Friday, August 26, 2011
Anybody Can (and Will) Make a Mistake
If there’s one thing I got out of two decades of working for a daily newspaper, it was an appreciation of mistakes. If people didn’t make them, we would have had very little to write about, and we certainly made enough of our own.
One of our own still makes me cringe after all these years. In my first year as editor, there was a hotly contested election, in which all seats on the city council were open. The week before the election, someone (we still don’t know who) came into the office with a political ad and paid for it with cash.
The ad was racist, untruthful, unsigned, and in violation of nearly every rule we had for political or advocacy advertising. And in spite of all that, it was published in the newspaper.
We had a policy in place to prevent such a thing from happening, and the policy had worked fine for 40 years. If someone brought in a political or advocacy ad where there was the remotest question of taste, accuracy, or controversy, the ad had to be brought to the editor for approval, rejection or modification. I never saw this one until the paper was off the presses and every copy was out the door to the subscribers and newsstands.
Whoever brought the ad in did so just before five o’clock on a Friday afternoon, minutes before the deadline for the Monday paper. The only person in the ad department at the time was a student intern at the end of the first week on the job. Though he had probably been told of the rule, he was in a hurry to process the ad and apparently never bothered reading it.
The ad went straight back to the composing room without being seen by a more experienced ad staffer, who would surely have flagged it. The typesetter apparently assumed it had been approved and didn’t say anything. The man who usually assembled the pages, and who surely would have questioned the ad, was off Monday when it came through. And the sub-editor who gave the page the final OK was in a hurry and only checked the news half of it, overlooking the ad altogether.
In short, there were five different points along the way where the mistake could have been caught. The odds of all five failing were infinitesimal, yet it happened. It made me a lifelong believer in Murphy’s Law.
As a result of that mess, we tightened our policy and decreed that henceforth every political or advocacy ad, no matter how innocuous, had to be approved by one of the three top editors before being sent for typesetting. It was more work for the ad department, more work for the editors, and still not foolproof, since if enough people blinked at the right time, an ad could still go through the system without proper authorization.
That seems to be the way these things often happen. A policy that’s worked for years breaks down because someone was in a hurry or took their eye off something for a second, or because a highly improbable sequence of events happens just so. Whenever I hear someone say, “I don’t understand how a mistake like that could happen,” I always think to myself that they just work someplace where it hasn’t happened yet. Any time you have a sequential process and multiple people involved in it, there will eventually be a mistake.
There is a reason that I am self-employed now, with no one else working for me.