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From the Newsroom: Errors impart red-faced lessons

We made a really stupid mistake the other day, and after leaving me aghast, it left me a little nostalgic.

You see, all of us in this line of work have some memories of some really stupid mistake that got into the newspaper, embarrassed us to the core, and, with any luck, made us better and more careful journalists.

Here is my story: In the summer of 1982, I was working for The Wenatchee World as an intern in the Okanogan County bureau. As I recall, I was earning $3.35 an hour, plus The World rented me a studio apartment in the basement of a retired couple’s home near Omak High School. (They were good folks; their only real rule was that I had to be in by the time they went to bed, as I had to go through their house to get to the basement stairs.)

At any rate, one day I got an assignment to cover a fundraiser in Tonasket, a town about 30 miles north. I don’t remember the charity, but I do recall that Miss Tonasket had the most money placed in her jar, so she had to kiss a pig.

Well, I got to the assignment on time, had my camera ready and captured a great photograph of the queen bussing the squealing porker. The only other thing I needed for my little story (we call them “Brites”) was a great quote, and I got that too, so my editor ended up playing the photo and story on the front page. It was a slow news day, even by Wenatchee standards, but when you’re just starting out, getting any story on the front page is a big thrill.

The paper had been out about an hour when the phone rang: I had misspelled Miss Tonasket’s name. I had to write a correction on a pig-kissing story. So if you have ever been interviewed by me, to this day you’ll notice I will print your name in my notebook, then show it to you to make sure I spelled it correctly.

Which brings me to our latest embarrassment. On Oct. 13, we published an editorial denouncing Initiative 976, which would cap auto registration at $30 per vehicle per year, at the expense of $4 billion in road construction and maintenance, plus funding for the Washington State Patrol. The editorial, written by Greg Jayne, was very well argued and error-free. The editorial strongly recommended that voters reject this flawed initiative.

Five days later, we presented our recap of all of our various endorsements, and, sure enough, somehow our “vote no” became a “vote yes.” I got at least 10 calls or emails wondering if we had lost our minds, and I am sure Greg got more. We changed it online immediately, of course, and ran a correction in the next day’s print edition.

But it all reminded me of that pig-kissing correction. I am still slapping my forehead and apologizing.

Mistake brings cops

Although these mistakes were embarrassing, at least they didn’t prompt a visit from the police. We actually had that happen at The Columbian, maybe about 15 or 20 years ago.

If you play lottery games, you know that we print the winning numbers every day on Page A2. In this case, the copy editor who was assembling that page grabbed the winning Oregon Lottery numbers and pasted them into the paper, as per the usual procedure.

A couple of days later, the newsroom was full of cops and unfriendly guys from the lottery, all wearing suits. How, they demanded to know, had we printed the winning numbers a few hours before they were drawn?

Gulp, went the copy editor, then he sat at his computer to show his guests how he had downloaded the numbers from a big list of the lucky numbers in all of the lotteries nationwide. When he went to the date in question, he immediately saw his mistake:

He’d inadvertently cut and pasted the winning numbers from another state lottery (I think it was Ohio, which is alphabetically near Oregon.) It turned out that those exact same winning numbers had been drawn later in Oregon.

Our copy editor thus escaped the handcuffs the cops had brought for him to try on, but he did have to write one of the weirdest corrections ever published in The Columbian. He is semi-retired now, but somehow I suspect he remembers that correction as much as I remember the pig-kissing fiasco.


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