In journalism, and especially busy newsrooms, articles can change tone from negative to positive or vice versa somewhere along the editorial process and, at best, vanish – just like that! When this happens, the fall guy is often the ubiquitous ‘devil’ in the newsroom.
Years back it was called the Printer’s Devil. According to folklore, the Printer’s Devil moves at night after editor’s have taken the newspaper to bed (or gone to press) and left the newsroom, some retreating for a drink to discuss the day’s events while most, like the newspapers they have worked on, just go to bed.
“And when the printer was not looking, it (Printer’s Devil) would change letters, introduce typos, drop some lines of text and at times whole stories,” writes Mr Peter Mwaura, the Nation Media Group Public Editor.
And so it happened recently at the Daily Nation when the story of lawyer Paul Gicheru on trial at the International Criminál Court just vanished. Yes, it was placed on page 12 of the 21st January 2022 edition and, being a juicy story, was even highlighted on the front page. Pictures of Mr Gicheru and sláin witness Meshack Yebei were placed above the teaser headline, “ICC Seeks Witness As New Details On Yebei Role Emerge.”
But come the next morning the Printer’s Devil had done its job so well that that day’s newspaper page 12 had a story about potatoes and another on the ban of scrap metal trade. Nothing about Paul Gicheru, whose story also implicated Deputy President William Ruto.
Mr Mwaura, writing on this matter on Friday, 18 February after some dismayed readers raised concerns, says the ‘Printer’s Devil’ is a poor excuse for sloppy editorial management.
“Despite the new technology of producing newspapers using computers and off-set printing, the printer’s devil has refused to diè,” he argues, tongue in cheek. “I know it at least hides in my computer spellchecker. When typing this article, it tried to trick me to change the name of Paul Gicheru to “Paul Rich”, Meshack Yebei to “Meshack Yemeni” and William Ruto to “William Roto”.
If it’s any consolation, the story that got lost and left many readers wondering was, surprisingly, published online under the name of one Joseph Wangui, with the editor’s apology that said: “This story was to appear in the Friday edition of the Daily Nation but did not due to a technical hitch. We apologise for the mix-up.”
It was also printed the following day – 22nd January 2022 – but with a slightly different headline: “The ICC Goes For ‘Hostile’ Witness Before Case on Gicheru Begins”. Mr Mwaura notes that it was also more than twice as long as the one that was eaten by the èvil spirits – and was authored by John Kamau, not Joseph Wangui!
Bad spirits, for sure, reside in the newsroom and at the printing press.
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Jokes aside. What happened in this case – and what NMG’s independent news ombudsman delivered in a satirical fashion – is that someone senior above the sub-editor and chief sub-editor (managing editor or editor in chief perhaps) turned into a midnight devil and caused the story to be dropped at the last minute. At this hour, time is of the essence and no one wants to be blamed for delaying printing of the early edition. So checking out the front page promos isn’t a priority.
The story could have been dropped for various reasons. One, maybe it did not meet the editorial standards of being balanced/fair, in this case giving Ruto a chance to respond. But being a court issue that theory may not hold much water.
Second, an editor with a soft spot for the DP may have imagined it would injure the DP’s image and decided to rest it for a bit of massaging and panel-beating to reduce the adverse impact of the story. It’s called damage control and with elections five or so months away, politicians have already planted gatekeepers and spies.
Hey, stories don’t just fall off pages because some fabled devil is prancing around randomly. To echo Mwaura’s conclusion, Shetani Ashindwe!