Some people set their sights on the news business at an early age; others just stumble into it. But to stay in it and be happy for more than 30 years takes a combination of grit, talent and luck. Laurie Hertzel had all three.
Her book, News to Me, is a delightful memoir of what newspapering used to be, back when a kid without a college degree could start out as a newsroom clerk and wind up on assignment in Russia. Hertzel worked for the Duluth News-Tribune for 18 years and learned more than any J-school could have taught her before moving on to journalism jobs in Minneapolis. The biggest lesson: nothing trumps accuracy.
How did a small paper teach the importance of getting it right? Among other things, by requiring reporters to write a “groveling memo” whenever a mistake made it into the paper, “explaining how we had made the mistake and how we would keep from making mistakes in the future.”
It was humiliating and I resented it; we all resented it. We typed out memos while gritting our teeth. Reporters hate a lot of things–not being called back, getting scooped, being on vacation when the big story breaks. But we hate mistakes more than anything else.
Yes, it was a different time. But accuracy is (or should be) an enduring value. I can’t imagine any newsroom today demanding written apologies for goofs. But I have to wonder if more personal accountability wouldn’t help to stem what seems like a flood of errors in all kinds of media outlets these days.
Checklists like mine and Craig Silverman’s at Regret the Error can certainly help, but accuracy only happens if journalists care about it in the first place. “When a mistake crept through,” Herzel writes, “I was so upset my whole body grew cold.” That’s how it should be for every journalist. But is it?