Last week started so innocently. As a result of an unexpected increase in page count and a staff in transition, I decided to make a fake front page for April Fool’s Day.
In the past, our sister papers in the Observer Media Group have had great success with their spoofs. I thought, “Why not? Let’s have a little fun.” I came up with a few stories that were somewhat believable, but also over-the-top enough that no one would be thoroughly fooled for long.
Boy, was I wrong.
After the paper came out on Thursday morning, I went to my weekly meeting at the county offices. There, a newspaper veteran who now works as the county’s communications manager, Carl Laundrie, let me in on a little clue: This was a no-good, horrible, bad idea. People are going to be calling the city offices, and they will be angry, he said.
As it turns out, people did call the city offices to complain about the “decision” to triple the red light camera fines. A lot of people.
All day, I fretted about the employees at the city's customer service desk, who have no influence on policy and are just doing their job. They got the brunt of the outrage from the community, and that made me feel rotten. (I have already apologized to them.)
Throughout Thursday and into Friday, some people told me they thought it was hilarious, and said the spoofs gave them a laugh at just the right time when they needed it. I was also called many names: irresponsible, ridiculous, immature, idiotic, cruel, etc.
Others have said the fake front page diminishes the newspaper's credibility in the future. I hope that will not be the case. We are back to normal, and the stories you see are, of course, not spoofs this week.
Why the red light story was so believable
Some readers laughed, others cried, other cursed when they say the top headline last week. Of all the reactions I heard, many had something in common: They believed the city might actually do something like this.
I’m sure that’s not something the City Council wants to hear. In fact, they might blame the Observer and the other local media for not doing a good enough job of telling all the good things the city does.
I accept that criticism. In fact, I think I trust the city more than most people do. I have been able to get to know many people on the city staff, and whenever I have heard a rumor about the city doing something that was unfair or illogical, there was always another side of the story. I can’t think of a single exception. Most of the time, when people see the worst in the city leaders, I believe, it’s because they don’t know the full story. And whose fault is that? Maybe we need to do a better job as a newspaper to tell that story.
And yet, there has to be some responsibility put on the readers themselves. I admit it: I was naïve. I thought people would get the joke immediately. And if they didn’t get it immediately, I believed they would certainly turn the page and see another “front page” on Page 3, and they would surely keep turning to Page 6 to get my explanation of the joke.
But many people didn’t turn the page. In fact, several people wrote letters to the editor based on the headline alone, without even bothering to read past the 100 or so words that fit on the front page. That was a wakeup call to me that people consume the news in a different way today than they used to. Our attention is pulled in many directions, and we have become satisfied with 140 characters’ worth of news, or one headline’s worth of news. But even the best writer in the world can’t tell the full story in a headline.
What to do about red light cameras?
All this talk of fake news leads me to a serious question: Are the red light cameras really worth it?
They have changed behavior, it is true. We know from the numbers of violations that fewer people are running red lights than they used to a few years ago. But I have heard from many people, including people writing letters to the editor over the years, that the cameras have changed behavior to the point that they feel paranoid driving around the city. They slam on their brakes at yellow lights, risking rear-end collisions. They take the long way, rather than going through intersections with cameras. And some people even claim to drive out of the city limits to shop.
Red light cameras reduce the city’s morale. They have caused a loss of faith in the city government.
In my view, that is a shame.
To fix it, I propose the city eliminate red light cameras. Proponents of the cameras will say the cameras make the city safer, and if we get rid of them, what message does that send about running red lights?
My solution is that, at the same time that we eliminate the cameras, the city should contract with the Sheriff’s Office to hire one or two more deputies in the city, and increase the number of shifts that the deputies spend monitoring intersections. Deputies would begin pulling people over for breaking the law, including turning right on red when someone fails to stop. If people started getting tickets from a real person, rather than from a camera, they would accept it with a different kind of attitude. I think they would pay the fine, and move on. We would still live in a safe community, but we could finally stop pointing fingers at the city government and being afraid of getting rear-ended.
How do we fix the red light camera problem? Unplug the cameras. Restore faith in the city leaders. Hire deputies. Drive safely, Palm Coast.
BOX: Facebook feedback
On Friday, April 4, I posted a photo of our fake front page and asked our 10,000 Facebook fans for their reactions. The picture got 107 likes and 32 shares, as well as about 37 unabashedly positive comments, 31 clearly negative comments, and 40 mixed. Below is a sampling:
Ken Gistedt Loved it. Would not surprise me though.
Jacky Abate- Cousin I had customers in my store yelling and screaming about it!!! Many MANY people believed it! Lol!!!
Connie Powell Melos I think that who ever is in charge of the Observer is an Idiot!!
Connie Powell Melos I volunteer with Developmentally disabled people here in palm coast and I think you should take into consideration who reads your paper, we also have a lot of Retired individuals who could have been effected by this stupidity !! Not to mention people barely paying there rent on time and struggling , when the part where it said they were going to raise the cost of the traffic light tickets!!! ....... I guess some of us are just more educated than others!!
Travis Karcher Although I must admit when first read the tripling red light fee headline I fell for it,mostly because it wouldn't surprise me if the city tried that. Don't give them any ideas,Observer!!!
Also judging by some of the comments people are still falling for your prank.
Bonnie Shook Esposito irresponsible journalism.
Michelle Heider Marks Sadly, the red light camera story was completely believable. It wasn't until I got to page 6 that I figured it out. Not saying much for a person's faith in the government of Palm Coast! Love the humor... if a person can't laugh they have a sad life!
Robbie J Carroll Actually I was hoping the red light camera story was true. Serves people right that don't know how to stop at a red light.
Jackie Ro Ku It was all in good fun but doesn't a newspaper ruin its credibility when it does this kind of joking thing?
Myriam Ferreira Varela I didn't actually see the headline but I heard about it through my husband, who complained and cursed over breakfast. Personally, I think that for a reputable news source, it was out of line to publish something like that in the front page. Although there's nothing wrong with a little humor, you don't dedicate the front page to a joke. A very unprofessional move on your part.
Mark Woods Lighten up, I think it was good humor. I don't think the PC Observer is trying to paint itself as the L.A. Times. A little fun is good for the soul. Love the windsock article! The real humor is the comments in this thread by people who still think the red light camera headline is true.
Kaiti Lenhart I thought it was hilarious and it came at a perfect time... I really needed a good laugh. I thought something was up with the $68K "used" windsock. LOL.
Alison Gilbert Scholin Loved it! So silly! The windsock story and the ant hill were hilarious! How much fun did you guys have with this one? Looking forward to next year's issue. Keep up the good work!!
Sharon Gibb Sejda Palm Coast version of Orson Wells War of the Worlds. I loved it. However I'm disappointed that Let It Go well not be the City Song.
Linda Rosas Ridiculous. Not professional at all
Ada Sheridan I feel it was Great ...What wrong with a little Humor? It only lets me know that the Palm Coast Observer is down to earth. Great Job to each and everyone at the Observer.
Jan Spence Would have been better ON april fools day...lost a little by being late.
Mario DiGirolamo I thought is was real! Why would I think otherwise?! Hmm. I don't know what to believe anymore.
Agnese Spicer Brian McMillan, do you call yourself a journalist? My son and his friend read the article about the giant ant hill. They rode their bicycles all the way from the VFW to Rte 1 and back looking for the ant hill. They got back home and told me they couldn't find it so we looked at the paper and saw on page 6 that your front page stories were nothing but a pack of lies. Is this April fools? My opinion would be nothing but incompetence. I'm very disappointed in our "local paper" and I don't want to see your garbage in my yard anymore.