Today’s lesson is another from my boss in 1976, Jim Haggerty, Jr. of the Woburn Daily Times, where I was a young reporter and he was the managing editor.
In a daily newspaper in a small city, there appears each day a lot of names — hundreds of names — of local people. And for each of these people, having their name in the paper is a kind of thrill, a minor serving of fame. It’s very important to them. Jim taught me that misspelling a person’s name was the worst kind of hurt (you have spoiled their moment of fame) and insult (they aren’t important enough to have their names properly spelled). You also risk some racial or ethnic insensitivity. An Italian-American reader will sense quickly that the writers on the newspaper can spell Johnson with no problem, but can’t manage Piscatelli. An Indian-American will get the message when you can’t be bothered to spell Ramesh Sharma correctly.
But there was an even greater danger. “The entire premise upon which the newspaper business rests is that people can believe what they read,” Haggerty told me. “If they can’t trust you to get the names right in a football game or in a report of a three-car accident on Route 128, then why should they have confidence in any other thing you write, or any other thing that appears in this newspaper?”
Jim taught that if you weren’t sure how to spell a person’s name, you asked them to spell it out for you. If you still weren’t clear, you asked them to print it in your reporter’s notebook. If they weren’t able to tell you (because they were dead, for example) you got it off the police report and cross-checked it with the phone book.
This was all before the Internet, of course, and computer spell-check programs, and the many other methods we have today. But that just means that one of the best safeguards against error — the editor — has gone, along with the rest of the newspaper trade, the way of the dodo.
Nonetheless the lesson has stayed with me, and is equally relevant in marketing. A saying mostly attributed to Flaubert is “God is in the details.” I believe this. A fanatical devotion to precision, to correct details, is often what marks the difference between mediocrity and greatness.
In John Updike’s famous New Yorker essay about Ted Williams’s last game, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, he writes, “For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill.”
Yes, that’s it. The tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill.
God and the Devil are both in the details.