First with the (wrong) news

There’s a common theme in the analysis of the Daily Mail’s embarrassing use of a pre-written story on the Amanda Knox trial.

 (If you missed the story, it’s here – they mis-understood the verdict, said she was guilty when she wasn’t, fleshed it out with false quotes and colour, then pulled the story and replaced it with the correct one saying she was free).

The theme is that the internet is to blame. That digital media means speed comes before accuracy.

I’m not so sure. This has been going on for years, and printed newspapers used to publish at a pace which would make an online journalist’s eyes water.

A pace that meant some papers reporting Queen Victoria’s death when she was probably still alive.

The case in question – just an aside in journalism history – was one I found while digging into the archives of the New York World for January 1901. The Queen was on her death bed, and nobody wanted to be last with the news of her final breath.

A memo from World business manager Don Seitz to the boss, Joseph W Pulitzer, reports that rival papers the Journal and Sun went to press with news of the Queen’s death based on a ticker report timed 1.10am.

The more cautious Seitz wanted more than one source for such a story, “having nearly touched ourselves off the morning before on a scare … which started the presses but which we suppressed before distribution, only about 200 copies getting off the press and these mainly going around the building.”

He made the New York World wait for Associated Press confirmation, and when it arrived it said she’d died at 1.36am.

She was still living when the others printed, but dead by the time their papers hit the streets. Poor Seitz was right, but late.

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