January 5, 1999

Paper Chase

Filed under: Atlanta,Media — schroder @ 12:00 pm

Make a mistake on television or radio and you can correct it in the next breath. But in the print business, a mistake is there for all to see and usually you have to wait until the next edition to correct it.

Three times in my career, I’ve tried to fix a mistake after a paper was printed – with mixed results. I was reminded of this recently when we found out that our Atlanta Real Estate section was mailed with our Atlanta Buckhead and Atlanta Intown papers but had been left out of the portion of Intowns that we put in stores and restaurants.

Our distributors had just put out nearly 8,000 copies in more than 100 locations around town. A call to our printer confirmed our worst fears: The sections were still sitting on pallets in their warehouse. I quickly marshaled employees from our company and the printers’ and we visited each location and hand inserted the sections.

In high school our overzealous and undersupervised staff printed a front-page cartoon of questionable taste. After we had distributed them all over campus, the school’s president demanded we collect all the papers and reprint the paper without the offending cartoon. We did – after a lot of exhausting work – and the few surviving original copies quickly became collectors’ items.

I went to college at the University of Virginia, where there are several “secret” societies. Some more secret than others when its comes to the selection of new members. Some groups place ridiculous gowns on their newest inductees, make them drink lots of beer and parade them around parties in a crazy marching band replete with drums and a raucous song list. One group does not reveal its members until they die.

In my last year, the rising group of editors on my newspaper staff decided to play a practical joke on me by printing the names of new inductees in a secret group of which I was a member – a group that never revealed its members, even after their deaths. After the papers were distributed, my group moved into retaliatory action. A few of us gathered up thousands of papers from libraries, classrooms and stores. One even snuck in the window of a rival secret group member and took his paper when he went to the restroom.
Other members went to the newspaper office, replaced the offending page 2 item and drove an hour south to the printer, who reprinted the cover sheet.

The rest of us drove to a secluded wooded hilltop and began “skinning” the thousands of original papers. It was fun for a while, but by the time the others arrived at sunrise with new covers, our zeal was long gone. What seemed like a great idea at midnight suddenly began to look like a college prank gone terribly wrong.

Someone left for coffee and distributed a few of the “new” papers. Reports filtered in from the valley below: a rival group was debating whether we should be charged with “stealing” the papers, a grievous offense of the honor system; the rival daily newspaper’s editor launched an investigation; the dean of students wanted to see me.

It took my group until early afternoon to reassemble the papers. Some headed off for a nap, others went to class. I had to attend a round of meetings with my furious staff, an angry dean and a zealous rival reporter.
After that long day in college, I began to wonder if I should go into television journalism. A few weeks ago, as I sat inserting newspapers once again, I began to wonder if I made the right decision. I wonder how I’d look in a toupee?

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