Saturday, November 12, 2005

I feel....your pain: Tales from my newspaper past 

A copy editor for a Connecticut newspaper has been fired for a phony web caption underneath a photo of a high school girls soccer team celebrating a goal. The caption said they were celebrating a teammate's decision to come out of the closet as a lesbian.

As a former newspaper editor, I could picture the photo and caption in my mind and found this hilarious immediately -- despite its obvious inappropriateness. If you've never worked in a newsroom, you could easily overreact and think there were was some mean-spiritedness at play. I'm here to all but guarantee you there was not. I don't know whether the person who wrote it was a liberal, a conservative, or perhaps even gay themselves. But any person who's ever worked at a paper knows there was nothing behind it except an effort to make themselves or their co-workers laugh. Probably at a weird hour of the night. Their only mistake was putting it into the computer instead of just saying it out loud.

How do I know all this? Well, it happened to me.

One night (well, around 6 a.m.) as we were putting the college paper to bed, I let a joke caption slip by. It was about someone who'd been stabbed (but suffered only minor injuries) at a nearby dive bar. The caption said something like "(Bar) was the scene of a bloody massacre Friday night. But it is a lovely place, really."

Someone else wrote it, but I was editor in chief. I missed it, and it was ultimately my responsibility. We had printed the usual 3,000 copies of that week's issue, and didn't realize the error until we started distributing them. We caught the mistake, ran around frantically collecting the papers (a few people had them snatched right out of their hands, I heard!) and had to re-print.

Up until that point, we frequently used fake -- and usually amusing -- captions because they filled the space and gave us an indication of how the layout would look, without having to think about the actual caption until later. Needless to say, after this gaffe there were no more fake captions. We filled the spaces with many X's.

I have a feeling a certain newspaper in Connecticut will soon be doing the same.

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