ILLUSTRATIONS: “And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he struck the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their animals also.” Numbers 20:11. The scene imagined by François Perrier, 1590-1650. (Image: Wikimedia Commons.) Below: An image of the WSJ’s now justly famous correction, and the Old Copy Editor, editing old copy, early in his career.

For not a few years, I toiled in the now quaint profession of newspaper copy editing at the Toronto Globe and Mail and sundry other newspapers, most of them too terrible to note by name.

Practitioners were known as copy editors, sub-editors or, sometimes, just subs or deskers. We sat “around the rim.” Never mind, it wasn’t as bad as it sounds.

The work of resuscitating famous journalists’ gasping copy was dull, but the banter was engaging. Wit was valued by copydesk hacks, if not by the effete ranks of the reporting staff, whose efforts we salvaged, or our bosses.

In this role I had the opportunity to write a headline on a sports story about the Perth (Australia) Yacht Club’s fruitless efforts to force a French sailboat competing for the America’s Cup not to be named French Kiss:

Perth Yacht Club in uproar
over tongue-in-cheek name

I recall winning a bottle of scotch from my grateful colleagues for that one.

The newspaper industry and its fading digital shade has not benefitted from the elimination of those nameless, dedicated toilers in the cause of good usage, correct grammar, accurate spelling, entertaining headlines and a precise and always accurate count of the number of angels that can actually dance on the head of pin.

I have been the author of many corrections, most of them for other people’s errors, of course.

Naturally, for me, the Wall Street Journal’s already justly famous correction yesterday prompted not just the feelings of unbridled joy experienced by millions, but empathy, sympathy, and a wistful sense of nostalgia.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Benjamin Netanyahu said Moses brought water from Iraq. He said the water was brought from a rock.

Normally, a correction should not repeat the error, merely acknowledge it and provide the corrected facts. Sometimes, though, clarity and irony alike require the original mistake be included so that readers can truly understand the enormity of the error, not to mention to discomfit its author. Justice and the betterment of humanity are thereby served. The Journal’s correction is such a case.

The lesson is obvious: Don’t shout the headline across the room to a colleague lest your listener be a fool, or merely distracted by the pressure of deadlines. Write it down. Check it twice. This is axiomatic!

Indeed, my career as a copy editor was nearly derailed before it left the station by just such an error. Noticing a missing headline, I shouted across the room to a colleague at the small weekly newspaper where we worked:

Women’s Centre
fights for sex equality

The next day the newspaper returned from the printer emblazoned with the following:

Women’s Centre
fights for sexy quality

Auto-correct had not been invented, so that excuse was not available. One of the few blessings of the digital era is that catastrophes of this nature can be corrected as soon as they are spotted, and blamed on auto-correct.

Speaking of uproars, that one was furious. The fallout was harsh. My sincere horror at what had happened was deemed by many to be an unconvincing pose.

This is why people throughout the English-speaking world have sensibly adopted the term gender to express this concept, and why language purists, while their arguments always merit serious consideration, are not always right.

Let me repeat the lesson. Write it down. Check it twice.

The corollary is also true: When writing a headline, say it aloud, lest there be unintended meaning hidden in the sound of the words. This is especially true when writing a headline about Tiger Woods’ bright marketing ploy to play with his own balls.

If my former colleague, the estimable Murdoch Macleod, had followed this advice, he never would have headlined the story about an intoxicated musician who broke the window of a pawnshop and stole a fiddle:

Drunk gets 9 months in violin case

The world would have been a poorer place, but Murdoch would have been a happier man.

Young reporters who receive a note from the Old Copy Editor should consider it a compliment. It suggests there is hope for their wretched efforts.

– 30 –

Readers may address their queries to [email protected].

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  1. A fun story, Old Copy Editor, thanks for writing it. Reading it reminded me of a story I heard about a blunder by the Tahoe Nevada tourism board, when they launched their ‘Go Tahoe’ campaign, and promoted their website It never dawned on them that gotahoe could also be broken up into ‘got a hoe’.

    Nevertheless, your point about newspaper quality suffering from the elimination of copy editors is valid. Seeing all the basic writing errors in newspaper stories was one of the first problems that got me questioning the value of our newspaper subscription.

  2. As a rimpig in the early days at the Ottawa Sun, I wrote what I thought was the best tabloid headline. Global TV reporter Doug Small had obtained and reported on an advance copy of Michael Wilson’s 1989 federal budget. Outrage centred on Small and his “source” at the Queen’s Printer, then under the supervision of Conservative Supply & Services Minister Paul Dick. As the controversy swelled over whether Small was right to leak the budget and what steps Dick was taking to track down the source of the leak, I suggested Small-Dick Affair for the front page headline. I still think it’s the best tabloid headline never to see the light of day!

    1. I think I can top that. In October 1973 I was laying out the front page of the Montreal tab Sunday Express (RIP). We didn’t usually run politics on the front, let alone U.S. politics, but the Express was at the time the city’s only English-language Sunday paper, so we ran the UPI coverage of the “Saturday night massacre.” My hed:
      It would have run, too, if I hadn’t snickered. Even then ME Pat Curran wavered for about 10 minutes before changing “sacks” to “fires.”

  3. Long before Old Copy Editor and his ilk were sent packing, Jay Leno featured “Headlines” on the Tonight Show.

    Screwdrivers were made to loosen tighten screws

    Condom firm stretches product line

    Family catches fire just in time, chief says

    Ohio man, 79, pronounced dead, but says he feels much better now

  4. Headline writing was the original “clickbait”: a well written headline told you enough about the story that you could read it or not and still be informed.

  5. As a newspaper layout artist in the lead print days, newspaper production was highly entertaining in retrospect. On one occasion, proof reading failed to prevent the unfortunate heading of “Sh*t and Tie Sale”, in an ad ordered by a haberdasher known for his obsessive detail for propriety, from blaring out of the daily newspaper. Such were the follies of the production department in the breaking dusk of the influence of print media.

      1. Ah, ‘twas not I, but rather the lads in production who slid that one through. They pranked one step too far one day when they proofed up their supervisor’s obituary.

    1. Could the cool looking newspaperman have written this headline?

      Capitals Goalie Makes 1st Start Since Feb. 17 Tonight

  6. I have a question about that painting by François Perrier. If there was no water in the desert, how come that tree is so green?

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