A Lesson in (Figuratively) Eating Crow

Like most things in life, there are some weeks at this job that are better than others. Some weeks are marked by triumph — a well written feature story paired with a stunning photo, crisp and clean layout and enthusiastic reception from readers. Other weeks seem doomed — mistakes, errors and unforeseen circumstances compound to a stressful and painful result.

Luckily, it feels like the good mostly outnumber and outweigh the bad. Last week, however, was a bad week.

The first bit of bad news came on Sunday morning. We learned our friends at the Great Falls Tribune had written a small editorial about the Exponent that ran Saturday. Though initially optimistic about what its contents might hold, we quickly learned our hopes were mislaid: The editorial did nothing short of mock the Exponent. It laughed at the Exponent labeling drinking at football games a “complex issue” and pointed out the unfortunate misspelling of “naiveté” as “nativity.”

My first reaction to the editorial was a mixture of anger, embarrassment and confusion. Yes, the spelling error is a silly typo and should have been caught long before printing. Yet to call out a newspaper — especially a student newspaper — on a small mistake from across the state seems unnecessary and catty. After all, I thought, the Exponent doesn’t make mistakes that often, certainly not more than a mainstream newspaper. I decided to hang my optimism on that sentiment and shrug the editorial’s criticism off.

Then the week got worse.

On Thursday we learned that week’s centerfold, looking at gender distribution across MSU’s colleges, had several substantial errors we overlooked in the production process. The bar graphs labeling the data from 2004 and 2014 had the years switched, one pie chart had been omitted completely and one appeared twice (labeled with the wrong year), a paragraph was completely left out and even the page number in the top corner was incorrect.

The mistakes were made not out of incompetence but haste, and in trying to coordinate every week between more than 60 employees, things are bound to fall through the cracks. Unfortunately when they do, it is often in big ways. But even an understandable mistake is a mistake, and we know that our readers deserve better.

I assure you I am entirely earnest when I say that the Exponent regrets the errors. They not only reflect poorly on those involved in the stories, but the organization as a whole. They erase our credibility both internally and externally, and restrict our ability to accurately tell stories and represent the student voice.

It seems to me that in this area the Exponent is at a crossroads. One path we could take is to fight criticism with anger, shutting down conversation and not accepting fault or error. This might be the most instinctive, knee-jerk response, but I think it is counterproductive to our purpose and ideals.

The other path we can take, the better path, is accepting fault openly and vowing to do better. It’s promising to learn from our mistakes and gain strength through unparalleled honesty and openness. My hope is that the latter will always be Exponent policy.

Of course, I can’t make that guarantee for all time, and each successive editor will have to struggle with balancing their pride and accepting the inherent and inevitable fallibility of a student-run paper. But in this matter and through this year, we will continue to move forward, stripped of pride but still proud, and strive to learn from our mistakes.

To the Tribune’s credit, they emphasized this sentiment in their editorial. A student newspaper, as they said, is a “learning experience.” When we make mistakes, we deserve to be called out on them, and we will encourage feedback from every source we can. So if you find an error in these pages or in any of our work, I hope you’ll let us know.

As always, I can be reached for comment and question at editor@exponent.montana.edu