From the publisher: Anatomy of an error

Efforts to correct it – and an apology to Gloria McField-Nixon

In a moment, I want to share with you, our readers, in as truthful and transparent a way as I am capable, the events that led up to the publishing of a grievous error in a story that was destined for the Friday edition of this newspaper.

But before I get to that, I want to apologize without reservation both personally and on behalf of Pinnacle Media to Ms. Gloria McField-Nixon, a highly regarded senior civil servant who was implicated in a Compass story of a wrongdoing in which she had no part. In fact, Ms. McField-Nixon’s role in that story was a positive one: She was the spokesperson for the government, not the wrongdoer, as this narrative will make clear.

What follows is in no way an excuse, but it is my best attempt at an explanation. Perhaps the place to begin is at the beginning …

On the morning of Thursday, October 5, Compass journalists gathered, as they routinely do, to plan out the next day’s newspaper. An initial “news budget” of expected or developing stories is compiled and discussed among reporters and editors. Shortly thereafter, a smaller group of key editors convenes in my office to identify potential Page One stories, debate the arguments that would be included in the next day’s editorial, discuss art and photo possibilities as well as review our previous day’s efforts.

On this particular morning, an item appeared on the news budget involving  the arrest of a former government employee on the suspicion of theft. I made the initial decision to put the story “inside,” not on Page One. The issue also was raised as to whether we should name the individual who was arrested (We were privy to the person’s identity). I decided against naming the person since she had not been formally charged, and we could always revisit that decision at a later date, if and when charges were ultimately filed.

Brent Fuller, one of our most senior reporters, was tasked with researching and writing the story. At the Compass, we have in place an elaborate computer publishing system that allows us to track every aspect of a developing story. We can tell, for example, when the story was entered into our system, who subsequently accessed it, what changes, if any, were made to it, and the exact time those changes were made. The timeline is relevant to this narrative:

At 1:10 p.m., Brent entered his story into our system. The story, it must be emphasized, was correct in every detail.

Between 1:10 p.m. and 3 p.m., the story was accessed by four separate editors for fact checking, copy editing, proofreading and layout and design purposes. No changes of any consequence were made. This is not surprising. Brent is respected in our newsroom for writing “clean” and accurate copy.

At this point in the production process, his story was deemed to be factually correct and ready to be printed.

However, we now know that at 4:36 p.m., yet another editor as part of her official review accessed Brent’s story and introduced into his copy the errors that had the effect of wrongly implicating Ms. McField-Nixon.

In the furtherance of transparency, we are reprinting in its entirety Brent’s original story on Page Eight. For the purposes of this narrative, two particular passages are relevant.

Brent originally wrote:

“According to government’s senior human resources official, Gloria McField-Nixon, the employee left the government service prior to her arrest on Aug. 16.”

The editor changed the copy so that it read:

“According to the government’s senior human resources official, Gloria McField-Nixon left government service before her arrest on Aug. 16.”

The second material change was this:

Brent originally wrote:

“The suspect has been released on police bail for the time being, police said.”

The editor changed the copy so that it read:

“Ms. McField-Nixon has been released on police bail, police said.”

For the record and in terms of personal and corporate accountability, that editor was terminated from her employment with Pinnacle Media, parent company of the Cayman Compass, as soon as the errors came to light. (We frequently take government editorially to task for not taking timely and decisive action when wrongdoing takes place within its ranks. It would be unthinkable and unconscionable, not to mention hypocritical, if we didn’t hold ourselves to the same standard we advocate for others.)

If I may, I’d like to pause for just a moment to assure our readers that the Compass employs an extensive array of cross-checking editors, fact checkers and proofreaders to ensure the accuracy of our stories.

In the present instance, no fewer than five “sets of eyes” were involved in checking Brent’s story. It’s not that the story was particularly unique or sensitive. We go through this process, at the least, with every story – and considerably more with some stories. In my experience of many decades in many newsrooms, I am comfortable that our system compares favorably with much larger news organizations and surpasses nearly all news outlets of our size.

And yet, as this instance demonstrates, mistakes do happen and, when they do, we do our very best to correct them promptly and, when possible, to make amends for them. That’s what I’m trying to do here.

Just one more detail relating to our editing process in the above instance. After the errors were inserted into the story, two other editors examined the “page proof” before it was forwarded to “plate making” and, ultimately, our printing press. At this stage, editors re-examine only “major elements” on a page, such as headlines, photo captions, folios and similar items.

When our newsroom staff departed in the late afternoon/early Thursday evening, no one, including myself, knew we had an issue.

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Our first inkling that there was a problem with the story actually came from Ms. McField-Nixon herself.

At about 8:15 p.m., Ms. McField-Nixon reached Brent on his cell phone and told him that she had just seen the article online, and it identified her as the suspect, not as the spokesperson.

Brent was incredulous. He told her that was not possible – he had written the story himself – but he would look into it and call her back immediately. He checked the story online and, of course, Ms. McField-Nixon was correct. The article had been altered and was materially wrong.

He immediately made online “corrections” and notified Compass Managing Editor Norma Connolly, who was at home, of the issue. Moments later, Norma reached me, also at home, and briefed me on what she had learned.

It would be comforting if an “instruction manual for publishers” existed for guidance in situations such as these — but, of course, none does.

If I may get just a bit personal, I knew we had a serious matter on our hands and things would likely get chaotic and difficult in the next hours or even days. At that moment I made a private commitment to myself that my actions would be guided by a single principle: Do the right thing. No hair-splitting lawyers, no penny-pinching financial controllers, no damage-control committees. None of that. Do the right thing.

Of course, “Do the right thing” sounds pious, even pontifical, but inexorably leads to the next question: What is the right thing?

I jotted down three overriding thoughts:

1) Take responsibility.

