The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

The Tampa Tribune took a lot of flak across the globe over running an editorial proclaiming a Game 7 loss for the Lightning this week. Today, the Trib ran a more complete explanation of how the error happened, and some reaction over it:
Tuesday's Nation/World section originally was slated for 16 pages, but editors added two more pages to expand coverage of the hockey game. Those extra pages caused the page number for the editorial page to change, but key editorial page editors were not informed.

They had prepared two versions of the editorial page - one for a win, one for a loss - and planned to select the correct one when the game ended, Thelen said.

Unaware of the plan, newsroom editors sent the wrong version to the pressroom because of confusion over the page number changes.

The immediate solution, Thelen said, is to keep alternate versions of any late- breaking story or editorial in the author's computer file until the outcome is clear.

"We shouldn't have queued them up so they could have gone to press."
(Incidentally, The Smoking Gun has archived a copy of the now-infamous misrun.)

It's good that the paper went into some detail on the process behind news production. This is all invisible to the readership, and it should be. It's only when mistakes like this happen that the veil is lifted.

As much as I had my fun with the misfire, I was keenly aware of the "there but for the grace of God, go I" rule. News organizations everywhere work under the same sorts of deadlines, and have similar backup plans at the ready. The St. Pete Times had a similar loss-scenario editorial at the ready, and it was probably in place to run much the same way the Trib had theirs positioned. One paper messed up, the other didn't. Could have easily been reversed.

I do have an issue with the comparative example cited:
A similar mistake hit pages of the New York Post in October, when an editorial criticized the New York Yankees for losing in the seventh game of the playoffs to Boston. The Yankees won the game. The Post caught the error in time to fix it for later editions.
The Post miscue was noted in the Associated Press story about all this. The proximity--last year--makes the comparison somewhat apt, but the details diverge in a big way. The Yankees-Red Sox ALC game took a really long time to play; the game was not yet completed when the Post's early-edition deadlines came up. By that point, New York was so far behind in the 9th inning that the Post editors had to make a decision: Either run with incomplete results, or make what appeared to be a safe assumption that the Yanks would not be able to pull it out. It was a gut decision, and they made it. It turned out to be the wrong one: The team rallied, took the game into extra innings, and won. By then, the Post was able to remake its later editions, and managed to limit the damage.

Compare that to the Trib's error: The Lightning's game did not run late or go into overtime--it ended well ahead of the first deadlines. So that factor never came into play for the Trib. The mistake was pressure-free, and really a case of miscommunication within the newsroom and production departments.

So now what? As you can see from the Trib's article, some of its readership is extremely upset:
Lightning fans and Tribune readers, some of them angry, flooded the editorial office with dozens of telephone calls and e-mails Tuesday.

Lakeland reader Willie Strelnik equated the error to bias he sees on news pages and noted some have called for resignations in the Bush administration over problems in Iraq.

"I request, no demand, that your entire editorial staff resign, along with the editor," Strelnik wrote.
I'd say Strelnik is just a tad over the deep end. But certainly others, like Tommy at Sticks of Fire, have take this incident as at least a final straw, and are voting with their pocketbooks. It'll be interesting to see how the circulation numbers look in a few months.

I wonder what the backlash is directed against, though. Is it a perception of incompetence? Is it a sense that the paper's mistake reflects poorly on an area that, despite the team's performance, is still viewed as not being a bona fide hockey market? Is it even a sense that the Trib was somehow disloyal in not only running such an editorial, but in ever doubting that the Bolts would come through? From various conversations and reading, I get the feeling that all these apply to various people around the area.

In any case, this will blow over. Hopefully, whenever the Devil Rays haul in their first World Series championship, the right editorials will run, in Tampa Bay and across the land. Probably right under the lead editorial about Hell freezing over (he said, tongue-in-cheek).