Dept. of Media

Call Before You Come

Last September, Maya Angelou came to the Washington area to promote a pair of recently released books. Editors at the Sunday Source, a section of the Washington Post, figured that their readers should be alerted to this cultural moment via their entertainment listings.

Smart decision. Angelou is a literary star with plenty of fans around Washington. The execution, however, wasn’t so slick.

The Sunday Source said that the Angelou event would take place at the Karibu bookstore in Prince George’s Plaza, when in fact it was slated for the outlet in Bowie Town Center.

Oops, that’s a 14-mile mistake. Did the Sunday Source’s screw-up inconvenience anyone? “Sure did, because a lot of individuals went to the wrong location,” says Leroy Goodman, manager of Karibu’s Bowie store. “Some people got here late, and some people didn’t get their books signed,” continues Goodman, who says that about 20 people swallowed the Sunday Source’s bad directions.

Saving people’s time—not wasting it—is the Sunday Source’s business plan. At its April 2003 launch, the Sunday Source pledged to provide a photo-heavy section on caring for your pets, throwing parties, and otherwise choosing fun ways to spend your leisure time. A Post announcement envisioned a broadsheet heavy on “advice and tips on shopping, hobbies, personal growth, weekend outings, pets, how-to books, cooking with friends and other close-to-home pursuits.”

Yet in less than two years of circulation, the Sunday Source has produced a smashing how-to feature on filling out the Post’s daily corrections box. Thus far, the Sunday Source has racked up 75 published corrections accounting for about 92 distinct errors.

Not so bad, you say? Consider that the section is virtually devoid of content. Excluding the start of Carolyn Hax’s advice column, the entire front page of the section clocks in at about 100 words. The rest of the reed-thin Sunday Source consists of big pictures surrounded by down-comforter-grade puff, including DVD and CD reviews, photo-essay updates on fashion trends, a shopping feature, chats with “experts,” and so on. Its listings section contains about 70 events. (The listings, however, do vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.) In all, the Sunday Source is not a factual thicket.

On the accuracy front, the Sunday Source compares poorly with Weekend, a hulking pullout section that last week featured 60 pages and about 800 listings and entertainment picks—not to mention real articles and reviews. Weekend carries perhaps 10 times the content of Sunday Source, yet it generated around 63 published corrections during the same period that its trendy cousin generated 75.

Sunday Source Editor Sandy Fernandez says some of those errors are inevitable, such as when a venue changes the date or time at the last minute. But the eventual goal, she adds, is no mistakes at all. “The target for everybody is zero,” she says. “Nobody wants any corrections, ever.”

Factual perfection at the Sunday Source would take a lot of the fun out of reading the Post’s corrections. The Sunday Source, after all, has fired amusing miscues at every urban psychographic it aims to please. For young parents, it botched an item on how to adorn your youngster’s dresser with blocks that spell a word; those who followed the Sunday Source’s instructions ended up with awkwardly spaced blocks. For nutrition nerds, it wrote that a Baltimore County organic farmer specialized in “mescaline mix.” And for hip Republicans, it recorded one of the most notable corrections in Post history—the disclosure that it had helped to finance a party for supporters of George W. Bush and then stage-managed the affair (Dept. of Media, “Source of Contention,” 10/29/04). A Post freelance photographer even ginned up a shot of a reveler blowing a kiss at a poster of Dick Cheney.

The less amusing Sunday Source mistakes pop up frequently in its listings section, an inventory of concerts, lectures, parties, plays, and so forth. Before the Sunday Source’s debut, a Post editor claimed that its entertainment picks would give the section “a sort of help-you-plan-your-weekend kind of feel.”

Caveat lector: If you heard about it in the Sunday Source’s listings, call before you go.

Here’s the Sunday Source mistake tally in four key categories:*

Wrong time: 6

Wrong/omitted date: 23

Wrong price: 4

Wrong venue/address: 10

*Figures include mistakes in listings as well as other Sunday Source features.

When asked about the Sunday Source’s error rate, Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. responded, “Anywhere in the newspaper where we run calendars and listings, there seem to be more corrections from them than from news stories.”

No surprise there. Providing entertainment recommendations is a pursuit steeped in detail—the performance, artist, venue, date, and time all have to be right, lest some Tracy Chapman fan end up at Wolf Trap on the wrong night. “That’s the listings business. If you screw up one time, you can lose a reader forever,” says Chad Schlegel, editor in chief of Time Out Chicago, a listings vehicle that’ll debut in the Windy City on March 3. In Schlegel’s shop, the listings are written by section editors, “not by interns,” he says. After that, they get five rounds of scrutiny, including close looks by the publication’s higher-ups.

Time Out New York puts its 2,000-odd weekly listings through pretty much the same paces. Editor in Chief Joe Angio says the system kicks out an error about once every two weeks. “The only time it’s ever been brought to our attention is from a reader. Those have been few and far between,” says Angio.

