By Benét J. Wilson, DJTF co-chair, Online Managing Editor-Business Aviation, Aviation Week Group
When I saw the topic for this month’s Carnival of Journalism — a failure in your life (personal or professional) that has lessons — I felt myself cringe. Because as soon as I saw the world “failure,” I knew immediately what I was going to write about. And even though this happened at the beginning of my journalism career, some 25 years ago, my face still burns and I feel tears swell in the back of my eyes when I think about it.
Let’s go back to 1987. I was working at my first job after earning my journalism degree from American University. I was working for the Employment & Training Reporter, a weekly newsletter that covered federal, state and local job training efforts for economically disadvantaged people. The publication, based in Washington, D.C., was owned at the time by the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), “the largest independent publisher of information and analysis products for professionals in business and government.”
We had just gotten IBM-PCs, upgrading from electric typewriters, which was a BIG deal (yes, kids, I know I’m dating myself). Before the PCs, we used 5-sheet carbon paper to type our stories, and one sheet was always used for editing and proofreading. And we always had another set of eyes checking things out.
But when the PCs arrived, I remember our managing editor breathlessly telling us that one function of the computer was that it had automatic spell check. “What”,” we said. “The computer can check our spelling? Wow!”
So week three into the grand PC experiment, I wrote a story about the passage of a major bill that brought more funding to federal employment and training programs. It was a pretty big deal (since President Reagan had been cutting programs left and right), and I was assigned to interview the legislators who pushed the bill through.
It was a thrilling assignment, because I got to interview one of my personal heroes, Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D-Calif.), an African-American politician who was a legend in civil rights and organized labor. I wrote the story and sent it in. But there was one problem — my headline.
It should have read “Legislators Applaud Passage of New Public Training Bill.” But it actually read “Legislators Applaud Passage of New PUBIC Training Bill.” See the difference? Ouch!
Now, I wasn’t the only person that missed it as it went to press. But I wrote the original headline and it was under my byline, so I had to take the hit. Back then, once it went to the printer, that was it. So as subscribers started receiving it, I started getting calls from industry friends and sources making jokes about the headline, most of which I can’t print in this fine family blog.
So to this very day, I print out my stories and read them — carefully. Yes, I still use spell check, but it is never my last line of defense. So there it is. It was a #fail that still haunts me, but it’s also one that has helped shape me into a better journalist.