Corrections and changes can’t be clandestine

In the bad old days of paper-only journalism, you couldn’t change the text in an already-printed story, but at least newspapers almost always ran the correction in the same spot (usually, a box on A2 quietly dreaded by all in the newsroom). We’ve now flipped around the problem: It’s trivially easy to fix a story that’s already online, but you can no longer count on getting notice that it was corrected.

WordPress update buttonAnd while I’d much rather see stories get updated early and often to fix mistakes and incorporate breaking news, to do so without telling the reader you changed them is… kind of a lie. It suggests that you never made any mistakes in the piece when you really did. And since somebody will always notice the change, if not take a screengrab of the original copy, you risk trust rot setting in among readers.

Ideally, the content-management systems in use at news sites would automatically time-stamp each update and let readers browse older versions, as you can with the “View history” button on any good wiki. But some three years after online-journalism pioneer Scott Rosenberg urged just that and heralded the arrival of a WordPress plug-in to automate public revision tracking, I see few sites following that practice. More often, the bad copy goes down the memory hole.

If you run your own site, the lack of built-in version-browsing can’t stop you from telling readers you changed the copy–just strikethrough the offending text if it’s a minor fix or add a date- or time-stamped note to the end of the piece calling out the correction. (Since WordPress.com doesn’t provide a way for readers to compare revisions like what blog admins get in the editing interface, that’s what I do here.) That’s also how I handle things at the few freelance clients that allow me to sign into their CMS.

What do you do if you lack that access and a “CX” might otherwise go unremarked? Here’s my fix: Once your editor updates your post, leave a comment on it, linked back to a page or social-media account publicly recognized as you, that notes the error and the correction. Readers may not see that comment, especially if some relevance algorithm hides it by default, but at least you’ve documented the change in the closest possible spot to the original mistake.

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You may not need a fact-checker, but you do need an editor

Once again, journalistic ethics is in the news. This week’s crime is a Newsweek cover story by British historian Niall Ferguson–a 3,300-plus-word screed against President Obama marred by frequent inaccuracies and lapses of logic.

(The most obnoxious example is Ferguson claiming that the Affordable Care Act would increase the federal debt by only citing its estimated effect on one category of expense and ignoring its projected savings elsewhere; a tax accountant with that mindset could land me in jail. For a fuller debunking, see The Atlantic’s Matthew O’Brien, the Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias, and Foreign Policy’s Daniel Drezner, among others.)

This discussion has led to a round of reminiscing about the vanishing role of the fact-checker–see, for instance, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic post. If only Newsweek hadn’t sacked its fact-checkers in 1996, this argument suggests, the magazine would not have shredded its credibility by publishing such an embarrassing article.

I know a little about fact-checking: My first two jobs in journalism were internships that centered around fact-checking lengthy “think pieces” for Foreign Policy magazine (then owned by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, now a Washington Post Co. property). It was tedious work: You’d print out a draft of a story, take out a red pen or pencil (memory fails me there) and underline and sequentially number every objectively verifiable detail. On a separate sheet, you’d cite your source for each item.

(You can see a recreation of this process in the photo above.)

The process generally worked, allowing writers to advance different interpretations of the same verified set of facts. The work also taught me about properly documenting my own research, something I hope is obvious in my compulsive linking–not that it’s stopped me from making the occasional stupid error.

But it shouldn’t take a dedicated fact-checker to keep a laughably off-base piece from getting published. All you need is a decent editor.

Editors should be reasonably well-grounded in the field a reporter covers to tell a writer to find a better source, address an unanswered question or mention a relevant historical factor. But even somebody parachuting onto a desk should still possess a BS detector sufficient to flag when a story’s logic gets nowhere near proving its thesis. If you can’t or won’t apply those entry-level skills–no, having a name-brand contributor or calling the piece “opinion” doesn’t excuse you–then what are you doing in front of the keyboard?

Two things I hate about tech journalism this week

It’s been an awkward week for tech bloggers, and for this post.

