In the Loop

Mesabi Daily News: Playing along on April Fools (and is there anything wrong with that?)

Posted at 10:55 AM on April 1, 2008 by Jeff Horwich (4 Comments)

I posted last week about a fake PR campaign from Ely, MN, threatening to move to Canada. It's dated April 1. While it's a clever idea, well executed, I think I ended the post with something like "God help any small-town newsroom that chases this."

(Courtesy of Jennifer Weismann)
An Iron Range paper, the Mesabi Daily News in Virginia, has a substantial write-up (free reg. required) on the story today -- not about the PR campaign, but parroting the April Fools story itself: "Canada eying purchase of Ely, eh?"

The reporter, Angie Riebe, adds her own material to the press release:

Ely Mayor Chuck Novak was stunned by the chamber's incredible announcement. "I'm not really sure whether it's real or not," he said. "I've had several phone calls from a lot of people inquiring about a potential offer to buy the city, but I have no document at City Hall."

Novak said he was awaiting the next delivery of mail to see if anything official had arrived. "Until then, I don't know what to do." He said he would seek the advice of council members and "walk around and ask our citizens" for their input. "We have to figure out what position to take as a City Council," Novak said. "I don't think anyone on the council would entertain the position to sell the city."

(Local businessman Blayne) Hall said his customers have been concerned about the situation. "Everybody's been calling to find out if they need to change their money before coming up and if they need passports."

The online article is followed by some reader comments that suggest they get the joke (and complimenting Riebe on her article).

Here's the good news: The Mesabi News wasn't bamboozled by a PR campaign. The worst-case scenario is that some understaffed newsroom misses the April Fools angle, gets Punk'd themselves and just runs the release. (Anybody seen this happen?)

But this brings up some of the same issues April Fools raises for journalists all over. Once a year, we take the same faith we work to build with our readers/listeners the other 364 days and abuse it, mostly for internal chuckles. (This year NPR's was a story about portable zip codes.)

I'll admit, I've always been a little uncomfortable with it. And I can tell you there are vast differences of opinion within the journalistic world. Then again, does the audience really mind? Are some of us pumping too much importance into our sacred trust?

The Mesabi Daily News example adds an additional wrinkle: What's it say when your April Fool's joke is served up by a PR firm? It says the PR folks have you right where they want you. (I did say it was a clever campaign. They've even got folks like me and the Pioneer Press writing about it as a meta-thing.)

Readers, weigh in.

Comments (4)

I dunno, Jeff.

As some who is annually bamboozled by April 1 shenanigans (I'm an easy mark, I guess) and who generally digs this "holiday," I can see the appeal for journalists of pulling a mass prank on their audiences. It's probably gotta feel pretty exhilarating. At most, the stories come and go in a day (or two, if they're really well constructed and executed), and no one's worse for the wear.

The question for journalists is this: How much do you trust your audience?

If you think they can figure it out on their own, go ahead. If you think they're not going to get it, hold off.

And maybe spend the inches or airtime making your readers or listeners smarter, so next year they’ll get the joke.

Posted by atom | April 1, 2008 4:07 PM

Good points, Atom. Maybe my hesitation comes from the fact that I, too, can be taken. The NPR story has often gotten me in the past, if I'm not really thinking about what day it is.

When Radio Lab came through town last year and did their live show at the Fitzgerald about War of the Worlds, they made a big deal about how stunning it was that so many people (actually, it was like 1 in 12 who heard the broadcast, but never mind) could be bamboozled.

And it made me think of the NPR April Fools tradition. Is it really such a mystery that -- after spending every moment trying to build trust, getting people to believe you're looking out for their right to legitimate information -- you can take them for a ride when you apply the exact same sound and techniques to some fake information? No. And sure, it's all in fun, but you're taking that trust and using it against your listeners.

Same goes for War of the Worlds. They did their very best to mimic the cadences of a regular radio broadcast. It was ingenious. But is it some kind of wonder that some people bought it? Heck no.

Posted by Jeff Horwich | April 1, 2008 4:29 PM

So, apparently I'm an idiot. I was completely fooled. But after it was explained to me in great detail that this was an "April Fools Prank," I thought it was the funniest thing that's ever happened on the Range. I give the Mesabi Daily News a big thumbs up for having such a good sense of humor on a fun day. And any journalist who would question whether it was right or wrong to do such a thing on April 1st, seriously needs to lighten up. It was harmless, and hilarious. Nobody likes a boring writer anyways...

:-) Way to go MDN and city of Ely, I was Punk'd!

Posted by Rae | April 2, 2008 1:16 AM

Just enjoyed reading the comments, and have to admit to believing a story I heard back in the 1980s: that the U.S. had decided to sell the state of Arizona to Canada. It was my first experience with All Things'April Fools stories, and I immediately shared that news with everyone!

Posted by Barbara | April 2, 2008 1:32 PM

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