The ‘Dumb F*ckers’ Fallout: 7 Lessons from the Student Newspaper Slip

In a recent late-night newsroom slip that has been widely reported and mocked, The Suffolk Journal accidentally printed a sub-headline its editors undoubtedly immensely regret.  In a story about a campus involvement fair, the Suffolk University student newspaper’s main headline simply dubs the event a success (with an exclamation point). The sub-hed, however, states: “Even we had some dumb fuckers sign up!”  Yikes.

As the web hordes continue to pounce and simply point and stare, I want to step back for a moment.  Below are seven lessons/observations for student media staffers, advisers, and j-profs to take away from the incident:

1) Don’t insert jokes or vulgar statements into layouts-in-progress to fill space until the real headlines are created.  It’s a tradition of sorts in many newsrooms, but it is also one of the leading causes of post-publication embarrassment.

2) Be especially careful with news content late at night.  Your brain is moving slower.  Your sense of purpose is more likely to be on pause.  Your initial instincts will be to passively scan a layout instead of truly proofing it.  And your double and triple checkers are probably also punchy, asleep on the backroom couch or already in their twin dorm beds.  Snap back into the present and stay focused, line by line, for just a few minutes more.

3) Ensure as many eyes as possible take a look at the big stuff.  A team of copy editors meticulously combing through stories is meaningless if monstrous errors are sitting in the headers above them.  Have a crew devoted to checking the first-look elements such as the front page, headlines, photos, captions, and siders.

This lesson represents a departure from my comments in the first post about this slip.  I initially stressed the fact that it was a single mistake, under the auspices of ‘hey, these things happen, let’s move on.’  I take that back partially after further consideration.  There were multiple mistakes here, including the joke insertion itself and the subsequent failure of numerous editors to catch it.

4) In today’s media landscape, a single apology is not enough.  It is now a two-step process.  You must post the basic letter of regret from the editor.  But now you should also be prepared to publicly explain what happened behind the scenes in a separate column or media interview.  The fullest and most honest disclosures seem to elicit the greatest levels of respect and enable an outlet to get past a flub and move forward.

Onward State’s recent handling of the Joe Paterno death faux pas is a perfect example of this two-step (including a full letter breaking things down by the editor who resigned, a follow-up letter by the site’s founder the morning after, and a subsequent interview run on Poynter and ProPublica).

5) Take responsibility.  People forgive mistakes.  They don’t get over obfuscating or passing the buck.  In this case, the Journal quickly owned up to the error (although it seems some public squabbling played out on Facebook between the writer of the involvement fair piece and Journal editors after the initial note of apology did not explain that the writer had nothing to do with the headline).

6) Close your heart valves for 24 to 48 hours and emotionally shut down.  Immense criticism, snark, and self-righteous ridiculousness will be flung at you from all corners of your campus and the web.  Every competing publication, high-blood-pressured prof., and spiteful student reader who has been waiting in the shadows will suddenly emerge to use your slip as proof of how awful your outlet is.  Then, a new day will begin and people will get back to classes and searching for campus parking.

7) Smile.  You are now in the club.  The accidental publication of nonsensical news copy, vulgarities, inappropriate humor, spelling and grammar errors, and factual inaccuracies are a part of the news media, then, now, and forever.  After your apologies are done, segue to sharing in everyone’s laughter.  As the start of a tweet being passed around by some Suffolk students confirms, “We’re all just dumb f*ckers today.”

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  1. […] ‘Dumb F*ckers’ Fallout: 7 Lessons from the Student Paper Slip […]

  2. […] Seven lessons to learn from it, including “Don’t insert jokes or vulgar statements into layouts-in-progress” are up at College Media Matters. As is the original dummy copy, coarse-language faux pas. […]

  3. […] The ‘Dumb F*ckers’ Fallout: 7 Lessons from the Student Newspaper Slip […]