimes the dummy copy runs. The most famous example of this, a legendary incident that's sort of like Babe Ruth's called shot in that everyone's heard about but hardly anyone's ever seen it, is the paper that ran a caption that went with a picture of a junior high basketball team. The smiling youngsters, beaming with such pride, included the normal Joe Johnson, Ben Smith, and Some Fucker.

That story's told around campfires to frighten new copy editors, a harsh warning about the dangers of frivolity and typing while bored. It's not the type of lesson they teach in college. I guess instructors assume students will know that Some Fucker should never run in the paper. That's easy. But maybe they should start teaching the dangers of Haywood Jablome.

1 comment:

Ben Dover said...

Too funny, I probably wouldn't have noticed it either.