Friday, March 21, 2008

Yes, reporters make mistakes....

Former Observer sports writer Joe Posnanski, now writing for the Kansas City Star, wanted to make his readers feel just a little bit better about their screw-ups so he wrote about three of his in a blog. Here’s one about his work at the Observer.

It’s lengthy, but worth the journey to the end:

Screw-up 1: Magic Johnson.

I was 20 years old and had just started at The Charlotte Observer - it might have been my first day as an intern, in fact - when an assistant sports editor named David Scott said to me: “Magic Johnson is supposed to be coming to Belk to sign autographs; find out what time he’s coming.”
Belk is a department store in Charlotte and throughout the South - sort of a Sunbelt Macy’s or Dillard’s or whatever - and a huge, huge advertiser in the Observer. This will become important later.

Anyway, I had absolutely no idea how to find out what time Magic Johnson was coming. I believe it took David about two hours to explain the basic concept to me (“This is a phone … these buttons here can be pressed in a certain order that will cause a phone at Belk to ring …”). I nervously called Belk, talked to some woman who had absolutely no idea who Magic Johnson was or why I would be calling to bother her. After numerous, “Let me put you on hold” exchanges, I somehow extracted the nugget of information that Magic Johnson would be at Belk at 3 p.m.

“Magic Johnson will be at Belk at 3 p.m.,” I called across the room. I was quite proud of myself.

“Write me a note about it,” David said.

So, I took out a piece of paper - this is absolutely true - and wrote, “Magic Johnson will be at Belk at 3 p.m.” and handed it to him. David said, “What is this?” I said, “You said write you a note.” I’m pretty sure David thought I was being a smart ass. He did not know at that moment - could not know - the depths of my incompetence. This will become important later too.

“What am I going to do with this? No, you need to write me a NOTE, you know, the kind I can put in the paper.”

Oh. OK. A note. Sure. Yeah, I knew that. Well, hell, I’d read newspapers before. I knew how to write a note. Sort of. I mean, how hard could it be? I sat down at the computer and wrote something like this:

“Magic Johnson, last year’s NBA most valuable player, will appear at Belk today at 3 p.m. to sign autographs. Johnson, who is known for his fancy passing and winning personality, will sign autographs on a first-come, first-serve basis. Johnson, who led Michigan State to the NCAA Championship in 1979 and has since led the Lakers to three NBA championships, is known for his fancy passing and winning personalities. He will sign autographs," as long as he can," according to a spokesperson for Belk. The autographs will be signed on a first-come, first serve basis.”

When I sent this to David, I thought I saw his head shake slightly, but I didn’t think anything of it. He was no doubt at this point trying to figure out how to have that, “Maybe you should try another business, like something in the lawn-mowing field,” speech. In any case, he accepted the note, let me go home, it was a Friday night, and I think I had plans.

Saturday morning, 6 a.m., the phone rings. I was still living at home at the time, so my mother - not especially happy about the 6 a.m. call - handed me the phone. She said something like, “It’s your boss.” I did not even know I had a boss. I answered, and this was Gary Schwab, the sports editor of the Observer. I had not, as far as I can remember, ever spoken to Gary before. To me, now, this would be like, oh, I don’t know, working as an iPod salesman in an Apple Store in Des Moines and getting a 6 a.m. call from Steve Jobs.

“Where did you get that information about Magic Johnson?” was the first thing I remember hearing. Funny thing is, I didn’t think Gary sounded angry. Not at first. Just curious. I was so young and naive then, my first reaction was that this was just a normal call - maybe the sports editor always called young reporters at 6 a.m. to follow up on notes.

Me: Um, well, I called Belk.
Gary: You called Belk? You sure.
Me: Well, yeah.
Gary: And you talked to someone there.
Me: Um, yeah, a few people actually. I had to keep getting transferred and …
Gary: OK, I’m going to ask you an important question now. OK? What exactly did they say? I mean exactly.
Me: Well, they said that Magic Johnson …
Gary: OK …Me: That he would be there signing autographs …
Gary: Right, fine.
Me: at 3 o’clock.

