Newspapers Need People Who Know Stuff

August 18, 2013 | By | Comments (13)
Spider lily

The leafless flower stems of red spider lilies (Lycoris radiata), also known as naked ladies, will be popping up in gardens this fall. Photo by Steve Bender.

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.

hymenocallis Newspapers Need People Who Know Stuff

Photo: Missouri Botanical Garden

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.

Full Disclosure
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!

COMMENTS

  1. Janie Smith

    There’s nothing to add. You said it all! Wish you lived in South Carolina and wrote gardening columns for our unique state!

    August 18, 2013 at 1:17 pm
  2. robert randolph

    Common names for plants have been a source of dread for years before computer files. As a designer it’s seen as boorish to use botanical names but it’s necessary in these moments.

    August 18, 2013 at 3:08 pm
  3. Michelle

    I enjoy your articles and deeply respect your knowledge, Grumpy. But you can’t give advice on not looking like a dimwit and have a bunch of typos at the same time!

    August 18, 2013 at 3:21 pm
  4. Grumpy

    My dimwit computer is at fault. This is the only logical explabtion.

    August 18, 2013 at 4:49 pm
  5. Grammar Cop

    This article could have used a good editor, too. “Corrective”?? “How it grow it”??

    August 18, 2013 at 4:58 pm
  6. Alka

    Agreed. My major metropolitan newspaper dropped its copy editors to save money. Now I find several typos a day. It’s ridiculous. We don’t even have a gardening section, we have a gardening column (and I think our city would make two of Birmingham), and the food section is imported from papers who share the same service. So we have food columns, in the South, written by and for people in Seattle, New York, Miami, nearly everywhere but here. Incredible.

    August 18, 2013 at 5:40 pm
  7. Dea Van Patten

    Oh, Grumpy, I share your pain. Here in the Houston area, we used to have *The Houston Post* as well as *The Houston Chronicle*, and both had large and interesting garden SECTIONS. Now we only have the *Chronicle* and its garden “section” consists of one article weekly called “On Gardening” by Kathy Huber, who is (thank goodness) a local and informed gardener. Its just a Q&A column, but usually has some good info in it. Newspapers need people who know stuff, but they also need people who READ stuff!

    August 18, 2013 at 7:53 pm
  8. Debbie Fowler

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    August 19, 2013 at 7:50 am
  9. Steve Bender

    Hey, eagle-eyed peeps, several of you have pointed out that my original post had some typos in it. After I sheepishly went back and corrected those, I read my column again and (gasp, choke, lose consciousness), discovered a couple more. Here’s the thing. As any writer will tell you, a good copy editor is a guardian angel. Mine at Southern Living is Ms. Libby Minor, who has not slept in the last 7 years for fear she might have missed something. Unfortunately, I usually write “Grumpy Gardener” at home and Libby isn’t around to save me. If she were, this would be ALL HER FAULT. Thank you, readers, for your tolerance and absolution.

    August 19, 2013 at 9:24 am
  10. Arthur in the Garden!

    Wonderful!

    August 19, 2013 at 12:00 pm
  11. Linda Christine

    You have made my day with the post about gardens half way across the country and advise on gardening from them…You, Rebecca and Gene are true professionals who write such great articles….Our local paper once had a very dedicated lady who wrote each week and they paid almost zero for her wonderful articles and then more budget cuts and no longer in paper which was such a loss…our local paper is 99 percent ads. So sad.

    August 19, 2013 at 5:35 pm
  12. Steve Bender

    Sadly, Linda, this is the way it’s going.

    August 23, 2013 at 2:54 pm
  13. Colin McKnight

    I think we have a chicken-or-the-egg scenario here. I was driven to read more blogs because the local paper contained so little material. Papers up north can be 99% ads too, Linda. My dream for the big Powerball payoff was to hire an additional reporter for each of the local papers and TV stations and send them out to find some real news. And heaven help them if they came back with fluff. We have constitutional priviledges based on a free and independent press, and are now living with a press that is obsessed with feeding us the latest on Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. This does not bode well.

    August 27, 2013 at 3:50 pm