I’ve been doing this job for quite a while, sometimes longer than I like to admit.
I interview lots of people every year. I usually call and talk to about 5-10 people a week. Multiply that by 52 weeks a year, and that’s a lot of conversations. Sometimes, I get a quick note from someone I’ve written about saying thank you, or that they enjoyed the article. That always makes my day, because more often, if we hear a response to an article, it’s a complaint.
When John Strassburger was editor of the Chronicle, in my early days of working here, he gave me some sage advice. He said: “When people read something with which they agree or that they like, they nod to themselves. When they read something with which they disagree, they put their fingers on the keyboard.”
He was trying to reassure me after I’d gotten a scathing response to an article, and while his words rang true, I’ve never lost my dismay at having offended someone unintentionally or gotten a fact or spelling wrong. We try very hard at the Chronicle to fact-check and research, but we are humans on tight deadlines, and sometimes mistakes slip through.
Fellow editorial staffer Lisa Slade linked to a great blog post about a famous correction that ran in the New York Times. The writer had used the wrong name for a My Little Pony doll character, and the NYT published a correction that could have read as tongue-in-cheek, but the author of the article in which the mistake appeared took it to heart. I truly appreciated reading the story behind the correction, because as writers, we’ve all been there.
That’s why, when I get a response to an article that pats me on the back instead of berating me, I appreciate every word of it.
For the last 16 months or so, I’ve brought Chronicle readers quite a few stories about show jumper-turned-eventer Marilyn Little-Meredith. I knew of her as a junior jumper rider, and I’d watched her grow up and start to jump around the grand prix classes. I’d interviewed her mother, Lynne Little. But I didn’t think I’d even interviewed Marilyn before. Which was a shame, because in all honesty, she’s one of the best interview subjects—funny, honest, cheerful and articulate. She talks a lot, and we love that in a person.
Shortly after I wrote a brief news story about her buying a new horse in early December, Marilyn sent me an email. In it, she said:
“I was looking at some old articles and found one you wrote more than 10 years ago that you interviewed me for. I remember it WELL...Hertel Landman was shortly after sold to Ali Wolff through George Morris, but he was such a breakthrough horse for me—he won the Grand Prix in Lake Placid, which was a Budweiser AGA tour stop at the time and my first win as a professional. It was an amazing summer, and I've kept the article all these years. I probably never thanked you for that, so it's 10 years late in coming... But "thank you!!!" I suppose that at that age (late teens) you believe the world wants you to succeed. Later you realize that it's really not the case, so it's important to appreciate those who help you up along the way. You have been one of those people for me—for a long time now—and it means a lot.”
She even sent a picture of the article. It’s fun for me to think that seeing her name and photo in print back in 2001 was meaningful enough to Marilyn that she kept that issue of the Chronicle for a decade. I know we’re not building space ships or curing cancer as Chronicle reporters. But sometimes, I’m reminded that we can make people happy. We can share their stories and help them celebrate their accomplishments. Sometimes, we get things very right.