Regretting the error: A life in newspapers

(including the tragic second flight of the Enola Homosexual)

People who have never worked on a newspaper copy desk have little understanding for how mistakes happen.
People who have never worked on a newspaper copy desk have little understanding for how mistakes happen.

Some poor bastard has been taking it in the shorts all day long after a headline in the East Oregonian, the daily newspaper in Pendleton, Oregon, referred to an “amphibious pitcher” instead of an ambidextrous one.

An amphibious pitcher? Yeah, it's funny, but I still feel sorry for the poor schmuck who wrote it.
An amphibious pitcher? Yeah, it’s funny, but I still feel sorry for the poor schmuck who wrote it.

Invariably when something like that moves across my Facebook feed, people ask me how it could happen. Oh gosh, as a former newspaper editor, let me count the ways!

Anyone who ever worked for a newspaper has made his fair share of mistakes, and I’m no exception. Truth is, newspaper people live for this sort of thing, thanking the good lord that it wasn’t them this time, but knowing full well that on a different day, it very well could have been.

In fact, most of the editors and reporters I know have a great sense of humor, it’s just different from yours, and not necessarily in a good way! But to answer the question, how does this stuff happen?

Back in the olden days, newspapers had copy desks that tried to prevent all errors. Articles were read and edited several times before they actually appeared in print, and later there were people reading proofs and checking hard copies when the papers came up from the presses.

But even with all that, a newspaper job is still like walking a tightrope without a safety net. It’s not like the Internet, where you can call up a story and fix an error at any time, even if it’s days later. With a newspaper, once that thing is printed and out the door, your fate is sealed. Copy editors are like the Flying Wallendas, living fast and dangerous, with sometimes tragic results.

Late decisions, equipment failures, late-breaking news and tightened deadlines would lead to the cry, “If it doesn’t say ‘fuck,’ hit send!” meaning editors had to “blow and go” on their copy and move it on down the line. Most people have no concept of the amount of copy that moves through a newspaper copy desk right before deadline, and as the pressure ramps up, so does the likelihood of mistakes.

Speed kills, it is said, and at newspapers, that is definitely true.

A different type of mistake that can occur earlier in the shift is the “semi-intentional error” that starts out as a joke, but ends in bloodshed. Every newspaper I worked for had at least one copy editor who would intentionally insert a wrong word from time to time — like pubic official instead of public official — just for the laugh it would generate when it would supposedly get caught by his buddy the copy chief. But then both guys would get a little distracted, the joke wouldn’t get caught, and one or both would be standing on the bread line the next morning.

Back in the day, newspapering wasn’t such a bad job. Oh sure, the hours were shitty and so was the pay, but it was steady, and even if you wore out your welcome in one place, there was a good chance you could find work somewhere else. After all, most every city had at least one newspaper, so if you were willing to move, you could probably find work. You always knew a guy who knew a guy, and in that way your list of contacts would spread across the nation.

Over the years, I worked for newspapers that respected the copy desk and tried to make decisions early enough for editors to do their jobs properly, and I worked for newspapers that made our lives on the desk a living hell night after night. Maybe some moronic higher-up would decide late in the game that he wanted to change “just one little thing,” but that one little thing created a domino effect that had harried editors scrambling to remake a dozen pages with just 10 minutes left until deadline, which in turn caused page proofing to be delayed or blown off entirely.

Again, speed kills, but as long as it doesn’t get you fired, the result can be funny.

Long before the Internet, newspapers were sharing their humorous fuck-ups via the fax machine. See, this story I’m about to share with you didn’t happen at my newspaper, but went coast-to-coast on fax machines, which is how I first saw it. The way I heard it, there was an editor-in-chief or managing editor who mandated that “gay” would not be used for “homosexual” at his publication. Not wanting to get in trouble, a frazzled copy editor working there apparently had a brain fart and penned this immortal headline:

As brilliant as it is tragic, the Enola Homosexual story is my personal favorite newspaper screw up of all time.
As brilliant as it is tragic, the Enola Homosexual story is my personal favorite newspaper screw up of all time.

No doubt the bomb bay doors really opened after that one, and more than a few people were drinking heavily before filing for unemployment the next day.

Seeing that amphibious pitcher headline today made me think back to some of the “oh-shit moments” in my own career. How many times did I sit bolt upright in bed at 4 a.m. trying to remember if I changed the jump line from page 6 to page 12, or if I removed the refer from page 1 after eliminating the sidebar?

I still have newspaper dreams that are not always pleasant. I’ll sit up in bed, then fall back — Karl Wallenda, with the rope just out of reach.


Add yours →

  1. I love that photo, and have halfway convinced myself that the suspender-wearing guy on the far right is me in an earlier life. My worst mistake dates to the early 1970s when I was covering City Hall in Abilene, out in West Central Texas. After the polls closed on Election Day, I made one final stop at the City Secretary’s office to collect the final vote totals on the local races, then hustled back to the newsroom to write up the story. Unfortunately, I didn’t double-check the numbers I’d been given, and while we didn’t call any races incorrectly, we had plenty of readers calling in (pre-Internet, of course) to gleefully point out our errors in addition. What made it worse, to me, is that the City Secretary went back and corrected her mistakes on the official tally, then denied ever having given me bad information — even though it was obvious that the figures had been erased and re-entered. I learned my lesson: Always have someone else recheck the math in any story I wrote. As for modern times, let us not forget the evil gremlin (related to gnomes?) named Otto Correct.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Great Caesar’s Ghost! Malapropisms are still alive and well!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Gay didn’t fit the line count.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Let’s not forget that newspapers let their proofreaders go when they began to edit on computers. The stated reason was that the story the editors sent out would be put in the newspaper unchanged because it was no longer necessary for somebody to read paper copy and set it into type. In theory, the editors would send out a perfect story and it would print up perfectly. The magical thinking involved here was ignoring the fact that good proofreaders are typically lip-readers, albeit very intelligent ones, while good editors have to be speed readers to acquire the general knowledge that makes them good editors. The very quality that makes them good editors makes them poor proofreaders. A few people can switch from speed reading to lip reading at will, and that is a skill that can be taught, but I never saw a newspaper that actually sent anybody for training in it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, a lot of old roles have fallen by the wayside. Along with proofreaders, most printers were also eliminated, with editors becoming “paginators” and taking over that role, which of course gave them less time to do what they were actually trained to do, edit! I can’t tell you how many times a printer saved my bacon over the years by spotting an error in the back shop. My last years in the newspaper business before accepting a buyout were not enjoyable.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This has taken me back to the days when i used to read papers in hard-print. Aside from the issues you have mentioned, i guess people enjoyed reading then (hell, even with the issues, who knows)…times have changed and things have become more internet-driven.

    Great to read more about the old-age (if i may use that term) business first-hand 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is dead on: How many times did I sit bolt upright in bed at 4 a.m. trying to remember if I changed the jump line from page 6 to page 12, or if I removed the refer from page 1 after eliminating the sidebar?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The worst mistake I’ve ever seen was a paper in a neighboring city that ran a wild photo about a Sesame Street show, and referred to the Count, except they left the “O” out of “Count”. I made plenty of mistakes I’m sure, but every time that word came up in a story I double- and triple-checked it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Early morning radio news shift. I once said a local board of education had low morals instead of low morale. And hey, I typed the copy. Just me.

    Liked by 1 person

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