Most newspapers don’t involve their top editors in scrubbing the listings each week—a generalization that applies to the Washington City Paper, which has a store of firsthand knowledge about entertainment-section mistakes. Each week, this paper publishes more than 700 listings, an enormous expanse of text with plenty of room for errors. Notable bloopers in recent years have included resurrecting 19th-century sculptor Daniel Chester French so he could talk about his work at the National Museum of American Art and guiding readers to a smashing documentary at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center—the day after it screened. We once printed a handy sidebar supposedly listing soon-to-open museum and theater shows; turns out, every single event was several years out of date. Since January 2003, we have made 24 listings corrections. (Further disclosure: Our lower error rate doesn’t necessarily mean we’re any better than outlets such as the Sunday Source, which has a wider readership and thus a bigger audience of fact-checkers eager to provide negative feedback.)

Still, all the caveats and disclosures in the world can’t make the Sunday Source look like a reliable source. In December, the section told readers to show up for a lecture on the production challenges of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The event, according to the Sunday Source, was to take place on Dec. 16, but the actual date was Jan. 13. “We’re still paying for it,” said a representative of the Wagner Society, which sponsored the event. The society received about a half-dozen calls from folks who showed up on the wrong night. “‘Isn’t there a program tonight?’” they asked, according to the Wagner rep.

At least the error gave the Wagnerians a chance to reconnoiter the area in preparation for the actual night. Victims of Sunday Source errors, in fact, have established a great tradition of resourcefulness in the face of logistical mayhem. In September 2004, the section gave the wrong night for a talk by British industrial designer James Dyson, saying it was on a Saturday instead of a Friday. So the event’s publicists had just a few days to swing into action.

“What we did was have a crisis-management [meeting] in our offices in New York,” recalls Michelle DiLello of Susan Grant Lewin Associates, a public-relations firm specializing in architects and designers. The firm made a point of apprising reservation-seekers of the event’s actual night. “Some people either could or could not make it...We had to do something,” says DiLello.

Sometimes the damage control from Sunday Source mistakes starts after the event. In November 2003, the section’s listings indicated that a Saturday-night performance by the colorful Ancient Rhythms Dance Company would begin at 8 p.m., but the actual time was 7 p.m. Although the listing carried a phone number, sponsors had no way of alerting prospective attendees to the error.

Several people with blind faith in the Sunday Source “missed out on a lot of the good parts of the show,” says Stephanie Clark, a dancer who helped to organize the performance. “They were disappointed that they weren’t there early enough to see the whole show.”

Fernandez says her section received incorrect information for the event. But that excuse can’t explain this week’s special: a blurb sending readers to the D.C. Film Society’s Oscars-viewing party, which the Sunday Source said would take place on Feb. 20. Reality check—the Oscars air on Feb. 27. “I didn’t hear of anybody showing up,” says Tony Fischer, owner of the Arlington Cinema ’n’ Drafthouse, where the film party will take place. “I think most people know that the Oscars aren’t ’til [this coming] Sunday.”

The full history of Sunday Source sloppiness will be lost for the ages. Last summer, for instance, the Sunday Source reported that a reception at the Foundry Gallery would take place on a Saturday night, but it actually took place on a Friday night. Since the Foundry wasn’t even open on Saturday nights, it’s hard to know whether there were any pissed-off culture vultures clutching their Sunday Sources outside the dark gallery.

Also last summer, the Sunday Source in its “Road Trip” feature reported that Betterton Day, a celebration at Maryland’s Betterton Beach, was scheduled for Aug. 1, but the actual date was Aug. 7. A Betterton Day organizer said he was unaware whether people had arrived on Aug. 1 for Betterton Day and instead found a regular day.

And on Oct. 19, 2003, the Source hyped a “Cultural Cocktails” event at the Corcoran Gallery of Art for the coming Thursday, but it had taken place the previous Thursday. Corcoran officials can’t pinpoint any fallout from the misinformation. But there still may be a Washingtonian out there who likes to mix booze and art and no longer trusts the Sunday Source. “As far as mistakes in listings, obviously that’s something that concerns us. Obviously that’s something that we’re going to be working on,” says Fernandez.

The Sunday Source’s bungle-o-meter at least yields evidence that Post readers are paying attention. On Sunday, Jan. 23, the Source included a special listing for a talk at the Corcoran by fashion titan Diane von Furstenberg. The blurb included the Corcoran’s address and phone number, and an entry price—everything but a date and time. As it turned out, the event took place that Monday. For the rest of the week, Sunday Source readers banged the Corcoran’s lines. “That first Tuesday, we got about 15 calls and a few every day thereafter,” says Sarah Durkee, the Corcoran’s manager of public programs.

Corcoran spokesperson Margaret Bergen says the museum had a finely crafted message for disappointed callers: “They call and say, ‘Is there any more space left in the program that I saw listed in the Sunday Source?’ and we have to say the program ran already. ‘So sorry—we hope you come to our next fashion event.’”

—Erik Wemple

Leave a Comment

Note: HTML tags are not allowed in comments.
Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.
...