washingtonpost.com Goofs on Headline

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007; 1:10 PM

Well, The Washington Post's Web site screwed up the John Edwards story, too.

For 51 seconds.

And it was an accident, of the cringe-inducing variety.

The Democratic presidential candidate had already announced that he was continuing his campaign, despite the recurrence of his wife's cancer, when washingtonpost.com put up a headline at 12:32:20 p.m. yesterday: "John Edwards Suspends White House Bid."

By 12:33:11 it was down--replaced by "Edwards: Wife's Cancer is Back"-- but not because anyone had caught the mistake.

"You don't like a bad story on the Web site for one second or 51 seconds," said Jim Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com. "It's embarrassing it got out there."

Especially embarrassing because I reported in The Post yesterday that Politico.com and Reuters, each quoting an unnamed source, had carried pieces that Edwards was going to suspend his campaign before the former senator's news conference in North Carolina. The news was already out at the time of The Post's online screwup.

Brady said the Web site had prepared three different versions of the headline and story summary--on Edwards suspending his campaign, dropping out or staying in--so that it could move quickly once the candidate announced his plans. Brady still isn't sure how the mistake happened.

"It was not an error of journalism," he said. "It was an error of production . . . Nobody knows how it got up because nobody hit the publishing button," Brady said.

Leonard Downie Jr., the newspaper's executive editor, said he was upset that the newsroom was not notified. "This was a big story," Downie said. "The fact that we had a wrong report up for 51 seconds--even though it was unintentional--should have been known to us in the newsroom."

Brady said he learned of the foulup early yesterday afternoon after a tip had been carried on the Media Bistro blog Fishbowl DC.

"The mistake I made was in not alerting people that it had happened because it was a high-profile story," Brady said. "We should have been up front."

Fishbowl DC posted a screen shot of the erroneous washingtonpost.com headline this morning. Brady said his staff is investigating possible defects in their publishing tools to prevent a recurrence.

"At least we know we have a problem with the tool now," he said, "but that's not the way I'd prefer to find out about it."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company