Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Fessin’ up: Addressing mistakes

Mistakes are not acceptable when they are avoidable.

This was a lesson I had pounded in to me repeatedly when I was news editor in the early 1990s at one of Wyoming’s then two capital city newspapers.

I worked there in a pressure cooker environment – I enjoyed the work thoroughly, despite the intensity and workload. There was very little time to stop to think through the course of the 90 mph night. We rushed through everything. I starting using the term “spray-and-pray editing” to describe our work.

During those early days in Cheyenne, I went through a period where it seemed like I made a headline mistake each week.

More often than not, the errors involved headlines I wrote, usually on a page with two or more stories. Somehow the headlines would be transposed – the top story’s headline would end up over the next story down, and vice versa.

Part of this was a flaw in our computer system at the time. Still, I should have noticed the errors when I released the “hard copy,” or printed version of the page, to our press room. I failed to check that the headlines actually went with the stories below them. In hindsight, that’s a remarkably dumb error. But at that point in my career, I had had very little training about what it took to be a good copy editor.

As another point of clarity, most small newspapers then did not have proofreaders to read each page thoroughly before it went to press, nor did we have any spell checker other than our brains and the well-thumbed dictionaries and AP Stylebooks we kept at our desks.

Ultimately, however, the mistakes were mine, and I took full responsibility for them. But after several weeks, my managing editor rightly got tired of saying “You made a mistake” and switched to, “This has got to stop.”

Unfortunately, she offered no suggestions about steps I could take to prevent or to catch the errors. I still was green enough to be somewhat overwhelmed by what I was supposed to accomplish each night. All I knew then was that I had been told that from this point on, my headline mistakes would be documented, collected in a file, and that when I hit a “certain level,” there would be “consequences.”

This is about the time I started to compile a checklist I could use for each page as I pored over it one last time before sending it to the pressmen. I would carry that list back and forth with me to the composing room, where I reviewed the pages. The item that soon moved to the top of the list: Take a deep breath, and slow down.

My error rate plummeted. One of the guys in the composing room mentioned that a former news editor some years back also had used a checklist when he came down to give the hard copies the final OK.

By the time it came for me to leave that job for Elgin, Ill., my list had grown much longer. When I started in Elgin, I learned that Marty O'Mara and some of other editors there had been using similar checklists for some time. I grabbed a copy of theirs and started refining it, adapting it to play off my own strengths and to counter my own weaknesses.

In Elgin, the headline errors became the exception for me. The checklist forced me to slow down and carefully check each aspect of the page.

So it was on Sunday night that I learned I need yet another checklist, this one for using Twitter and Facebook.

Late Saturday night or early Sunday, I posted two items to Twitter and Facebook that I believed at the time were new. The first came to me via Google, where I some months ago I created an alert to let me know when stories are posted containing the words “Sun-Times Media” and “layoffs.”

After I clicked on the link, as the page came up, the first two items I saw were “Sun-Times Media Group: 7,” and immediately underneath it, “Posted 07.17.11.”

My eyes jumped down to read that seven ad reps had been laid off, so I copied the link and posted it to Twitter and Facebook.

Later on Sunday, a former colleague pointed out my tweet linked to a posting that actually was from a period in December, shortly after I was laid off. The new post date means somebody on the website had inadvertently changed the date of the post, which in turn triggered the Google news alert I received. I simply had trusted the timing of the alert and the post date under the headline Thus I posted a link to a 7-month-old post I had believed was new.

After realizing this, I kicked myself in the butt and was muttering under my breath as I leapt onto my Twitter and Facebook accounts to kill the offending post.

Later that day, I was doing a search on another subject when I came across an American Journalism Review article titled “Online Salvation?” Author Paul Farhi, a Washington Post reporter, was writing at the time about the newspaper industry’s focus on Web advertising revenue for its survival, as well as some troublesome trends he saw on the horizon.

When I read the article, the only date I saw on the page was Saturday’s – at the top right. So I tweeted the link and posted it to Facebook as well.

What I missed, despite it’s bright red letters, was the date of publication a short distance above the headline.

Sunday evening, Steve Buttry sent me a tweet, asking if I’d known when I posted the link that the article was more than 2 years old. In fact, it was dated December/January 2008.

Steve has mentored me and encouraged from afar via his blog, The Buttry Diary, as well as with occasional direct tweets, comments on this blog, or by email. I came to know him through his wife, Mimi Johnson, whom I wrote to thank for a blog post she authored – here’s the link – more than a year ago.

As usually happens when I err, I was dismayed at my own stupidity, more so because this had happened twice in a day.

I certainly could make excuses – I’d been up into the early morning hours the night before, I’m working two part-time jobs, am trying to keep up with this blog, and of course I am working full time to find a full-time job.

But excuses do little more than simplify the process for repeating errors because the one making the excuses is pushing the blame away, refusing to accept culpability. Nothing is done to guard against a repetition.

So as I worked to understand how I had erred, I grew angry with myself for not spending more time checking each of those links.

Steve mentioned, rightly, that the article contained outdated and inaccurate information. So I posted a correction via Twitter and Facebook, then went into the accounts to delete the original link.

A short while later, Steve tweeted me again; “Good thing I didn’t write the critical blog post I was thinking of.”

That shook me. To this point, I had been upset and angry with myself for making the mistake, but I had not considered the possibility that my error could be compounded.

I don’t think that would have happened with Steve – as he tweeted most graciously after I apologized again, “No harm done. And if I didn’t verify that it’s current, that’s on me.”

Regardless, I went to bed Sunday night ticked off at myself, and I awoke Monday with the idea that I ought to write about it. As I looked at some of my past mistakes and how I dealt with them, the idea of a new checklist resurfaced.

So I’m beginning another one, specifically for Facebook and Twitter, as it relates to posting links that others may find useful – as opposed to posting, say, a humorous link to a story on the Onion, a website that satirizes news, or something in a humorous vein.

The list’s first item: Take a deep breath, and slow down.

The second: Is the link timely? Check website for publication dates. If the site has that day’s date on it, go over it again to be sure there is not another, different date elsewhere on the page.

I’ve going to review, also, Steve’s blog, because he’s written about this before. My list already has been growing steadily, and I’m sure I’ll be adding more as I go along.