Hardesty: Good headlines come and go, but mistakes live forever

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

One of the advantages of a digital publication like The Portager is that, should a mistake find its way into a story, we can always go back in and fix it.

Print is a different animal. If there’s an error in a newspaper, it’s there to stay — and for everyone to see.

For a writer, it’s maddening. Because no matter how hard you try to avoid them, mistakes are going to happen. We’re only human, fallible creatures prone to error. And nothing bears that out quite like print journalism.

Mistakes are embarrassing for the writer — at least, they should be if the person has an ounce of pride. It’s a helpless feeling: There’s a mistake in your story, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Mistakes are immortalized in ink — but as far as writers are concerned, they may as well be in neon lights on Broadway. All that’s missing is the Sad Trombone or the “Price Is Right” losing horn.

With that in mind, here are some doozies that I was either told about by others in the industry or stumbled across over the course of my career. These are not urban legends. Hard as they may be to believe, they actually happened. For the record, I am not the guilty party in any of these (there are enough errors in any journalist’s career that we don’t need to exhume our own mistakes in case anyone missed them the first time). These were committed by others — in one case, intentionally — for which I have routinely given thanks that I wasn’t the culprit.

Here goes:

Take me to the river

I’ll go with the intentional one first.

My first boss in journalism was a tough, no-nonsense news guy named Dave Richardson. Dave had promoted me to sports editor of the Barberton Herald weekly newspaper while I was still in college. He had just purchased the Herald after previously running the little paper in Bellville, a small town in central Ohio. Small-town papers feature hyper-local coverage, and one thing that regularly ran in the Bellville paper was a blurb announcing the latest group of people to be baptized by the local church.

As Dave told it, the church would submit the information to the paper, and it was someone’s job there to work that information into a small story. Real nuts and bolts stuff. Hard to screw it up.

Unless you tried. Which, one day, someone did. The woman who wrote up the little story about who got baptized last week in Bellville decided to play a little joke on the editor of that page, who also happened to be one of her best friends. So the first paragraph of the brief story went something like this:

“Pastor so-and-so baptized 12 people in the river last week, and 10 of the bastards drowned.”

Wanna guess if her editor friend caught the “mistake”?

Dave said his phone rang off the hook for days with horrified callers demanding to know who died and wondering why on earth the pastor would keep baptizing people when so many were drowning.

The pastor, for his part, also called Dave, furious that he was now considered a mass murderer in the town he served.

Not surprisingly, Dave fired the woman who wrote the story. Very surprisingly, Dave’s little Bellville paper was not sued for libel.

Talk about fake news.

A hell of a deal

Another one from Dave …

At one paper where Dave worked, everyone was working feverishly to make that night’s deadline. I’ll say right here that deadline pressure is, by far, bar none, the No. 1 reason that mistakes happen in a newspaper. Or anywhere else, really. It’s not even close. When you have too much to do and not enough time or help to do it, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

And it happened.

For this particular edition of the paper, there was a full-page ad from an area merchant touting an upcoming shirt sale. Full-page ads are good news for a paper; that’s a lot of advertising cash. And to catch the reader’s eye, the ad featured massive wording across the top touting the sale.

But remember, our office worker bees were under the deadline gun, so here’s the bad news. In their haste, here’s what printed in the next day’s paper, in huge letters at the top of the full-page ad:

“SHIT SALE”

Hard to pass that one up.

I thought this was a family paper

One more from Dave …

Did I mention there is a proven, direct correlation between too few people doing too many things on deadline and mistakes in the paper? Writers and editors seem to understand this basic concept. Publishers and general managers, not so much.

Well, Dave loved to tell this story as a cautionary tale of what happens when you’re moving too fast. It happened in the dark ages of paste-up, when newspapers were physically put together on poster boards by tape and hot wax. You would write the headline on a computer (or headline machine — they actually existed, because I used one at the Barberton Herald), print it out, run it through the waxer (quickly, lest it be caked in wax and thus unusable), then gently and precisely place it on the poster board, making sure it was straight. Any extra paper hanging off the board was cut with a small knife.

It seems on the night in question, deadline was rapidly approaching and could not, for any reason, be missed. The big story of the day was that a company in town was downsizing and had laid off 500 employees. So someone writes the headline “500 workers get laid off” in large type, prints it out, waxes it and heads to the poster board.

The clock is ticking. They are sure to miss deadline.

The headline is quickly placed on the poster board. They look at it and realize it’s too long and has to be cut. So someone grabs the knife and lops off the final word. Now the headline fits.

Done. The poster board is packed up and whisked away to be printed. Miraculously, they have made deadline.

And in the next day’s paper, readers are treated to this gem:

“500 workers get laid”

I wonder how that downsizing thing worked out.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.

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