I’d meant to start this piece by complimenting TechCrunch alumnus M.G. Siegler for nailing the traffic-besotted worldview that has too many tech-news sites wasting their collective processor cycles on hasty, shallow write-ups chasing the same trending topics each day. That is a formula for failure: commodity content written by burned-out journalists, skimmed by transient readers who click on to the next site moments later. (In the bargain, many of these stories wind up being surrounded by generic remnant ads that make hardly any money–and sometimes turn out to be an outright scam.)

Except Siegler also felt compelled to devote a huge chunk of the post to bashing one writer not known for chasing page views–the New York Times’ Nick Bilton.

Bilton had just written a post denouncing the photo-sharing startup Path for its hitherto-undocumented habit of uploading iPhone users’ address books to its servers without permission–and the quick forgiveness Path found among Bay Area tech types. Path founder Dave Morin hasn’t made much noise since the story broke. But Siegler felt compelled to wield his keyboard on Morin’s behalf anyway, calling Bilton “way off base” and saying “he goes about it the complete wrong way” before categorizing pretty much everybody else’s tech coverage as “stories that suck and/or are bullshit.”

Oh, and Siegler had already invested in Path through CrunchFund, the venture-capital firm TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington founded before getting kicked out of that tech-news site by the company he’d sold it to for $30 million, AOL. And a day before, Siegler’s old and new colleague Arrington had written an even more scathing review of Path coverage, including a weird overdose of dogfight imagery. Then Arrington revisited the topic the next day.

I can’t endorse that ongoing pity party for Path.

Then Newsweek’s Dan Lyons–often a stranger to subtlety himself–felt compelled to return fire with a post condemning Siegler and Arrington and the whole insiderish culture of Silicon Valley. That quickly yielded a spittle-flecked reply from Siegler… aren’t you tired of reading this already?

Meanwhile, an old Post colleague I never met died yesterday while trying to tell the truth in a country whose government is busy murdering its citizens. If you want to be upset about something in journalism, read about Anthony Shadid.

Back to the original point I had in mind, which still stands: When story assignment is driven primarily by what pieces will get the most clicks, news organizations invite a comparison to content farms. And things don’t have to be that way: See Salon editor Kerry Lauerman’s account of how that embattled news site has found that fewer, higher-quality, more-memorable stories draw more traffic.

At the same time, tech journalism doesn’t need the high-school-cafeteria cliquish crap we’ve seen this week. It’s made for some good-natured humor, but readers shouldn’t care about any of these slapfests. And journalists should know better. Seriously: Who has the sheer egotism to think that a reporting-free rant on a personal blog about somebody else’s reporting is worthy of attention? And I, for one… oh, hell. I think I see what I did here.

I await your scorn in the comments. Or in my chat on CEA’s blog, from noon to 1 p.m. today.

(2/17, 11:12 a.m. Fixed some errant links. Don’t you hate it when ranting bloggers can’t even check their work before posting?)

Not how journalists act

Journalism is not the best-understood work ever, and the movies haven’t always helped people to understand this strange occupation. The more sensationalistic among them would have you believe that we bribe sources for information, pay off critics to get them to shut up, and break into places to collect evidence.

For years, I’ve had to tell sometimes skeptical friends and family members that real journalists don’t do that. We are generally uncouth, sometimes lazy and screw up in plenty of other ways–not least when we drop stories because they seem too complicated or might make readers think we’re taking sides–but we don’t act like common criminals.

And now one of the biggest media companies in the world has made a liar out of me.

News Corporation’s British subsidiary, News International, is credibly accused of doing all of those things and more: bribing police for evidence, buying the silence of victims of its coverage and hacking into the voicemail systems of potentially thousands of individuals, including soldiers killed in action overseas and a murdered 13-year-old girl. It since appears to have tried to erase evidence of its own guilt. (If the Wikipedia entry is too long, the Poynter Institute and Pro Publica have posted more concise summaries of what’s gone down so far.)

Even by the sketchy standards of U.K. tabloid journalism, this is appalling conduct. Then consider that News International was so influential that police and politicians not only declined to press investigations but went out of their way to give jobs to former News executives, and we are approaching James Bond villain territory.

