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To err is human; to buy multiple copies is divine

November 28, 2008
By Bob Seidenstein,

When I started writing my column, everything I knew about newspapers could be said in one word - nothing.

And my ignorance was global. I knew nothing about reporting and editing, sales and subscriptions, the newsroom and the pressroom. Things were so bad I didn't even know what I was writing - though I sure found out fast.

Right after I submitted my first piece I called then-editor John Penny, looking for some reassurance. Little did I know, getting reassurance from Penny wasn't like trying to get blood from a stone - it was like trying to get AB negative blood from a stone.

"So, John," I asked, pathetic rookie that I was, "what'd ya think of the article?"

"It's not an article," he snapped. "It's a column!"

First lesson - the difference between an article and column: An article is reportage, and as such is supposed to be factual and absent of personal opinion. A column is editorializing and so, plain and simple, is an opinion piece.

My next journalistic learning experience took place at Hyde's Mobil, about two hours after my first column appeared in print.

I was at the pump, when a guy at the next pump, a guy I'd never seen, said, "Read your article today and liked it."

I was gobsmacked. Not only did I get feedback on my column, but it was positive and immediate besides!

Blessedly, that pattern has persisted: I get a lot of feedback, much of it PDQ, and almost all of it positive.

I've also learned that everyone calls it an article. To which I say, So be it.

The essential truths

In truth, while I'm no expert about newspapers, I have learned a few things. One of them is why major newspaper readership is declining, while the small town papers are holding strong - reader loyalty.

To small town readers their paper isn't a source of news of the world at large, so much as a source of connection to their fellows.

Let's face it, no one pores over the Adirondack Daily Enterprise to find out about conditions in the world, the nation, the state or even northeastern New York. If it happens outside the Tri-Lakes, no one wants Enterprise space "wasted" to cover it. And why should they, since there's plenty of interesting news in our own backyard?

While not everyone reads everything in the Enterprise, it seems everyone reads something and they read it darn near religiously. Some people are sports fanatics; others are editorial junkies. Some rip right to the obits; others to the letters to the editor. And, of course, there are those who regard the paper like a combo platter - some local news with the police blotter and Dr. Donahue; or maybe Dear Abby, some sports, the crossword, with perhaps a dollop of This Day in History.

But no matter what they read, I've found they do it with the scrutiny of an old-time schoolmarm. And thus, woe betide the writer who makes a mistake in print, because rest assured it will be pointed out - and pointed out with glee.

Lord knows I try my best, but from time to time it's not good enough, and I'll find it out post haste.

My pal of 40 years, Brother Hal Wilson, now that he's living a sultanic retirement, has enough free time to find - and point out - my every rhetorical transgression.

His last correction was left on my voice mail (and a cheerful message it was), telling me I'd used "averted" when I should've used "avoided." All done with the best intentions of course, but it was still enough to make me wish I'd avoided (not averted) his message altogether.

My latest brush with my Proofreadership-at-Large happened just this week, and it was about last Friday's column.

I'd written about the veterans' dinner at the Adult Center and had checked one thing scrupulously the spelling of Gianni Fontana's fist name. The reason I'd checked was because years ago I'd misspelled it in another column and I'd just gotten done living it down.

Unfortunately, while I got a perfect score on my spelling, I got something else in the column wrong, and I didn't have to wait long to find it out, either.

Saturday morning I was coming out of the post office and ran into Sarge Gullicksen, who told me I had an incorrect attribution in the column: I'd said the Lions Club had sponsored the dinner, but it'd actually been the Elks Club. Oddly, at the dinner I knew the Elks were running it, but somehow my prop was slipping when I wrote the column.

A few days later, I ran into Frank Camelo, who again told me the Elks had run the dinner. He also told me they'd always run the dinner, and always would run the dinner - just in case I didn't understand the subtleties of the situation.

Forgiveness in a nutshell

Actually, my favorite tale of finding out my faux pas in print starred one of my favorite hometown people, Dew Drop Morgan.

For 40 years or so, Dew owned and operated the Dew Drop Inn, a restaurant that featured the best pizza I've ever had. And I'm not using hyperbole: I've had pizza all over the U.S. and Europe, including Italy, and his pizza is still the best.

Several years ago I ran into Dew and on a whim started asking him how he got around to making pizza (for all practical purposes, his was the first pizza in the area), and how he arrived at his formula. One thing led to another, and when we got done talking, I had all the fixings for a column, which I then wrote. And in all modesty, I must say it was a darn good column, too.

When it came out that Friday, by sheer chance I met Dew on the street and prepared myself to be smothered with compliments.

"Hey, pal," he said, bestowing his ubiquitous greeting on me. "You had three mistakes in your article."

OK, I wasn't crestfallen. Then again, I wasn't overjoyed either.

Three mistakes? First, I wondered how that happened. Then I realized it didn't matter how it happened; what matter was it happened. I made three mistakes in one column and I just had to accept it.

But I also knew that Dew, the very picture of forgiveness, would never hold it against me.

Later that afternoon I was in the Enterprise office when Dew came in. I was in a corner chatting with someone, so he didn't see me. But I saw and heard him perfectly when he went to the counter and bought seven copies of that day's paper.

So did I let Dew know I'd seen him? Of course not. After all, I'm a bigger person that that.

Besides, when it comes to forgiveness, I can easily match Dew Drop Morgan, especially right after he buys seven copies of my column.



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