Archive for Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Woodling: Editor does KU proud

April 12, 2005


Mitch Albom is in hot water. Nikki Overfelt isn't. In fact, she reluctantly is enjoying her 15 minutes of fame.

Have you heard the controversy surrounding Albom? He's the talented and respected sports writer for the Detroit Free Press who also has churned out two non-sports books that have become best-sellers -- "Tuesdays With Morrie" and "The Five People You Meet in Heaven."

Who is Nikki Overfelt? She's a sports writer and copy editor for the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune who graduated in May from Kansas University.

What does Overfelt have to do with Albom? Let's begin at the beginning.

In anticipation of the NCAA Final Four in St. Louis, Albom interviewed former Michigan State basketball players Jason Richardson and Mateen Cleaves about the upcoming semifinal game between the Spartans and North Carolina.

The two told Albom they planned to attend the game, so Albom, filing a column Friday -- a day before the game -- wrote, and copy editors did not change, that Richardson and Cleaves had flown in for the game and were in the stands dressed in Michigan State green during Saturday's game. The column appeared in Sunday's Free Press.

Oops. Richardson and Cleaves had to change their plans, and neither showed in St. Louis. Consequently, Albom wore some serious egg on his face.

The next day, the Free Press printed an apology from Albom and a front-page letter from editor and publisher Carole Leigh Hutton promising an investigation. The News, Detroit's other newspaper, quoted Hutton as being "furious" at the "ridiculous" mistake.

Until the investigation is completed, Albom is under suspension. Meanwhile, the copy editors who allowed the fabrication to slip are walking on eggshells.

Soon after the gaffe, the Chicago Tribune did a survey of all the newspapers that had picked up Albom's column from the Knight-Ridder Syndicate and found that only one -- the Duluth News Tribune -- had changed the wording.

And it was Overfelt who had done it.

"It wasn't that big a deal," she told me by phone. "I've been telling people that I hope they don't think I've done a huge thing."

Overfelt was working the sports copy desk that Friday night and was troubled when she saw that Cleaves and Richardson were reported being at a game that hadn't been played.

"I was kind of waiting," she said. "I thought they'd send something about not releasing the column until Sunday, but nothing came, so I changed the tenses."

Overfelt reworded Albom's copy to read that the two players "will be" at the game and "will sit in the stands."

Asked about Overfelt's decision, News Tribune executive editor Rob Karwath told the Chicago paper: "What Nikki did was the logical thing to do. I'm pleased with what she did, given what I know about the situation."

Malcolm Gibson is pleased, too. Gibson is the general manager and news adviser of The University Daily Kansan.

"I'm thrilled for her," Gibson told me. "She was a great student when she was here, and she's a helluva good writer, too."

Overfelt, an Olathe South High graduate, accepted a job with the Duluth paper last spring because she wanted to cover hockey. While a KU student, she had covered the Topeka ScareCrows for the Capital-Journal.

"I loved it. I loved covering hockey," she said. "My mom was a little worried about it being cold up here, but she came up and it wasn't that bad. It is cold, though. I'm covering prep golf right now, and they still haven't gotten outside."

Overfelt covered girls high school hockey and basketball during the winter, and when she wasn't assigned to a game she was sitting at the sports copy desk churning out pages.

Now, she's receiving congratulatory phone calls and e-mails from her KU contemporaries as well as questions from other newspapers. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune called her Monday.

"They wanted to know if I was the one who discovered the mistake," she said. "I wasn't. I didn't know about it until they (the Free Press) sent out a corrective."

Overfelt may not have known it, but the Fourth Estate now knows about her.

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