You can’t get anything you want …
Persons of a certain age will remember “Alice’s Restaurant,” a rambling story-song from the late 1960s in which Arlo Guthrie told the tale of a Thanksgiving dinner that ended with his arrest by Officer Obie for dumping garbage off a cliff.
Obie proudly gathered evidence for the trial, including “27, 8-by-10 color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was…” But when the judge came into the court with a seeing-eye dog, Officer Obie “came to the realization that it was a typical case of American blind justice … and the judge wasn’t going to look at the 2 7, 8-by-10 color glossy pictures with circles and arrows …”
That’s a bit how I felt on election night here at The Union. General elections are big deals for newspapers. It’s usually the busiest and most important night of the year. It also is a logistical nightmare.
So to try to maximize the chance of doing a good job, meetings were held, assignments were made, and deadlines were set for each phase of the night.
And the day started out so well. As promised, we filed regular election updates to our Web site, http://www.theunion.com, during the day. And as the polls closed, copy editors were poised to insert numbers into a score of elaborately designed “Election 2002” tables created by our new design editor, Kim Midboe. Reporters stood by to gather reactions, while photographers snapped campaign workers as they tensely waited to see if their labors had borne fruit.
By 10:30, we sensed that, like Officer Obie, we weren’t going to get to use our versions of those 27 8-by-10 color glossy photos with circles and arrows. In fact, we had a clammy feeling that we had planned ourselves right into a corner.
Reluctantly, we turned two pages over to stories about California such as Gov. Davis’ re-election, and to national reports such as the Republicans recapturing the Senate. Locally, as the deadline approached, we were able to say with some surety that Measure C, the library funding measure, was passing. Based on absentee ballot numbers and predictions by election observers, we were able to speculate that Robin Sutherland had won the District 4 supervisor’s race, and that the District 3 contest looked tight.
With the final pages already in the hands of the production department at 12:40 a.m., we were able to pull page 1 back and insert a table with results of the supervisors races before starting the presses for Wednesday’s paper.
Readers finally got to see the fancy”Election 2002″ tables with the unofficial final results in Thursday’s edition (some absentee ballots remain to be counted), but the bloom was off the rose. It wasn’t the same thrill as having the winners and losers on people’s doorsteps the morning after the election.
Instead, our headline on that day said, “Election meltdown,” metaphorically meaning the wheels fell off. Our initial reaction was that something had gone wrong in the county Elections Office. County clerk-recorder Lorraine Jewett-Burdick resented the implication, and a post-election investigation instigated by her – as noted by publisher Jeff Ackerman on page 1 today – showed she had a right to be.
Frankly, it was our wheels that fell off, and it was probably because those of us in decision-making positions here – the editor, the publisher, the city editor – have never been through a general election in Nevada County and didn’t know what to expect. In retrospect, it would have been worth the investment to pay former editor John Seelmeyer, a 12-year veteran of Nevada County political wars, to be our election consultant.
However, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, as they say. So mea maxima culpa to our readers and to Lorraine, and we’ll strive to do a better job next time. For now, we throw ourselves upon the mercy of the court, and hope for some American blind justice …
Richard Somerville is editor of The Union. His column appears every Saturday.
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