News Corp., as you may have heard, owns quite a few media properties in the United States. I don’t rank any of them near the level of its now-shuttered News of the World tabloid, but it’s sad enough to see the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page range from whiny to delusional on this issue while Fox News commentators try to pretend that this isn’t a story at all. That conduct suggests an organizational difficulty with looking in the mirror.

(Note that the Fox affiliate in D.C., WTTG, has had me on its news shows to talk about tech topics numerous times.)

I still say that this isn’t how real journalists behave, and I can testify that I never heard of any sort of News International-style abuse in my 17 years at the Post. But can I blame you if you now doubt me?

The ethics of speaker’s fees

I spent much of last Thursday on my feet in front of an audience, and I haven’t been paid for it–yet. That may or may not be a problem, depending on your definition of journalistic ethics.

The occasion was a Google-hosted conference called Innovation For The Nation, set up to “discuss and debate how technological forces impact the evolution of work and shape the way government agencies achieve their mission through collaboration and innovation in a 100% Web world.” (Were all that chatter to lead to increased adoption of Google Apps services by the Feds, I’m sure Google could live with that side effect.) I’d been asked to moderate some panels at this occasion by one of the people in Google’s D.C. office about two months ago.

This sort of invitation is easy for most journalists to accept. By serving as a panel moderator, you don’t have to take a side and can instead ask questions that show how smart you are; by doing so in front of a theoretically influential audience, you gain valuable exposure and networking opportunities. It’s such an accepted part of the business that the Washington Post has a Speakers Bureau that books staffers for engagements before “Nonprofit organizations, business, civic or community groups, libraries, schools or community centers.”

So–needing exposure and networking opportunities more than I did four months ago–I accepted Google’s offer and wasn’t too surprised to learn that they also wanted me to introduce some other speakers during the day. Then I had a new choice to consider: Would I accept a speaker’s fee for my time?

At the Post, the answer would have been simple: no. Instead, the Speakers Bureau pays employees a modest sum–$100 for a weekday event or $150 on weekends–that in my case ensured that I was underpaid for appearances at name-brand gatherings but overpaid for talks to local user groups. (Note that a few higher-up Posties have not always played by these rules.)

Now, though, I’m on my own. And that’s caused me to rethink this issue a bit.

These days, making public appearances isn’t just an act of public service for a reporter. It’s one of the things we do as part of this job, and one that’s immune to duplication over the Internet–the business-model term for it is “sell the scarcity.” But if I’d take compensation from, say, a professional group–the Post was fine with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association comping my lodging when I spoke at its annual conference in 2010–do I necessarily show my independence by providing the same service for free to a company that I happen to cover?

If you take the check–assuming it’s replacement-level-player compensation that the company would have paid to somebody to moderate their panels, which is what I believe Google is offering–at least it’s a straight business transaction instead of an act of charity.

Further, by accepting the invitation to moderate a panel at all, you’re already in a business relationship. The company or group involved gets a recognized speaker on stage; if you do your job right at the event, the value of the resulting personal publicity will outstrip any honorarium offered. (In my case, I got to banter about innovation and Internet architecture with the likes of author Steven Johnson and TCP/IP co-author Vint Cerf.)

Meanwhile, the real way companies get on a reporter’s good side is to provide information that leads to stories, preferably before other reporters get it. (From my perspective, Google has been doing a good job of that for some time now.) And in any case, journalism has a three-word mission statement: Tell the truth. You don’t have to know who I’ve done business with to judge whether my work met that standard.

I put my quandary to a private mailing list of journalists, and the replies overwhelmingly favored taking the fee. Summarized one writer: “Do the work, get paid, cash the check.” Even more to my surprise, two editors looking to send me work said they didn’t see an issue with my accepting the payment.

So did I take Google’s money? I haven’t decided yet–I need to hear from one other potential freelance client about its policies. So that gives you all a chance to share your thoughts on this. I can tell you one thing for sure, though: If I do get paid by a company, you’ll see it on the disclosures page I just added to this site.