On Tuesday, Dec. 12, The New York Times will print its 60,000th issue.
Readers of the newspaper will see this milestone reflected under The Times’s motto at the top of the front page: “Vol. CLXXIII …. No. 60,000.” (The volume represents our 173rd year of publication.)
A cake seems to be called for, but we are chary. Our celebration of the 50,000th issue on March 14, 1995, turned out to be more than a year premature.
The mistake was discovered in 1999 by Aaron Donovan, a 24-year-old news assistant whose job included updating the issue number. (The task is now automated.) Prompted by curiosity, Mr. Donovan figured out that The Times had inadvertently credited itself with 500 issues too many on Feb. 7, 1898, when the number jumped overnight from 14,499 to 15,000. The error went undetected for 101 years.
Allan M. Siegal, an assistant managing editor in 1999, decided that New Year’s Day would be the ideal moment to right the wrong and issue a correction. The paper of Dec. 31, 1999, was numbered 51,753. The next day’s paper, Jan. 1, 2000, was designated No. 51,254 — a reversion. Subsequent papers have followed the revised sequencing.
Mr. Donovan is now a deputy communications director of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Times Insider caught up with him by email and asked him to reflect on a discovery that has — in some small way — affected every single issue of The New York Times for nearly 24 years. The following exchange has been edited.
What, exactly, made you curious about the numbering system?
It was one of those “I wonder what would happen if …” moments, but proved to be much more interesting than expected. I thought it would be cool to see how it had tracked along with the progression of time, and decided to check it out.
After an initial calculation showed that the number of days that had elapsed since the founding of The Times did not correspond with that day’s issue number, the question became: Why not? It quickly became a very cool little mystery to unravel, using a century’s worth of microfilm and filling in known numbers on known dates to see how the discrepancy had evolved over time, mostly for reasons that were clear (like no papers being published on Sundays for a while).
Did you feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when the numbering sequence was finally corrected?
Is this at all like astronomer Jerry Ehman finding the “Wow! signal” in 1977 in a pile of computer printouts? No, that probably goes too far. But what strikes me the most about this is the sheer stroke of luck that it happened within a few weeks of New Year’s Day 2000. There couldn’t have been a more natural moment for The Times to make the correction.
What made it great was that everyone thought the finding was as cool as I did, starting with Al Siegal, who took an interest in my report, asked a number of follow-up questions, and wrote the correction that explained the numbering error.
Even though it was made a century earlier, he could have thought the error was an embarrassment. Or if he had been a much different person, he could have said: “Ehhh, who cares?” Or even, “Let’s just forget about this, all right?” Instead, he informed the other senior editors and they decided it was worth correcting. I think their decision to update the number was a good one. The extra attention adds to the mystique of the paper and underscores a commitment to accuracy.
Do you remain confident in your 1999 calculations?
I do and they should be eminently replicable. It’s a matter of plugging the date of the first issue into a spreadsheet, running some simple formulas, then making a few adjustments for one-time events like labor strikes, and for some recurring features during the early years when the paper was not published on Sundays and later when Sundays were treated as an extension of the preceding day’s paper.
My method was to do spot checks to narrow down to the point at which an anomaly occurred. So I can’t vouch for every issue in between.
Do you think The Times will make it to 70,000?
Is a world without the print edition of The New York Times even imaginable? The print edition survived the advent of radio, and then television, and surely both were predicted to have been its death knell. What’s the internet, after that?
So unless news starts being distributed by mind-meld, I am looking forward to opening issue No. 70,000, feeling it as a tangible object, turning from page to page and folding as necessary, scanning the headlines and articles and taking in that day’s news in a way that cannot be done on a screen. I currently calculate this as happening on Saturday, April 29, 2051.
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