Not so many years ago, people never would have put Florida and Stanley Cup in the same sentence. But something magical happened in June 2004, when the upstart Tampa Bay Lightning outplayed the Calgary Flames and brought the cup to Florida.
That magical night also marked the worst screw-up of my career. It was so bad, in fact, that on his MSNBC talk show, Keith Olbermann named me one of the three “worst people in the world.”
I was the editorial page editor of The Tampa Tribune at the time, and the folks in our department were as excited as everybody about the Lightning. Win or lose, we planned to publish something the next morning saying, “Thanks, Lightning, for a great show, and for bringing our region together.”
Knowing the match would run late, we prepared two editorials, one for if they won, one for if they lost. And, well, you can guess what happened next.
We published the wrong editorial.
About 5:30 the next morning, the deputy editor, Joe Guidry, called to alert me. Despite the safeguards we’d put in place, there it was in black and white: the wrong editorial. The headline said something like: “Thanks, Lightning. You’ve made us proud.” But the first paragraph said the team had come up short.
Given the headline, my first naive thought was, “Maybe no one will notice.” But driving in, our screw-up was all over the radio. And when I got to work, TV crews were waiting. Our mistake was getting equal billing with the team’s win. It was just awful.
I crafted a statement that said we “took a puck in the gut” this morning when we published the wrong editorial. That quote made Time magazine’s quotes of the week. And on Google, I saw my name and “puck in the gut” had made sites in China, Russia and around the world. It was just awful.
The phone rang, and it was Howard Kurtz, the media writer from The Washington Post. My head hit the desk. Next came Keith Olbermann’s show. Then, a politician called to say she was certain we’d been running the wrong editorials about her, too. It was just awful.
Everyone wanted to know how it had happened. And until now, I’ve never said anything more.
Here’s what happened: in producing the daily newspaper, there’s a certain order to printing the pages, and the editorial page generally goes early in the line-up. That night, because our page was going to go late, I alerted the news editor, who alerted the production supervisor.
So far, so good.
Meanwhile, we got the rest of the computerized page ready to go. Then, to get an accurate word count for the editorial, we arbitrarily placed the “losing” piece on the page for the moment. As soon as the match was over, we replaced it with the “winning” piece, proofed the page for misspellings and released it to production.
Unbeknownst to us, however, a front-line production guy had called the news desk earlier in the evening to find out where the editorial page was. A copy editor who didn’t know the plan went into the computer system, pulled up our page and sent it along, without telling anyone.
Later, when we sent over the correct page, it was ignored because the production crew believed the editorial page was already done.
So even though we believed we had covered our bases, the process broke down.
Maybe you’ve experienced a similar process breakdown sometime in your life. But did it land you on national TV?
The leaders of the Lightning were great sports about it all. They even brought the Stanley Cup by to visit the editorial board.
I’d love to kiss that cup again, here in South Florida.
But for today, watching the Lightning try to recapture the Stanley Cup has triggered a recurrence of my nightmare.
Rosemary O’Hara is the opinion page editor of the Sun Sentinel. Her last name was Goudreau when she made the news described here.