Wick Communications

You got the wrong governor

In Editing on June 30, 2016 at 3:00 pm

Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 4.01.51 PM

If you work in this business long enough (and let’s face it, it probably won’t take that long) you will eventually have a day something like the one Fredricksburg Free Lance-Star Editor Phil Jenkins had on June 28. That is the day his newspaper published big bold display type reading, “McAuliffe’s bribery convictions tossed” right on the front page.

Trouble is, it wasn’t current Virginia Gov. Terry McAullffe up on bribery charges. It was his predecessor, Bob McDonnell.

Oh boy.

As you might imagine, Jenkins issued an apology.

There are several factors that can help explain what happened. We’ve been struggling to adapt to a new software system. And on this particular story, we were making changes to the design of the page and in doing so strayed from our normal process for writing and editing headlines.

But none of that excuses what was a massive and embarrassing error.

You make sure it’s right online. You call the governor’s office and apologize. You write a correction for the next edition. It’s about all you can do after the fact.

Jenkins says his paper is hiring additional editors to assure something like this doesn’t happen again. That is a luxury. I suspect there are many more of these kinds of errors at papers big and small now that most of our newsrooms have shrunk. The industry’s entire system of checks and balances has eroded and often the first layoffs were copy editors who existed precisely to catch these kinds of things before it is too late. …

Short of hiring more editors, what can we do?

The single most important thing is to get as many eyes as possible on the proofs. Reporters, editors, the publisher, ad reps, everybody. The idea isn’t to second-guess the verbiage in the middle of the story, necessarily, but rather to look for glaring mistakes that are staring us in the face and yet entirely invisible to the poor guy who made the mistake.

Thankfully, the response to the Fredricksburg mishap seems to have been pretty forgiving. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza said there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I. “We all make mistakes,” he said.

True. Let’s limit ours.

Clay

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