When it's 3 a.m. in West Virginia, it's 1 a.m. in Utah an hour when the presses for that day's Deseret Morning News are already spinning. Early Wednesday, the happy news in those papers read "It's a miracle."
We all know, now, how painfully optimistic that headline was.
Similar stories were printed in hundreds of newspapers around the world, as headline writers rejoiced over what seemed to be good news: after 41 hours, 12 of 13 trapped miners were still alive in a West Virginia coal mine. That's the news that came from family members of the miners around midnight Eastern time. And the governor of West Virginia seemed to confirm it.
It wasn't until nearly three hours later that the correct information 12 dead miners, one survivor was relayed to the families and to the media.
In Utah, the state's two capital-city newspapers were able to stop the presses partway through their runs. The result was that some Utahns opened their papers Wednesday morning and found the jubilant news, and others found the sadder headline that replaced it at about 1:30 a.m.
According to figures supplied by the Newspaper Agency Corp., 40,000 of the Deseret Morning News' 75,000 press run included the updated story, as did 80,000 of the Salt Lake Tribune's longer 130,000 run.
Newspaper editors around the country are now trying to explain why they printed a story that turned out not to be true.
"We go with what we know," wrote Randy Brandt, editor of the Racine, Wis., Journal Times. "In essence, news reporting often called 'the first rough draft of history' is just that, a rough draft. It's also a self-correcting process, and we report new information as soon as we get it."
Melanie Sill, executive editor of The News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., wrote an editor's blog to readers on the paper's Web site Wednesday, noting that "there's a difference between journalistic failure and getting bad information which I call an honest mistake."
Still, editors around the country were sorry for headlines that expressed a level of certainty that wasn't warranted. "I wish I could call back all of the editions with the mistaken headline, a grim reminder of just how short-lived some joy can be," Alan English, editor of the Shreveport Times in Louisiana, told his readers.
Deseret Morning News assistant managing editor Wendy Ogata was driving home from work just before 1 a.m. when she got a call on her cell phone from assistant sports editor Aaron Shill, who had just seen a TV update of the mining story. Ogata immediately dialed the NAC press room and said the phrase that actually happens more in movies than in real life: "Stop the presses."
But by then nearly half of the Wednesday papers had been printed with the wrong news, including the first edition, which goes to Utah County.
When Deseret Morning News managing editor Rick Hall woke up the next morning and looked at the two papers that had been delivered to his doorstep, he discovered the updated Deseret Morning News and a Salt Lake Tribune that had not been updated.
"I'm feeling pretty good about it," remembers Hall, who rode TRAX into town confident that Deseret Morning News readers had received the correct version of the night's events. "And then I step off the train and see the newspaper box, and it's just the opposite" a Morning News with the old story, a Trib with the updated one.
Tribune deputy editor Tim Fitzpatrick also was relieved at first. "Phew," he remembers thinking when he saw the paper that arrived at his house. And then he discovered that more than a third of the Trib's papers carried the old headline.
That's how newspapering works, he notes. "Part of the deal is we have to cut off" at a certain time. "And news changes."
Like many papers, the Deseret Morning News and Salt Lake Tribune were able to update their Web editions hours earlier.Some readers may have been confused if they read the first, happy headline and then heard a different report on the radio or TV. But the real losers were the miners' families, Hall adds. "For three hours they thought their husbands or fathers were alive. That's the real tragedy."