2) Fix this damn thing.

3) Learn from it.

I was fortunate to have the full support of my wife Vicki, who is also co-publisher of the Compass with me as well as co-owner of Pinnacle Media. We were together on this.

My first call, necessary but difficult, was to Ms. McField-Nixon. She was polite and professional but obviously distraught. I told her we would do everything within our power to correct the story that was, at that very moment, being distributed in our print edition.

The story also had been posted, at about 7 p.m., on our  newspaper website (www.caymancompass.com). Brent had personally corrected the online version, but Ms. McField-Nixon told me she did not think the “fix” was adequate. I agreed with her.

We then attempted to fashion a more complete correction and apology to Ms. McField-Nixon and affix it to our website story. However, I still wasn’t satisfied with that attempt and issued the instruction to remove immediately the complete story from our website, which we did.

After my conversation with Ms. McField-Nixon, it became clear to me that we had to at least attempt to retrieve the newspapers that were already in distribution throughout the islands – thousands of them. For perspective, such a recall had never taken place in the 50-year history of this newspaper.

Minutes, not hours, were essential here, not only because more and more newspapers were being distributed by the minute but also because a number of our largest sales outlets, such as the supermarkets, would be closing at 10 p.m. We had to get those papers back before they were locked up for the night.

To continue the scenario, I was able to reach Telman Wright, our distribution manager, on his cellphone to determine whether our recall plan was even feasible. He said he thought it was and would immediately contact our delivery drivers to “reverse their rounds” and gather up the errant copies.

(I’ve since learned that Telman himself chipped in and was at a petrol station picking up papers when he spotted a customer at the cash register about to purchase the Compass. Telman snatched it out of his hands and told him, “This edition is not for sale; check back in the morning!”)

Basically at this point, we had two immediate tasks: First, retrieve the newspapers containing the erroneous article and, second, prepare a “replacement” newspaper to be distributed first thing Friday morning.

The “recall effort” was amazingly successful. Nearly 99 percent of the newspapers containing the errors were retrieved; they never went into circulation.

While the recall was taking place, I was able contact our key personnel and inform them that I was about to ask them to do the impossible. They were going to prepare an unprecedented “midnight edition” of the Cayman Compass.

Justin Uzzell, Pinnacle’s Director of Operations, was a first responder. He headed to the Compass Centre and, in effect, “turned on the lights” for what was to be a very long night. While he was orchestrating the cataloging of newspapers that were now arriving back at the Compass, he was simultaneously assembling his team of platemakers, pressmen, and, particularly important, inserters.

Meanwhile, Compass Executive Editor Patrick Brendel also arrived at the Compass newsroom to oversee the makeover of the new edition, as did Taneos Ramsay, who was tasked with doing the layout and design of the new page.

Frankly, the editorial makeover was not overly challenging. We were simply going to delete the story that contained the errors and replace it with a new story – on an entirely different subject. At any given moment, we have access to hundreds of stories that are churned out 24/7 by our wire services, such as the Associated Press. All we needed to do was select one.

Meanwhile, an additional problem had presented itself. Our Friday paper, which is the largest edition we publish each week, regularly contains a multitude of “fliers,” other promotional materials, and special sections (such as the Weekender, which we normally print a day in advance of our Friday print run).

We quickly realized that we did not have enough “extra copies” of these  “innards,” nor did we have time to reprint the Weekender.

Justin, Telman and Senior Press Operator Donovan Nelson came up with the solution: We would manually remove the page (in this case, Page 2) that contained the errors and reprint that single “form” (meaning Pages 1, 2, 27, and 28 – which are all “connected”) and then manually replace just that single form.

To conclude, we went back on press just after midnight, about a dozen of our inserters worked all night manually swapping out the two forms, and shortly after dawn our delivery trucks were back on the streets delivering our “new” Compass.

Friday morning, we reassembled our key staff to thank them for their extraordinary efforts but also to begin a review of what changes we might make to reduce the risks of such an occurrence ever happening again.

I was reminded, once again, that publishing a newspaper is a high-risk enterprise. Each day, in a very compressed period of time, we make literally hundreds of judgments and decisions that are incorporated into the paper that our readers hold in their hands. At Newsweek magazine, where I used to work, the top editors were known inside the building as the “Flying Wallendas.”

Publishing is a high-wire act, but we try to put into place as many  “safety nets” as are possible or practicable to reduce our daily risks. Normally, these safety nets work.

In the present instance, they didn’t: A story fell through them and, for that, I once again apologize, unconditionally, to Gloria McField-Nixon.

If I may, I’d like to close with an exchange of emails between myself and Deputy Governor Franz Manderson that took place near midnight on Thursday. We had spoken about two hours earlier on the phone:

At 11:46 p.m., to Mr. Manderson:

Franz, we have now successfully recalled nearly all copies of Friday’s Compass. Initial estimates are that fewer than 50 copies are unaccounted for. I’ll get an exact count in the morning. Of course, we removed the entire story from the website shortly after I talked to Gloria.

At the moment, I’ve got a complete crew at the Compass – editors, layout people, platemakers, pressmen, inserters, etc. – and we should be back on press with a “new” Compass about 1 a.m. or so. The “new” newspaper will not include any story on this topic.

My plan is to write a front-page story for Monday’s Compass, explaining what happened and apologizing to Gloria. Thanks, Franz; I really appreciated your call …

G’night,

Dave

At 12: 02 a.m., Mr. Manderson responded:

Good night Mr Legge

Thank you very much for taking this matter so seriously and for your decisive action.

We all make mistakes. However the true test is how we respond to those mistakes.

Your actions will make my job much easier.

Thank you and goodnight.

Best regards,

Franz Manderson

Deputy Governor and

Head of the Civil Service

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