More than two years ago, when I buzzed into the newsroom of The Times of London to start my graveyard shift as a sub-editor, Margaret Thatcher’s health was failing from the flu, and my ambition as a journalist was on life-support from a regular bout of editing obituaries for the digital edition. I didn’t realize it yet, but death would threaten us both that night.
As a fairly new American transplant to London, I worked on the newspaper’s iPad desk writing headlines, checking copy, cropping photos and posting digital content. It was The Times of London. I would have cleaned toilets just to gain entry. But, like many budding writers, my plan was to impress my boss with my brilliant wordsmithing and move up quickly to the features desk.
As I walked through the lift doors and into the modern sprawl of flashing computer monitors and focused journalists that autumn evening, the energy was palpable. The office air seemed infused with the potential for greatness. All I had to do was breathe it in and I felt emboldened, even to spend the next eight hours chopping and cropping the registry of the notable dead (or near dead).
That night, a few seconds after jumping knee-deep into the proverbial grave, my colleague, Hanna, leaned over and dropped a guillotine on my aspirations of graduating from the iPad desk.
I had killed Margret Thatcher, she said, by way of web site.
Ms. Thatcher, of course, had survived the flu the night before. However, a careless slip of my mouse 24 hours earlier had published a draft obituary to the paper’s web site—falsely announcing her death.. Oops.
My heart plummeted into my stomach, where it pounded like a bass drum. This was a blunder of international proportions. I went into panic mode, with a reel of potential headlines zinging through my mind.
Times of London Falsely Announces Thatcher’s Death.
Correction: Margaret Thatcher Not Dead, Sub Editor Fired.
I phoned Mike, a web editor, to face the consequences. Feigning calmness, I took slow deep breaths and experienced the sting of potential self-implosion, laced equally in the newsroom air along with all that potential greatness.
Mike was clearly not pleased, but he surprisingly found humor in the situation. The Times was the first major news organization in the UK to launch a pay-wall; traffic on the site in those days was pitifully low.
As far as he knew, only he and a couple of other editors had noticed the report, which was quickly taken down, that the longest standing British prime minister of the 20th century had died—but not really.
I apologized profusely and promised to take extra care when editing potential live ammo inside the digital platform. My adrenaline levels slowly dropped as I realized Mike wasn’t going to boot me. I had never been more thankful for low web traffic in my life. I put down the phone and let out a nervous laugh. I had killed Margret Thatcher. Who knew sub-editing obits could be so hazardous?
I left the paper in 2011 to have a baby, but this personal war story is one that will live on in my mind forever. Ms. Thatcher, may she finally rest in peace, holds a special place in my heart, not only as a formidable woman in world history, but also as a reminder to stay grounded, humble and uncomfortably focused on the details.
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