A Perfect Mistake

Ombudsman

March 28, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

It was a perfect newspaper goof, actually too good to b planned.

Eight confused readers asked how The Sun could be so "wrong" or "mean" as to put a picture of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the ex-Baltimore mayor, holding a semiautomatic pistol next to an unrelated headline that read "From city savior to criminal suspect," at the top of Page 1 March 16.

The headline and story concerned a Cumberland city official in trouble. The bad juxtaposition, fixed in later editions, was unintended, but the story behind it tells a bit about the frenetic newspaper process. A slip in a long assembly line is typically the newspaper culprit, rather than the malicious intent or plots some readers see.

Here's the story:

All deadlines the night of March 15 were an hour earlier because blizzard snows still clogged streets, so things may have been a little rushed. An editor scheduled the unrelated photo and headline on the same horizontal plane, not uncommon. They were "above the fold," so readers could see them on store piles and in news boxes.

A picture of the Cumberland administrator may have been more appropriate since he was the subject of the main story, and few readers knew what he looked like. The Schaefer picture could have gone below the fold.

The editors, however, felt the much hotter picture was the Schaefer photo because the anti-gun governor was holding a lethal-looking weapon at a news conference where he had pointed it at a reporter. To separate the photo from the unrelated story, it was boxed with a thin line. Its caption sent the readers inside to the Schaefer story.

The headline writer was asked to write a good feature headline on the Cumberland story; he didn't know anything about the unrelated picture. In turn, the photo editor didn't know the wording in the unmatched headline.

Editors reminded themselves to check later on the photo and the headline together. There were more than 25 elements on Page 1 alone. They saw the page proof with everything in place -- except the color photos that were on a different sheet in the composing room.

The front page editor says he just forgot to check how the gun-holding governor would look with the "savior-to-suspect" headline. "All the fail-safe mechanisms were in place but the human involved, me, had a short in his brain." Two other editors, a copy editor and the night editor, noted they didn't catch it either. I've done the same myself.

The paper is printed at Sun Park in Port Covington, more than three miles from the Calvert Street newsroom. If printed on Calvert Street as in the old days, the headline could have been fixed in more papers. When the papers did arrive on Calvert Street, editors saw the juxtaposition problem and re-wrote the headline for the last 2 1/2 editions to become "Florida charges stun Cumberland," no real problem next to the Schaefer picture.

A newspaper factory at times seems a series of Rube Goldberg machines. After 33 years in the business, I marvel that so many things go right, especially here in the past year.

On an average day, The Sun and The Evening Sun may each print papers with 600 to 700 news elements (but many Evening Sun pages are now the same as The Sun's). The pipeline gets filled with more than 150 stories in different zoned editions, almost as many smaller short pieces, and more than 100 photos, charts and other graphics. Pictures have captions, stories have headlines. Pages get changed. It adds up.

The assembly line produces 24 percent more pages than a year ago with about 60 fewer news employees and fewer employees in other areas.

The layout episode reminded me of other conspiracy theories about this place.

Some readers think editorial writers write what news editors assign them or reporters write what editorial writers suggest so The Baltimore Sun can launch coordinated attacks or defenses. In fact, opinion and news writers here mainly stay away from each other. Being on different floors helps.

Sometimes a little coordination, if not conspiracy, might even be good. Four Sun news page columnists in February wrote a half-dozen columns all criticizing John S. Arnick during his unsuccessful fight for a judge seat. There were none in support of Mr. Arnick. They began to pile on. Several readers thought The Baltimore Sun was orchestrating an attack.

The writers, who tend to be liberal, have the freedom to write what they want. All saw the Arnick matter somewhat the same way. There's no conservative local news page columnist here. Writer self-restraint or editors saying "whoa" would have been welcome.

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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