I usually don’t catch Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show,” but while channel surfing the other evening I stopped long enough to see Jay’s “Headlines” feature, which follows his monologue one night a week.
I think it’s one night a week. I’m not sure.
It’s the segment where he shares newspaper clippings that are sent to him by viewers. Among the mis-worded headlines, the poorly proofed advertisements, the unfortunate positionings of photos and assorted malapropisms — all good for a smile if not an honest belly laugh — were two clippings from a small newspaper in New Jersey, the Marlton Telegram.
One clipping — that of what appeared to be the front page — carried the headline “School taxes going up.” Then Leno showed the second clipping — he said it was Page 2 of the same edition — that carried the headline “School taxes going down.”
Leno pointed out the stories were written by the same reporter and then asked something like, “Well, which is it?” in exaggerated Leno style. The band and the studio audience had a good laugh.
With more than 30 years of newspaper experience I’ve seen a cavalcade of mistakes. But I was trying to figure out how this one happened.
Certainly, over the years, I’ve been in charge when the same story has run in two different spots in the same edition. Anyone with newspaper experience and a few years of deadline work can say the same.
And, I’ve seen headlines written that mistakenly say the exact opposite of what the news story says. I know it shouldn’t happen but it does.
And, I’ve seen those headlines skirt past a final proof and make it to the press.
But, I can’t recall — in the more than 10,000 editions I’ve been a part of — ever running the same story twice but with exact opposite headlines. Leno, it appeared, had gotten hold of a true journalistic rarity, a once-in-a-generation faux pas.
I didn’t give it much thought after that, until I read an entry on Jim Romenesko’s journalism issues Web site Friday. (Romenesko is the senior online reporter for the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, and he collects links to stories about newspapers and the other media.)
The entry was a response from the Marlton Telegram, saying Leno — and his staff — didn’t read the two articles in question. The story on the front page was indeed about “School taxes going up.” The story on Page 2 was indeed about “School taxes going down.” They were two different stories about two different school budgets, albeit written by the same reporter.
The spokesman for the Marlton Telegram did not stop at the explanation. He took on Leno.
“When we make a mistake, we print a correction,” wrote Alan Bauer, general manager of Elauwit Media, the parent company of the Marlton Telegram. “Will Leno correct his mistake on national TV? Or maybe send a note of regret (actually a signed 8x10 glossy would sell better on eBay) to make amends to our reporter, who, by the way, didn’t write the headlines? We’re not holding our breath.
“However,” Bauer continued, “we are looking forward to Conan O’Brien, who takes over “The Tonight Show” gig in about a month. Now he is a funny guy. We’ll make sure he gets a copy of the Telegram too.”
So, the Telegram had its playful say and Bauer cleared things up for me. This wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime journalism faux pas. It was an example of what can happen at a newspaper that covers more than one school district or more than one county or more than one city. It’s happened at the Daily News.
I’m certain we have run a headline that read something like “School tax cuts approved” or “City passes parking ban,” failing to say in the headline which school district or city the story is about. Sure, the story eventually tells the reader, but there’s a risk of confusion — take for example the Telegraph reader who sent the two headlines to Leno.
Leno wasn’t sent a once-in-a-lifetime journalism faux pas, but it was still a faux pas.
We’ll try to remember that at the Daily News when we write future headlines.
When we fail, let us know about it.