I’m a flawed human being. I’ve made some bad decisions in my life that hurt other people, I break a law now and then, I harbor a few grudges, I lied a lot as a kid, I detest authority of any kind, I’m terrible at household DIY projects, my diet sucks and, as a newspaper writer and editor, I accidentally allow an occasional spelling error or typo to get through.
If you read the comments on the Herald Journal’s Facebook page, that last flaw is the worst of all those I’ve listed, especially for someone who parades around thinking he’s a professional journalist — which I do.
Last Sunday, a fellow member of the Herald Journal staff committed an English-usage flub in a headline posted online, and the critics had a field day. To read their comments, you wouldn’t think anybody could be as stupid as he is and we are at The Herald Journal. But I happen to know there are actually a few people stupider than us and many, many more who are less well-meaning. (Yes, “stupider” is grammatically correct; it just sounds stupid.)
The unfortunate thing about Sunday’s social-media takedown was that this particular news staff member devoted several hours on Sunday, his day off, to write the breaking-news story he posted online. He wanted readers to be informed, and it was a thorough and well-written story — where, incidentally, he employed the headline’s misused verb correctly throughout. There was no one else on hand to proof the story because, believe it or not, we don’t have Sunday staffing at The Herald Journal except on an on-call basis.
Maybe you haven’t heard, but newspapers have taken a bit of a hit in the past couple of years, and the HJ was a small operation to begin with. Our once mighty news staff of 20 journalists (sports reporters and photographers included) is now down to seven. Moreover, due to the economic impact of the coronavirus, the remaining employees’ hours have been cut.
Our staff does not have a “copy editor” per se. That’s a luxury most small newspapers waved bye-bye to more than a decade ago. We read each other’s copy before publication, but sometimes — like this past Sunday when the embarrassing error occurred — there simply is no immediate backup.
I know it sounds like I’m whining, but it’s important for readers to know the facts. Why pretend we’re The New York Times down here in this funny-looking building on 10th West in Logan, when the truth is we’re just a little rag-tag army of people who have stuck it out in this embattled profession because we think it’s still important. There’s also a certain satisfaction that comes with finding and telling interesting and relevant stories about the local community.
Some days we succeed at that, some days we don’t, and some days, like last Sunday, our best efforts are tainted by an oversight or mistake that leads to a merciless mobbing in the comment section on Facebook.
English and typographical errors are not unique to The Herald Journal, by the way. I read a lot, and I see errors everywhere, from The Washington Post to National Geographic to Penguin hardback books — and these outfits have banks of copy editors.
To the people who mock, lecture, lambaste and pile on when the HJ misses a language error, one of my standard comebacks is: “You must not read much.”
I saw a pretty good language flub in a Huffington Post headline just this week. It was on a story about Michelle Obama. “Obama talked about the daily slights that Black women experience on her podcast,” read the subhead above the article. This is what you call a misplaced modifier. Are Black women actually slighted on the former first lady’s podcast? No, of course not. The slights are discussed on her podcast, not made there.
But I didn’t rush to the comment section to point out the flub because I know how these things can happen, and I have better things to do, like doodle in my notebook or try to count the blackbirds going by in the sky.
Another comeback I use occasionally when confronted by uncommonly strident grammar critics is borrowed from an editor of mine back at the Wyoming Eagle newspaper in Cheyenne — where we also committed a blunder or two.
“The only people who don’t make errors are those who don’t do anything,” Bernie Horton used to say, and let me tell you, good old Bernie worked very hard to try and keep errors out of the newspaper. When checking news pages on a light table each night, he’d point his index finger at each word in every headline and read the words slowly out loud. He looked silly doing it, but it often paid off.
Of course, when you make an error in a newspaper you feel terrible. I’ve sat bolt upright in bed and screamed out in pain in the middle of the night when I’ve suddenly realized I screwed something up in the paper. The castigation and heckling that inevitably follow just make it harder to come out of the hole you’ve already crawled inside.
What was particularly hurtful about Sunday’s online onslaught was that both the author of the offending headline and I saw people we know, even supposed friends, joining the chorus of jeers and boos. What’s that all about? I know it’s open season on the news media in our society, and I know some people never saw an online comment button they could resist, but is there never a time to holster your pearl-handled six-shooters?
Oh well, there’s nothing to do but move on and keep trying, flawed though we may be. It’s a certainty that The Herald Journal will contain more typos, spelling errors and other assorted crimes against the English language, and some will no doubt be terribly embarrassing. At those times I’ll take solace in a comment another editor of mine used to make when our newspaper occasionally tripped over its own feet and faced ridicule: “Nobody died as a result of it, did they?”