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In a glitchy online world, news site glitches do happen, and here’s a story to freeze your computer screen as we speak.

A few weeks ago, a man in Manhattan read an op-ed in the New York Times online, and feeling he had something to say in response, he did what a lot of people do these days: he wrote a letter to the editor. And send it in by email.

Of course, the Times receives over 500 letters to the editor every day, most by email nowadays, and the editors have to find 3 or 4 letters that “fit.” Remember, the Times is that newspaper and website that prints “all the news that’s fit to print.” If it ain’t fit to print, your letter will not make the grade and will get tossed. This happens to about 497 letter writers every day.

Confession: in over 40 years of writing letters to the editor of the New York Times, I have never once succeeded in getting even one short letter published. Never. I know scores of people nationwide with the same story. The letters section gatekeepers have strict standards and sharp eyes for the kind of letters they want. Everyone else, keep out.

So this gentleman in Manhattan writes his letter to the editor, pushes “send” and off it goes. He has never had a letter to the Times published before, but this time he is hopeful. A week goes by. Nada. Then one day, while is out, a voicemail message comes over the wires to his office phone with a message from the Timers letters section saying that his letter has been accepted for publication and can he please call back to confirm his identity. The Times is rigorous in its checking of letter writer’s identities, since it is easy to use a fake name and address with email these days, with no postmark or return address.

But my friend in Manhattan is busy and he never calls the Times back. He just assumes they will use his letter since his office phone did ring and it was the same number he gave them by email. He never sees his letter in the newspaper or online over the next few days, but then one afternoon he gets an email from a reporter in Taiwan – this reporter — who saw the man’s letter printed in the New York Times in a newspaper I was reading in a hotel lobby in Taipei.

Only the newspaper which printed his letter was not published in the USA, and it was not called the ”New York Times”. His letter was published in the print edition of a newspaper in Paris, a Times affiliate called the “International New York Times.” When I told him the news, he was elated that his letter appeared in print but at the same time he was perplexed how and why his letter that sent to the Times in Manhattan about a news story about the American education system ended up printed in Paris (where the same news article was also printed, since both papers now share the same computers).

Welcome to the world of computer glitches, even for simple letters to the editor pages. Smelling a scoop, I wrote to the Times editors in both New York and Paris to try to find out how this all transpired.

“Yeah, this is very odd,” a friendly Times editor in Manhattan told me by email. “I passed your inquiry along to the staff in Paris.  I do know that our editorial and op-ed editors are now in charge of the INYT — at least in the big picture.  I assume there are editors in Paris who produce the pages.  I’ll be curious to hear how this happened. The main thing, which you pointed out, is that we never publish a letter without verifying it.  At least that is the NYT policy. I will let you know if I hear anything.”

The editor did let me know, in Internet time, and this is what I found out about this cautionary tale: The original letter was indeed sent to the New York office where it was logged in and okayed for publication. However, there was not enough space in the domestic edition to run the letter, so the New York staffer sent the letter to Paris where the INYT ran the letter for all Europe and Asia to see, and it also referred readers to the specific news story the letter was referring to.

What happened is this: what the domestic paper could not use for reasons of space, the international paper — a separate beast but part of the New York Times family — could use and did. The letter writer himself was pleased to hear the news, although a bit perplexed about how it all happened.

So let this be a wake up call for all future letter writers to newspapers online. Your letter may not be published in the place where you aimed it. Chalk it up to a computer glitch, or shared computer files, or the serendipitous nature of Lady Luck. In a wired world, all the news that is fit to print does not always end up where it was intended to be printed. You might have new readers far away in Paris and Taipei. And why not? No harm done.

Editor’s Note: The image I used makes its way around Tumblr frequently, and I apologize, but I couldn’t trace it back to original giffer. If anyone knows, let me know, and I’ll give credit.

 
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