Pick’n’mix is back! Or so said the news media as they reported claims by a random Twitter account that the defunct UK stores group Woolworths was making a comeback.
Journalists rushed to file their stories, egged on by editors keen to be first with the news.
As later reported, the entire story was the invention of a 17 year old schoolboy who had put the fake tweet out as part of a study into digital marketing. The news media picked it up and what happened next will likely be the subject of media studies degrees for years to come.
The scale with which the story spread ought to sound a loud alarm about the quality of the editing process at many news organisations.
How did we get here? Well, in the 2000s as websites proliferated, media owners looked for savings and saw the subs bench – as it was known – as an easy target for redundancies.
Sub editors were dispensed with and reporters were left to type their copy directly into a content management system before hitting ‘publish’. It’s quicker and cheaper.
When mistakes do happen, they can be corrected later. ‘Not wrong for long’ is the maxim. And we are all worse off for it.
Years ago, one of the first stories I filed attracted the ire of a subeditor, who loudly summoned me over to his desk for a public earbending. My crime? I’d got a key fact wrong.
I gulped. Colleagues had been fired for less.
I recall opening my mouth to plead my defence.
The subeditor raised his index finger.
I paused. Wisely, it turned out.
“Always, always check your facts,” he growled. “And then read your story aloud to yourself before you file. You’ll be surprised at what you find you’ve missed.”
I felt humiliated. Though not as much as I would have been had we gone to press with my error. I had learned my first lesson – and the subeditor’s job was done.
This week’s Woolworths story is a salutary reminder of their value.