And then there was a long pause on the other side. Or maybe I’m just remembering the long pause for dramatic effect. Then Gary asked me the most sickening question I’ve ever been asked, a two-word question that even now makes me shake. He asked me: “What day?”
What day? … What day? … That was a pretty good question. In retrospect - I thought as I sat on my bed and watched my entire journalism career flush down the toilet before it had even begun - this would have been a worthwhile question to ask of the anonymous Belk person.

The conversation was a touch one-sided after this:
Me: Um, I guess I didn’t ask that.
Gary: So why did you write that he was going to be there today?
Me: Well, I kind of assumed …
Gary: Because he’s not going to be there today. He’s going to be there Wednesday.
Me: Oh, um, Wednesday ….
Gary: And this is very bad because Belk is our biggest advertiser, and we need to know how to handle this.
Me: OK, well, uh
Gary: And we really cannot afford to make mistakes like these. Mistakes like these destroy newspapers.
Me: Um …Gary: Especially when dealing with the newspaper’s largest advertiser.
Me: Um, right and…
Gary: Meet me at Belk.
He hung up then. At least I think he did. I know at some point, I was listening to a dial tone for a while.

So … I threw on a T-shirt, jeans, and rushed to Belk as quickly as my Pontiac T-1000 would go, which was not especially fast. When I got there, I saw David, I saw Gary, I saw someone else (this would be the managing editor) and all of them wearing suits. I suddenly sensed that I might have been a tad underdressed for this screw-up. Well, that’s the problem with screw-ups … you never know what to wear.

Gary sent me off into the men’s department to wait while the Observer people met with Belk officials to figure out exactly how to deal with the Magic Johnson crisis. I may have gotten a few of the smaller details of this event wrong, but I remember one thing very, very clearly. I was standing there, leaning against a table with khaki pants piled on it (the sign said $19.99, which I thought was pricy) and I had this powerful thought, a thought that at that moment seemed profound to me, a motto for growing up. I wrote it down on the back of a business card that I still have somewhere. It went like this:“When I used to screw up, it mean that I put milk on top of the eggs when bagging groceries. Now when I screw up, people from all over Charlotte mindlessly come to Belk looking for Magic Johnson.”

After what seemed like roughly 30 days in solitary confinement, Gary came over, put his hand on my shoulder and said: “OK, well, here’s the deal. You obviously messed up here. I can’t make you do this. But here’s what I want you to do: I want you to stand in front of Belk this afternoon, and when you see someone who is coming to see Magic Johnson explain to them that there was a mistake in the paper and that you apologize and that Magic will be here on Wednesday.”

Maybe it was a test. Maybe it was a concession they had made to the Belk people. Maybe Gary saw it as an opportunity to teach a young kid a lesson. I don’t know. All I do know is that afternoon, I stood in front of Belk and stopped people, told them that I had screwed up, that Magic wasn’t coming, that I obviously wasn’t cut out for this newspaper business, that I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life now, that I was thinking about radio but I didn’t think I had a good radio voice … and so on. Some were very angry. Some were understanding. Some ended up trying to make ME feel better. It was humiliating, of course. And cathartic. I never made that mistake again. I learned that with reporting comes responsibility. And I found a nice polo shirt on sale.”

Interested in the rest of Posnanski's screw-ups? Go to


Anonymous said...

The Charlotte Observer makes alot of Speling erors, I catch them all the times; And I want to call you guys but People aint gonna anser thare fones? I did git a grATE EDUCATION i WENT TO cms and learnt to spel thare.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and it is import to try to correct them.

Unlike, say, the wholly fallacious argument advanced in favor of the half-cent transit tax last fall; the claim that federal funding would help Charlotte build additional train lines.

Not true then, not true almost six months on. And never corrected.