‘News’ that made a heart sink

Published 10:22 pm Friday, November 14, 2008

I nearly choked on my coffee Thursday morning when a colleague, minutes before the start of a business meeting in Suffolk, read aloud the headline on The Virginian-Pilot’s Web site: “IP to close Franklin mill.”

In the 30 seconds that it took me to launch my laptop’s browser and read the story for myself, my heart had settled somewhere in the depths of my stomach — as sick as I’ve felt in years.

By the time I made it to the second paragraph of the story, I knew the headline was in error. Anyone who knows a lick about Western Tidewater (someone on the Pilot’s online staff apparently doesn’t) knows a mill closure would eliminate a lot more than 50 jobs.

It turned out, of course, that a single machine was being shut down, affecting 50 jobs, or less than 5 percent of the mill’s workforce.

In this case, The Tidewater News, which doesn’t like being scooped on matters in its own back yard, was proud to be second in reporting the story. Within minutes, we had an accurate story posted at www.thetidewaternews.com. The Pilot, to its credit, moved quickly to correct the bad information as soon as it learned about it.

In the Pilot’s defense, the inaccurate account was an Associated Press report — a sloppy AP rewrite of International Paper’s press release on the shutdown. An unsuspecting Pilot staffer — whose knowledge of his newspaper’s readership area must stop at the Suffolk city limits — grabbed the story off the wire and stuck it on the Web site verbatim.

The incident was illustrative of how the newspaper business has changed in the past decade or so.

For the same reason that IP is shutting down a machine that makes envelope paper, newspapers — especially large ones but even community newspapers like this one — have embraced electronic delivery of the news.

Though the immediacy of the Internet is exciting for print journalists and a boon for news consumers, the pressure to report the news quickly increases the likelihood of mistakes like the Pilot’s on Thursday.

A decade ago, newspapers would have had a full day to develop the IP story before going to press with it late that night. A smart editor somewhere in the process would have known that 50 jobs do not constitute the entire Franklin mill.

After recovering from the sucker punch of the false headline, I felt relief but no joy. The potential loss of 50 jobs is serious. The pain will be felt by more than the affected employees and their families.

Indeed, Thursday’s announcement should be a wakeup call for our community.

The “paperless society” predicted by futurists will arrive long after my newspaper career has ended, but electronic communication will continue to grow at lightning speed.

No matter how efficiently it operates — and the Franklin mill, by all accounts, rates as one of the company’s best — IP will be affected by decreased demand for its core product. International Paper will remain a viable employer in this community for many years to come, I predict, but its workforce almost certainly will shrink further as the world’s demand for paper decreases.

Western Tidewater no longer can hitch its economic wagon to the mill and feel secure about our economic future.

Let’s cherish the thousand-plus jobs it still provides, continue to appreciate one of our finest corporate citizens but work like crazy at all levels of leadership to diversify our economy and ensure that a headline like Thursday morning’s — should it ever be accurate, heaven forbid — is not a death blow.