Newspaper howlers not out of character

When I joined the Daily Dispatch in what now seems to be another life, the newspaper was still being printed with the hot metal method and sub-editing was of the pen and paper variety.
Although typographical errors inevitably slipped through, we had a strong proof-reading team to prevent this sort of thing happening. These people were paired with what was known as “copy-holders” who did just that: hold copy.

Proof-reading in those days was a designated trade – you had to have served an appropriate apprenticeship to be qualified to do the job.

In those years, I was the newspaper’s production manager. East London being an out-of-the-way city, it was difficult to attract suitably qualified staff, including proof-readers.
One evening a member of the personnel department arrived with a recently retired general manager of a big local concern and informed me that he would be starting the following evening as our new proof-reader.

I protested. You don’t just appoint proof-readers for a newspaper off the street, so to speak. On the way out the new man, in a conspiratorial whisper to me said: “You really do need a proof-reader, you know”.

He duly started work the next evening after I had introduced him to our head proof-reader, the late John Gibson, an Englishman who was a first-class proof-reader. I asked him to keep the new man’s proofs aside and to go through them again and mark undetected typos. At the end of the shift, John brought the proofs to me and yes, you guessed it, they were riddled with errors!

To cut the story short, I called him in, pointed out the omissions and said: “Yes, we really do need a competent proof-reader here, don’t we”.

Often it only takes a single character to change the entire meaning of an otherwise innocent paragraph to cause howls of laughter or acute discomfort in the cold light of day. And talking of printers’ gremlins, here are some which might amuse you.

I vividly remember 1957 when British explorer Sir Vivian Fuchs led the first modern overland crossing to the South Pole. I was working for a Port Elizabeth newspaper. The front page headline across seven columns in capital letters screamed: “FUCHS OFF TO SOUTH POLE”. Of course, as you’ve guessed by now, one vital character was wrong. 2,000 copies had hit the streets before the mortified chief sub-editor had the error pointed out to him.

A famous one concerned the obituary of a distinguished army general which referred to him as a “battle-scared veteran” of many campaigns. Of course say that about a general and you can expect trouble. The newspaper published a would-be fulsome correction. This time they had the military leader as “bottle-scarred”!

In similar vein, a newspaper referring to a detective who had performed a particularly heroic deed called him “a defective in the police force”. Red-faced, they made the correction that had the detective in the “police farce”.

Then there was this one about a lady farmer. The newspaper called her the “grootste boer” in her area. Or it did after a squad of workers had to sit through the night changing the printed copy with pens because in the printed version which came off the press the “boer” had begun with an “h”.

When it comes to captions though, one of my favourites was under a picture showing the woman owner of a winning race horse leading the steed in. The reporter must have been a junior and had it drilled into him to make sure that captions identified exactly who was who in the picture. The horse therefore carried the tag (left) after its name!

So you see newspapers are not infallible.


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