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How to handle columns altered "to get back at you"

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by iceman, Apr 22, 2010.

  1. iceman

    iceman New Member

    A newbie posting about a unique situation in my 25-year career...

    Got an e-mail from a reader basically asking what on Earth I was thinking in my last column. His question sounded idiotic, since he seemed to think I was writing the opposite of my intended point. I went back and looked at it and, sure enough, the column had not only been altered into the opposite of its original content, but it was a horribly worded mess of run-on paragraphs where the original sentence flow was completely destroyed.

    Asked my editor what happened and it turns out the past several columns I've done have all been altered "to get back at you" (the editor's words) for 1) being late on some deadlines and 2) because readers were asking for fanboy material and that wasn't what I was writing (I thought I was supposed to be writing objective critiques with praise and criticism where due).

    No question the deadlines are on me, although some word that had been a problem would have been nice. But sabotaging my work seems like a problematic response, since what's out there is erroneous and highly embarrassing to my reputation.

    My question is: What actions do I take here? Resignation is definitely being considered, along with a demand all altered material be removed from the website. Beyond that, I'm a bit too livid to think this out rationally and therefore some objective advice would be useful.

    For anyone wondering how I missed this until now, I'll confess to a bizarre and unwise superstition: I don't read my stuff after publication because as an editor myself I almost always find things I wish I'd done better. Stupid, yes, but it's never come back to bite me like this.
  2. Elliotte Friedman

    Elliotte Friedman Moderator Staff Member

    That's bullshit.

    You should take it to the highest person you can.
  3. EagleMorph

    EagleMorph Member

    Two questions:

    1. If you don't read your work after publication, how do you know it hasn't come back to bite you before?

    Always. Always. ALWAYS! read your material after it's published. It's the easiest way to improve, because your editor likely doesn't have the time go point by point and tell you what he/she did to the article. And it's also a way to spark conversation between yourself and the editor about the direction your writing is headed, especially if it's a regular column.

    2. I find it remarkably hard to believe that an editor is sabotaging his/her own columnist for the sake of a teaching lesson. At least, no newspaper editor. It'd kill readership. I don't expect you to out yourself - don't want that - but what kind of rag-tag, piece of crap publication are you working for that employs people like that?
  4. ECrawford

    ECrawford Member

    This, in my mind, is a very serious thing. Substantive changes to your column should be run by you before they are made. Secondly, anyone deliberately altering newspaper copy so that it does not reflect the opinion of an opinion writer should not be editing copy. It's the same as deliberately inserting errors into the paper.

    More than just removing the offending columns from the web site, this should require a published explanation from the sports editor.

    And in fact, I think the SE should be on shaky ground if he knew this was going on and didn't stop it.

    Everybody makes mistakes. But a deliberate disregard for the newspaper's content shouldn't be shrugged off.
  5. iceman

    iceman New Member


    1) Good point. Let's just say it hasn't happened before to the best of my knowledge, based on reader and source feedback. As I admitted, it's one of my flaws.

    2) I'll have no problem proving the editor did it "to get back at you" because the explanation was part of an e-mail exchange. As for the publication, I've been freelancing there for a few years as a side gig to my main occupation (I edit a publication in a different field). That makes it easier to walk away, but would seem to prevent my doing much of anything else.
  6. Starman

    Starman Well-Known Member

    Demand a meeting with the highest authority possible before you write another word.

    If you have the Guild, bring in the shop steward and as many of the chapter officers as possible to the meeting.

    If it's an at-will shop, bring a lawyer. I see it's freelance so I guess for the most part this point is moot.

    Missing deadline is a problem but mutilating and corrupting a writer's work is not usually the remedy (I have certainly heard of stuff being pulled/spiked if it's late, but not materially altered).

    From your original post, I assume you were never specifically warned with any particular problems with the content of your columns. If they wanted more "positive" coverage, a verbal warning or a written memo with specific instructions on how to accomplish this would be in order.

    If he, as editor, was unhappy with the content of your work, a verbal or written warning should have been issued before he took it upon himself to materially alter the columns. Wild 180-degree swings in a columnist's written positions causes readers to take him less seriously and believe his positions are capricious and insufficiently researched, and damage the credibility of the publication.

    The fact you have written (e-mailed) proof that he admits the column mutilation was done "to get back at you" may give you the ammunition to take the SE down.

    We obviously ain't dealing with the sharpest tool in the shed -- if he had said he altered the columns "to ensure the published output would meet minimal professional standards for publication" he'd probably be home free because basically then it would be his judgment against yours, but basically he issued a de facto admission he made the move purely out of personal spite.

    In the current job market, resignation is the absolute LAST thing I'd want to do, but this is definitely a case that pushes the envelope. You can't work with this fucker any more for a long long time if he has final cut over your stuff before it goes to print. So I guess you better be ready to deal with any feasible outcomes.
  7. tagline

    tagline Member

    Email the publisher.
  8. DanOregon

    DanOregon Well-Known Member

    Document everything - get your originals if you can - might also contact the local SPJ for guidance. Call the desk and have them read the edited version back to you - if you don't like it, leave your name off it.
  9. Baron Scicluna

    Baron Scicluna Well-Known Member

    Make printouts of the e-mail and all other correspondence. That way, if they shut down your account, you'll still have the proof.

    And contact every higher-up you can, including the publisher. If they don't do anything, then start refusing to do columns.
  10. Moderator1

    Moderator1 Moderator Staff Member

    The SE was on board with this??
    Wow. That's an SE who doesn't want to keep his job. ECraw said it best - it's on the same level as inserting errors into copy.

    The good SE does this:

    Yo Joe Columnist,
    We have deadlines for a reason. Hit them. I have instructed the desk to have a filler ready when you are scheduled to write. Your column will not run if it is as much as one second late. The desk is under enough duress as it is to get the paper out on time and I will not allow you to slow down the process. If late copy continues to be a problem, we will look into alternate columnists who know and can hit a deadline.
    See me with questions.

    That ought to get the message across. Fucking up your copy intentionally is a firing offense.

  11. Do you know Boots?

    I can not fathom anyone sabotaging work on a routine basis and keeping their job.
    Is this a weekly paper?
  12. Ace

    Ace Well-Known Member

    How old is this editor, 12?

    My guess is that the editor was being more defensive than honest. I bet he tried to edit it (maybe to make it more fan friendly) and made a mess of it -- but not really on purpose.

    To be honest, I don't know that you have a whole lot of leverage as a freelancer. I would go to the guy's boss with the emails, though.
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