Journalists should know by now that April Fool's items are not funny, but every year plenty go ahead with them anyway, and this year at least two lost jobs because of it. The Bakersfield Californian confirmed to The Atlantic Wire on Tuesday that freelance fishing writer Steve Merlo, who we mentioned in Monday's Sports Set, had been fired because of a joke column he filed about local wildlife managers importing a made-up species of 50-pound trout from India. Merlo had neglected to tell his editors that the item was a joke, and his editors had neglected to check it.
Also on Tuesday, Chelsea Diana, the editor of Boston University's student newspaper The Daily Free Press, resigned over a much more offensive "joke" story that ran on Monday. The AP describes it: "Monday's print-only edition led with 'seven frat dwarves' arrested for drugging and sexually assaulting a female student, 'the fairest of them all,' and a picture of Snow White's drink and a date-rape drug." This just a week after that Belvedere vodka ad that some felt looked like a rape in progress infuriated everybody who saw it and led to a lawsuit from the model. (Rape jokes aren't funny, people, even on April Fool's Day.)
Of course, the trout joke wasn't terribly funny either, but at least it stayed away from mocking sexual violence. But in addition to being unfunny, these joke stories had another crucial detail in common: They did not actually run on April Fool's Day. The Californian's trout item ran on March 30, and the Free Press's story ran on Monday. Running on April Fool's Day would be the most basic element of a successful April Fool's story, if there is such a thing. That, and not rape jokes.
Update (2:43 p.m. EDT): Bakersfield Californian executive editor John Arthur called to further explain the situation with Merlo: The fishing writer is a freelancer who had a weekly column he'd contributed to the Californian for about 10 years. "Let’s put it this way: He fabricated something in a column, he told us he had done it before, so we won’t be using him anymore," Arthur said. Merlo apparently told editors in a voicemail that he was in the habit of filing an April Fool's column each year. His fishing column usually contained a collection of small items, including the giant trout story last week.
Arthur said the paper discovered the trout story was a fake when he was reading through the copy for the March 30 edition the night before it ran and thought the item unique enough for its own news story. When he assigned a metro reporter to write it up in full, the reporter came back and said it didn't check out. "If we hadn’t done that he’d still be fabricating."
We've updated this story's lede to specify that Merlo was a freelancer.