After the previous post on reporters’ mistakes, Tash Joseph dared me to file a post about slip-ups I have made in the editor’s chair. Editors making mistakes? Never. OK, this is an expensive blunder I made during my first month as Grocott’s editor.
I could hear the presses whirring. I could smell the ink. As the phone rang, spasms shot up and down my back and shoulders. At 11am last week Thursday, I had taken an expensive gamble. In roulette terms, I’d put all my money on red. Six hours later, the person on the phone had called to tell me which colour had come up.
The gamble I had taken was to send a photograph of Grahamstown’s mayor to be printed on the front page. I had taken this gamble because the newspaper had received information from a “reliable source” that the person who was going to emerge as the town’s new mayor was Zamuxolo Peter. It was, we were told, a done deal.
Two days earlier, Phumello Kate had raised a “technical glitch” in a bid to have the process stalled when it became clear that ANC was not backing him but wanted its preferred candidate — Peter — to be handed the mayoral chain. The ANC wants Peter, the ANC will get Peter, the source had said. Kate will have to resign.
We have to send our photograph at 11am because each page has to go through the press five times for colour. The story prints much later at about 9pm. It’s usually a scramble to choose the most newsworthy photograph of the day so early but, with a “well-placed, reliable informed source”, we had it in the bag. We chose a dramatic-looking photograph of Peter that would be run under the headline “Meet your new mayor”.
It was about 7pm when the phone rang, sending the spasms shooting up and down my back. “Hello,” I said, aware that thousands of front pages bearing Peter’s image had been printed. The reporter broke the news to me. “Chief,” he said, “Peter isn’t mayor. It’s Kate. His supporters are lifting him on their shoulders.”
Say it ain’t so. I swallowed hard. Red hadn’t come up. If I were at the roulette table, now would be the time to hand over my shirt. But like a desperate gambler I thought there could be a way of saving the situation. I considered the possibility of changing the big, bold headline above the photograph of Peter to read “This is NOT your mayor” or “This is your mayor … only joking.”
But I realised that there was nothing to do but scrap the front page and start again. We had been caught in the crossfire of a mayoral war. Unnecessary ink had been spilled and trees had been killed in the battle. We all stayed late but I realised that there was time to change the front page and save my self from having a three-egg omelette on my face in the morning.
Other newspapers haven’t been so lucky. On November 2 1948, when Harry “Give ‘em Hell’ Truman went to bed, he thought that he would lose the American election to Thomas E Dewey. So did everyone else. While Truman was drifting off to sleep, the editorial staff at the Chicago Tribune people knew their printing deadline was drawing nearer. Because the staff “felt” Dewey would win, they put their money on red and decided to go for a bold “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” headline.
Sixty years later, these editions have become so rare that collectors are prepared to pay about R6 000 each. I decided to keep some copies of my own gaffe at Grocott’s. Who knows, maybe in 60 years’ time this edition, which never hit the street, will become a collectible. I could make a killing.
I learnt two valuable lessons from the front-page episode: firstly, one should never put all one’s money on red and, secondly, the only sauce that should be taken seriously is the one you put on your burger.