The last decade has been AWFUL for newspapers, magazines, and other publications. Declining ad revenue (a pox on you, Google!) has forced them to cut back, lay off staff, or close up shop completely. Still, if you’re trying to maintain a pulse and win back readers, you can’t do it by appearing careless and ignorant. That’s what my local newspaper did today.
I opened the paper to the “gardening section” (two articles pass for a “section” nowadays) and read a question from an anonymous reader asking the identity of an unusual red flower whose leafless stems seemingly pop up overnight in late summer and fall. The writer, a cooperative extension agent (who is becoming as rare as a newspaper reporter these days), correctly identified it as that old Southern passalong plant, the spider lily (Lycoris radiata). The writer then went on to tell readers how to grow it and other species of Lycoris. Fine and dandy.
Where Accuracy Matters
Too bad the paper didn’t read her description of the plant before printing the accompanying photo. Because the flower wasn’t red, it was white. And it wasn’t a species of Lycoris at all. Nope, it was another flower sometimes called spider lily, Hymenocallis carolinina. This is what it looks like.
Unlike the true spider lily, this one blooms in spring and early summer, not fall. Its flowers and leaves appear together. And IT’S WHITE. Oops.
How could this happen? You only have to look at the source of the photo: “File.” Someone who knows nothing about plants looked in an old file labeled “spider lily,” found a photo of the wrong one, didn’t run it past the writer, and since nobody else at the paper knows anything about plants either, they printed it.
Gardening Is Local
This brings me to my second big peeve about newspapers. Instead of hiring local freelance garden writers who know what grows in the area, they typically pull stuff from news services or syndicates written by people who live 1,500 miles away and know zero about what will grow for you. Grumpy, for example, lives in north-central Alabama. He does not require advice on the proper time to bury rose bushes for the winter in Duluth, Minnesota. (Yeah, that’s right. They dig trenches and bury them there.)
Plants are not light bulbs. They don’t work the same coast-to-coast.
Magazines like Southern Living aren’t immune from this either. I once wrote a story about how Mexican bean beetles had ravaged my bean crop. I submitted the story with a color print of a Mexican bean beetle. This bug is yellow with black spots. When the art director at the time opened a photo file labeled “Mexican bean beetle,” he discovered a slide of a Colorado potato beetle someone had put in there by mistake. Without asking me first, he ran the photo of the wrong insect, because he thought the orange-and-black striped Colorado potato beetle was prettier. Of course.
Yes, times are tough for all of us, but you don’t win an audience by looking like dimwits. So listen up, newspapers and magazines! If you’re going to write about gardening, YOU NEED PEOPLE WHO KNOW STUFF!