Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Newspapers: Errors to regret

Fired national reporter
gets his last Sun byline
too late for the edition

David Wood moves on
with thanks for the memories

Maybe this is what happens in a newspaper world without copy editors – or without enough copy editors. Or without enough people around to talk about what’s right or wrong in a story or about a story, or how it’s played on the front page.

The case in point was on the front page of The Baltimore Sun on Monday: A Memorial Day-timed story on the growing problem of care, treatment and after-effects for war veterans physically and mentally maimed by the enemy’s almost ubiquitous weapon of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan, the improvised explosive device.

The story was terrific.

The byline wasn’t. It read, “BY A BALTIMORE SUN STAFF WRITER.”

Some readers called the city desk, praising the story and wondering at the lack of a name in the byline.

Credit goes to the newspaper staffers who, after learning of the byline omission, belatedly added the name of the author atop the story on the Baltimoresun.com Web site – and a correction at the end of the story as well. Tuesday's print edition had a correction in the usual place, at the bottom of Page 2 -- but the correction had an error. It said the story had appeared on Sunday's front page when, in fact, it was in the Monday paper. But that's an easy mistake to make, seeing as how Memorial Day feels like a Sunday. Deja-vu will get you every time.

What the print edition correction lacked was the customary expression of regret for an error. It needed even more regret, though -- a public expression of regret that the author, distinguished reporter David Wood, was fired without notice nearly four weeks ago along with nearly a third of the news and editorial staff in the latest cost-cutting move ordered by The Baltimore Sun’s absentee overlords in Chicago.

And, on the Web edition, that is why even after David Wood’s byline was added, you won’t find the usual @baltsun.com behind it. He doesn’t live there anymore.

Interestingly, his biography still lives there – or still did on Monday – at Baltimoresun.com. I found it using a Google search of “David Wood reporter.” It begins this way:

David Wood, 62, has been a journalist since 1970, a staff correspondent for Time Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Newhouse News Service and The Baltimore Sun. He covers military issues, foreign affairs and combat operations, and is a Pulitzer Prize finalist for national reporting. He recently won the Headliner Award for his Iraq coverage.

Actually, Wood will turn 64 next month, so the biographical sketch is a little dated. And for a little more than a week, he’s had a new job writing for AOL’s politicsdaily.com – one of the few, if not the only, recently expelled Sun staffer to land a new gig.

The Real Muck had reported his unexpected departure from The Sun in an earlier posting on the personnel massacre and its aftermath, but the newspaper’s byline omission provided an excuse to call him for some details about his brief stint there. As night metro editor, unfortunately, I had only talked to him a few times before my voluntary buyout and retirement from The Sun two years ago.

Wood had mostly good words for The Sun, which offered him a job three years ago after he had taken a buyout from Newhouse.

“I went up to Baltimore and went into the newsroom, and it was this wonderful crazy place where people were shouting at each other about stories across the newsroom and jabbering into telephones,” Wood said. “It was a wonderfully vibrant, hard-driving place…. We were going to do great journalism.”

He added: “It was a really good place to be for a couple of years.”

Wood's hiring in July 2006 was probably the last of a national reporter by The Baltimore Sun before owner Tribune Co.’s plunge into private ownership and bankruptcy, and his coverage of the Defense Department included travel to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He worked mostly out of the newspaper’s Washington Bureau, where a large national staff had operated in The Sun’s glory days – but at the end had just two people remaining, Wood and Paul West.

The weekend preceding the mass firings, Wood said, he had been “horribly sick” but managed to work that Monday and produce a story for the front page. The next day he was out sick again, and that Wednesday was coming back from a visit to his doctor when “my wife called and said there were all these layoffs at The Sun.”

Wood said he called Paul West about the situation, and was told that “it’s worse than you know – you were one of the ones fired. I was thinking of driving to your house and telling you.”

A tough week to imagine.

“I still haven’t called downtown [to The Sun] to talk about it,” Wood said, adding that he did get a call from former national and deputy managing editor Marcia Myers expressing her regret. (Myers was assigned to new duties and a lesser title under the subsequent newspaper staff reorganization; her husband, deputy opinion editor Larry Williams, lost his job in the cutbacks.)

Wood said he was not immediately aware that his last story to appear in The Sun was missing his byline – and had largely forgotten about the story itself. He had worked on it “for almost a year,” Wood said, and “turned in a version in March.” It was a longish story, and space in the newspaper was tight, so it was held – “and then it suddenly appeared,” Wood said of its front-page play on Monday.

‘‘Nobody from the copy desk ever called to check on anything… they just ran it, which is a little unnerving. I love copy editors calling and saying, ‘You said this, but did you mean to say this?' I love those people.”

Copy editors, he said, improve stories – and protect writers from mistakes. It’s an oversight role that has been substantially reduced at The Baltimore Sun and other newspapers across the nation.

The byline omission evidently was an innocent mistake, but particularly embarrassing for the newspaper under the circumstances of the massive staff reduction that sent more than 60 employees packing in a hurry.

Wood said he received a call Monday from newsroom veteran David Nitkin, recently promoted to the new job of “head of Maryland news” – a title shared with Dave Alexander, who had been the online deputy editor. He said Nitkin was calling from vacation, “horribly upset” at the mistake.

“He thought it was just a glitch,” Wood said. “Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. But he was just terrific to call.”

Looking back on his not-quite three years at The Sun, Wood said, “I got a good ride, a chance to travel a lot. The Sun got a lot of good stuff from me and I got a good ride from them. I was fortunate to be able to accept that kind of opportunity.”

And now he’s moved on, to a job at politicsdaily.com that Wood calls “a terrific honor and responsibility.”

“I was very lucky to get a job like that,” he said. “There’s a lot of reporters out there who I wish were working, because we need them.”

More grief to come

Crunch day at The Baltimore Sun is Wednesday – the deadline for eligible layoff victims to claim rights under the union contract to “bump” back into job classifications they formerly held, which will determine whether some of the least senior surviving newsroom employees lose their jobs.

Several reporters have volunteered for severance -- notable among them education writer Sara Neufeld, who decided to leave in order to save a colleague’s job.

Since Neufeld’s gesture, I hear at least two others have requested layoffs – Rona Marech and Rona Kobell.

The Sun might well have been the only U.S. newspaper with two reporters named Rona.

Now it’s apparently going to be Ronaless.

Kobell, a longtime friend who has a young daughter and just completed a journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan, posted her farewell at her Baltimore Sun blog and it is well worth reading at http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/local/bay_environment/blog.

Sadly, it seems obvious this won’t be the last farewell at the newspaper.

Another Memorial Day tale

Bonnie and I took a cruise Saturday aboard the S.S. John W. Brown, the last World War II Liberty Ship in operation -- thanks to its restoration by the Baltimore-based nonprofit Project Liberty Ship. We joined more than 400 paying passengers for the six-hour jaunt on the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay, including one old soldier who last sailed on the Brown on his journey to the war zone in 1943.

You can check out the story, and some of Bonnie's photos, at http://baltimorebrew.com/blog/?p=2642#more-2642.

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