I’m not sure what’s stranger about this story: That the New York Times managed to misnumber its issues from 1898 to 1999 — or that the story, originally mea culpa-ed by the Times, has just been revisited in The Atlantic.
But there it is. And at the center of the story is Aaron Donovan.
The 1994 Staples grad — whose current day job is media liaison for the MTA — was working then as a Times news assistant. For some reason he was interested in the accuracy of the paper’s issuing-number system. (Top left of Page 1, if you still read the dead-tree version.)
According to The Atlantic, Aaron learned that in the 1st 500 weeks since its founding on September 18, 1851, the Times published no Sunday issue.
Then, for 2,296 weeks from April 1861 to April 1905, the Sunday issue was treated as an extension of the Saturday paper, bearing its number. In the early days, the paper skipped publication on a few holidays.
No issues were published for 88 days during a strike in 1978. (During five earlier labor disputes, unpublished issues were assigned numbers, sometimes because catch-up editions were later produced for the archives.)
Finally, by scanning books of historic front pages and reels of microfilm, Mr. Donovan zeroed in on the date of the 500-issue gap.
It was February 6-7, 1898. A worker looked at the previous day’s number — 14,499 — and turned the next issue into 15,000. Not 14,500.
For over a century, no one noticed.
On the 1st day of 2000, the Times corrected the error. It noted that when it congratulated itself for its 50,000th issue on March 14, 1995, the gun was jumped by a year and a half. The actual 50,000th was July 26, 1996.
“There is something that appeals to me about the way the issue number marks the passage of time across decades and centuries,” Aaron said at the time. “It has been steadily climbing for longer than anyone who has ever glanced at it has been alive.”
The Atlantic has finally retold the tale.
Now “06880” has too.