Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Angry customers

In the world of journalism, we don't usually talk about customers. We mention subscribers, readers, letter writers and the occasional angry flame sender. But customers are rarely mentioned, primarily because we don't think of our readers as customers. So much of the publishing industry is about building a community of readers, of people interested in the same subject.
But today, something happened that got me thinking about customers from another perspective. I recently wrote, as a freelancer, a piece for a local metropolitan magazine. The piece focused on a local art scene and its use of recycled materials. I interviewed three local artists and told their stories. One of these artists made tables out of salvaged wood.
Now, I write a lot of things every day. Once I've finished something, I generally remove it from my mind, to the point that, unless there is a byline, I sometimes cannot even remember if I wrote the piece I am reading. I finished this art piece about three months ago, so I forgot most of what I put in it.
So when I received an angry e-mail from the table maker today, my first reaction was to expect that I'd goofed up somewhere along the line.
The e-mail accused my article of identifying the table makers as furniture recyclers, and associating them with a local salvage shop. I'm sure there have been far more egregious errors in the history of western civilization, but to this husband and wife table team, this was tantamount to murdering their first born.
I decided not to respond just yet, to wait to hear from my editor. When my editor did get in touch with me, I apologized for the mistake immediately, saying that I thought I'd said they used salvaged wood, not salvaged furniture to make their tables.
My editor responded by telling me that, in fact, the piece did say salvaged wood, and was 100 percent factually correct. What the table makers were upset about was the picture the magazine's photographer had taken of them outside a local salvage shop, with which they had no affiliation.
These people stood out there for the pictures and said nothing about how inappropriate the setting was for the image.
And yet, here I've spent all morning fretting over an error that wasn't my fault. I suddenly understood exactly what it feels like to be the head of IT support when an executive comes rushing down to scream about a lack of a floppy drive in his machine.

-- Alex Handy

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