Oops? Apollo 11 hit its mark, but did editors miss with headline for moon landing?

‘Moon, We’re Onto You’ headline inappropriate for historic event, some Times staffers felt
The front page of the St. Petersburg Times from July 21, 1969.
The front page of the St. Petersburg Times from July 21, 1969.
Published July 18, 2019|Updated July 18, 2019

Apollo 11′s historic rendezvous with the moon was front-page news around the world.

“Men walk on Moon” was blasted across the top of The New York Times. In the United Kingdom, The Times had a more measured “Man lands on the moon with perfect touchdown.”

In Pinellas County, St. Petersburg Times readers awoke Monday, July 21, 1969 to a front-page headline that struck a different tone: “Moon, We’re Onto You.”

The pun approach was criticized by some Times staffers, who said it was inappropriate for such a momentous event, said Bob Jenkins, the newspaper’s then wire desk editor.

Jenkins, now retired, said in hindsight, “maybe, yeah, we trivialized something too important to make light of.”

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The words, written by wire editor Larry Jolidon, had to be approved by editors well in advance of the moon landing, because the Times’ hot type machine could not make a banner headline. Instead, it was printed on a strip of paper that was photographed, enlarged and then engraved in a metal strip that was set on the page.

On the night of the moon landing, Times owner Nelson Poynter and the then-editor, Don Baldwin, sat in the newsroom watching the TV coverage. At one point, CBS’ Walter Cronkite held up a copy of the New York Daily News, which was topped with the same headline as The New York Times.

Poynter and Baldwin exchanged a long look, but it was too late to change the headline, Jenkins said.

If the Times’ top editors were embarrassed about the headline, it didn’t stop them from trying to turn a buck from it.

Over the next few days, the newspaper offered a high-gloss copy of the historic front page as a “fine keepsake.” The cost was 30 cents, or 60 cents to have it mailed in a protective tube to your home.

Years later, Jenkins came across a coffee-table book of front pages from that day. “Moon, We’re Onto You” was not among them.