Newspaper shelf life

February 20, 2013 01:24 pm

The other day I was telling some friends about a news story I read. Derisively, one said, “Did you read it on the Internet?” “Well yes, on the WASHINGTON POST site.”

Back in the old days, if something was in print it was believed to be credible, but as a colleague said last week, “All of us make lots of mistakes.” And when journalists make mistakes, it’s sitting there, wrong, for all to see. In the case of the Observer, thousands of readers see what we write, mistakes and all.

This freaked me out when I first started and still makes me sweat when I get feedback that something I wrote was inaccurate. Like someone’s name...oof. That is the worst. Rule one of newspaper reporting, spell the person’s name right. Rule two, make sure you refer to the person by the correct name.

I asked a source last summer if I wrote a story about a certain topic what would he like to see? He answered, “accuracy.” Right. So we worked on a story last week together and his department caught two glaring mistakes. The joys of fact checking.

When I interned for Baltimore Magazine, my primary job was “fact checker.” The notion was that a magazine sits around, sometimes for months, on an end table and its content should be bullet proof.

It’s not that newspaper writers don’t aspire to the same level of accuracy, but it does not have the same shelf life.

Once the paper is read it is quickly used to light the wood stove, or any number of uses. Last summer I was visiting one of my favorite local produce stands and lining the box of Imnaha tomatoes was the section in which my column is and this weekend, I noticed steelhead eggs curing wrapped in the business section.

How many people can claim that hours, days and sometimes weeks of work is quickly read and then reused to well, wrap fish? With the decline in newspaper readers, how will we line the bird cage if everyone sources their news online?

On the flip side it’s very rewarding to see a story I wrote decorating someone’s wall or to be asked if it’s online so that it can be used for a project or forwarded.

Last week I traveled to La Grande to bid adieu to Bill Rautenstrauch, who decided it was time to hang up the pen and go play. He leaves huge shoes to fill — a real newsman who contributed to the front page for many years alongside Dick Mason (who better stay put for a while!). 

I will miss talking shop with Bill. He tackled a lot of really tough issues with aplomb. I aspire to one day be as cucumber cool as he is.

As a remote reporter I have access to the Wallowa County readers and their perspectives, but a trip to the office is always a good reality check. While catching up with some of the front-line employees, my heart warmed to see the folks who come in to pay their bills in person. These are the faces of the people who read our stories, write us letters, correct our mistakes and light the evening fire after the La Grande Observer has been visually ingested. Thank you, readers.