How does this happen? I’ll tell ya…

This being a family blog, one doesn’t usually find this sort of thing here. But since I’m told that it actually appeared in a South Carolina newspaper — it was all the talk at the round table of regulars at the Capital City Club this morning — I suppose I should deal with it.

The above image is purportedly from The Greenville News, and The Village Voice wonders about it:

How does that even happen?

We’ve reached out to the Greenville News copy desk, who hopefully will be able to chime in on how the most hilarious copy editing mistake of the year came to be.

Jim Romenesko spoke to a reporter there who said that the paper was getting complaints already (from people who are apparently no fun) and apologizing to them.

Well, I’ll tell ya…

  • First, someone appears to have violated a cardinal rule — don’t put anything, in any way, shape or form, into copy, however temporarily or intended for internal consumption, that you wouldn’t want to see in the paper. Ever. It’s tempting to share sarcastic asides between reporters and editors, but get up and walk across the room to do it. Don’t ever put it in the copy, because the chance of this happening is too great. (When I supervised reporters, I told them not even to make the slugs — the internal names — of their stories — anything embarrassing. Because, back in the pre-pagination days, it was way too easy for that stray piece of type at the top to get stuck to the page after it was trimmed off in the composing room.)
  • Second, the page didn’t get proofed. At all. By anyone. There are a lot of ways this can happen in understaffed newsrooms, but here’s the most merciful scenario: The page was proofed, and “corrected” type was sent through, and somehow had this word in it (perhaps it was the initial response of a stressed editor who had thought that page was gone already), and no one looked at the page again after it was put on there.

But basically, there is no excuse that serves.

It’s easy to blame this, as Romenesko does, on the extreme practice at newspaper companies of having copyediting done off-site. But basically, with this sort of error, if it’s going to happen, it could happen anywhere. The reason having copyediting done off-site is phenomenally stupid is that it increases the chance of an error that no local person would make, and only a local person would notice. And if mid-size to small papers are not locally authoritative, they are nothing.

By the way, something like this happened at The Jackson (TN) Sun when I worked there back in the 70s. We were in that interim stage between linotype machines and front-end computer systems. Copy would be edited and then output onto a rolled-up strip of punchtape. The tape would be fed into a typesetting machine that would roll out the copy on photographic paper. Occasionally, the tape would hang up while being fed through the machine. The result would be a stutter, and a letter would be repeated over and over until the kink worked its way through.

The initial error would not be human. But it was up to humans to catch it and correct it before the page was let go.

One day, that failed. The punch tape on an obit — an obit, of all things, the holy of holies — snagged briefly while going through the machine. Instead of saying that services would be held at the funeral home, it came out, “services will be held at the fukkkkkkkkkk home.”

It was caught partly through the press run, but some papers had already gone out. Including the one that went to the bereaved family.

Our publisher — or was it the executive editor? — personally delivered a corrected copy to that family, along with the most abject of apologies.

12 thoughts on “How does this happen? I’ll tell ya…

  1. Juan Caruso

    Excellent coverage, Brad. If the @#$%^&* editors of the The Greenville News don’t bother to read it, why should anyone else.

    Conversely, if the same editors and business manager barely speed-read it prior to publication, why should anyone subscribe.

    Idiots unmasked!

  2. Karen McLeod

    Seems to me I remember a certain ad in The State for a secretary that involved something other than working her way to the top.

    Of course, these days, I’m not sure anyone is proofing the pages. It’s certainly not being proofed by anyone who can spell or who uses proper grammar.

  3. `Kathryn Fenner

    There are precious few copy editors left. My brother checked out of the sports copy desk at the Philadelphia Enquirer when the number of copy editors dwindled from more than 20 to 4. Sports “news” comes in very close to deadline and all at once, and you need a lot of experienced hands on deck to get it edited in time.

  4. Bart

    When the car windows are down and kids are playing rap music so loud, it can be heard several hundred feet away and the lyrics contain some of the foulest language imaginable and the “f” word is used constantly, why the uproar over a copy editor’s oversight?

    When was the last time you went to an “R” rated movie and not heard the word used dozens if not hundreds of times?

    The last time my wife and I went shopping at the mall, I heard the word used time and time again by a wide variety of people.

    While waiting in line at a local dept. store, there were several young ladies/girls in a group and the “F” word was used several times.

    At one time, when I heard the word used in front of my wife, I called the person out about their language and usually they would apologize. Now, the word has become so commonplace, it no longer has the shock value it once did.

    I guess its the fault of all them “effing” libruls and their assault on the Constitution and freedom of speech ‘n such.

    Too bad washing a kid’s mouth out with soap is illegal for using foul language. But, who washes the adult’s mouth out with soap for doing the same thing?

  5. Greg

    Was the web version of the story the same? Did any customers actually read the print copy?
    For many years I travelled all the time (prior to easy internet in the hotel rooms) I loved having a print newspaper in front of me every morning. Once I stopped travelling and began sitting in front of computers all day, I don’t miss them at all. Of course, The State stopped home delivery in my town about that same time.

  6. Norm Ivey

    Karen’s right. The State had an ad for employment offering you the opportunity to flick your way to the top. Early 90s or late eighties, I think.

  7. Ralph Hightower

    I remember some gaffes that The State made in the late 70’s.

    Headline on The State: “NCR Shuts Down Three Mile Island”. Uh, I think that was the NRC they were talking about, not the computer company.

    Then there was the job post in the Help Wanted classifieds: “F’ your way to the top”

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