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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

A simple mistake with not-so-simple consequences

The story came in late as the skeleton staff working in The Roanoke Times on Christmas Eve wrapped up the single edition that would go out the next morning.

The story came in late as the skeleton staff working in The Roanoke Times on Christmas Eve wrapped up the single edition that would go out the next morning.


Three men died in a car wreck in Wise County, Virginia. The night editor slugged the story and wrote a standard headline, which was the last to go into the paper before it was put to bed.  The next morning, Christmas Day, newspaper readers throughout Southwestern Virginia picked up their morning papers to read:


Three Wise Men Die in Crash.


The story was legend when I worked for the Times during the 1960s. Many felt it was myth, but I went digging through the musky files in the paper’s morgue (the name for the library) and found a yellowed clipping..


After four decades in and out of the newspaper business, I still remember that headline, along with dozens more that stick in memory – classics that came either from an editor’s fertile imagination or a slip of the keyboard.


The Roanoke Times carried several classics, such as the time when the American Screw Company tried to buy out the Universal Ball & Joint Company. The Sunday morning business story headline read: Universal Makes Offer to Screw Company Officials.


Or the business story about the economic forecast for the tire industry: Tire Makers See Good Year Ahead.


“Some of the best headlines come from mistakes,” a city editor once told me. “Consider them for what they are: gifts from God.”


Like the Belleville News Democrat review of the movie, Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang. The headline read: Shitty, Shitty Bang Bang Provides Loads of Fun.


Most journalist love puns and we go out of our way to incorporate them into stories and headlines. While working in Illinois in the 1970s, I put together a photo feature on the streaking fad and wrote the headline: All the Nudes That’s Fit to Sprint. Readers groaned.


Later, while working as the editor of the weekend section of the paper, I wrote a headline for a story on a train derailment north of Grafton, Illinois. Several carloads of wheat overturned and spilled. The headline: The Grain on the Train is Mainly Uncontained. The publisher groaned over that one.


Such plays on words were intentional. The headline that appeared on Christmas Day so many years ago was not, but it did not prevent dozens of angry readers from calling the offices of The Roanoke Times to complain about the paper’s “bad taste” or “total insensitivity towards Christmas.” Several readers cancelled their subscriptions. Others called for a boycott of the paper.


The editor who wrote the headline was reprimanded. According to the office legend, he started hitting the bottle and soon left the paper. The paper instituted a new, stricter policy on headlines and set up a review process.


I think about that headline every Christmas, not just for humor of the event, but as an object lesson on cause and effect.


A simple mistake. Nothing more, nothing less. But it destroyed the career of one man, caused anger for so many others and cost a newspaper the good will of its readers.


Something worth remembering on this Christmas Day – and the other 364 days of the year.