October 1, 2003

Making journalistic mistakes in public

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
One 'disadvantage' of a news Web site like NewsForge that encourages readers to post responses to stories is that all our mistakes are immediately exposed. This scares many traditional journalists, who deliver monologues to their readers instead of engaging in an ongoing dialogue with them. The idea that a reader -- any reader -- can express an opinion or add material to a published article means that the reporters and editors responsible for that article give up some control over it. But I believe this is a necessary change in how journalism is practiced, and I'm proud to be part of it.

NewsForge writers and editors are as human as anyone else, so our work has bugs in it, just as programs written by our software developer readers often have bugs that aren't detected until their software is in the hands of end users.

Our method of dealing with our errors is to admit them openly, usually with an Update note in the first paragraph of a story, so that it shows on our front page, plus a note farther down that shows you exactly what part of the story we changed.

Not all Update notes are corrections; some reflect new information that came in since the story was first written. But we believe it is our job to tell you when we change a published story, not to hide the fact that we changed it.

Many changes and corrections we make are the result of reader feedback. Some of that feedback is kind, and some isn't. We don't screen readers' posts for civility, just for obscenity or blatant attacks on other readers (which we do not tolerate). Polite or rude, when readers are right, they're right, and we have an obligation to react when they are.

A story we write based on scant, early information about an event often generates enough informed feedback to make an entire new article. Most of that feedback, especially if it's from industry insiders, comes to us as email through editors@newsforge.com rather than as public posts. That's fine. We appreciate all the story tips we can get. We have fewer people working on NewsForge than some news sites have working on each section, so we rely heavily on readers like you for story suggestions and leads. In fact, we openly encourage you to write stories for NewsForge and Linux.com yourself.

Changes like this scare traditional journalists

The Internet obviously destroys the idea that only a 'professional journalist' can produce widely-distributed news. With blogs and personal sites all over the place, the concept of 'news' as a series of events that only become 'real' when they are noticed by reporters and editors from a limited group of media outlets has disappeared. The old comic's heckler putdown, 'Everyone's a comedian, huh?' now applies just as easily to journalism, and every day on the World Wide Web is like open mike night at the comedy club.

How would you feel if you were a newspaper reporter, and you found yourself consistently getting scooped in some areas by a bunch of people with little Web sites who never even studied journalism? Wouldn't you worry about your job?

Many do.

This fear has been an undercurrent at Society of Professional Journalists and Online News Association events I've attended. (The Online News Association is mostly composed of journalists who work 'on the Web' for traditional media outlets, not of journalists who work strictly online and are exploring the Internet's full possibilities; it is a sadly conservative group.)

If you were a local TV reporter or news producer, watching your audience slowly desert you, and watching more and more little specialty news Web sites spring up, wouldn't you be a little scared?

How about newspaper people? Online, they don't even have their traditional defense against competition: Geography. Back in the day, a newspaper's only competition was local. Now we can all go on the Internet and get our national and international news from top sources. Why should I get my news about Iraq or the latest Bush domestic policy moves from the Bradenton Herald when I can get the same information -- but faster and deeper -- from the New York Times or Washington Post? Or from CNN or BBC or any one of a thousand other world-class news organizations?

An obvious reaction for the Bradenton Herald and other local papers in smaller cities would be to concentrate more heavily on the niche they can fill better than the big-timers: Intense local coverage. But we still see national and international news taking precedence on most small newspapers' Web sites, and we rarely see any way for readers to directly add to a published story.

Most newspaper publishers and TV news producers still haven't grasped even a fraction of what the Internet can do for them, both good and bad, and as a result of this, yes, their jobs are in danger.

Fear of readers

NewsForge is both blessed and cursed with extremely intelligent readers. If we make even the tiniest error, someone will spot it. But a lot of the criticism and advice we get from our readers is stunning in its precision. We, the editors, are in a situation similar to a house painter working for someone who can do the work but is too busy to do it because of other obligations, and for that reason alone hires someone else to swing a brush.

Personally, I have always made the assumption that my job as a tech-specialist reporter and editor was to go get information readers would like to get but don't have the time to dig up for themselves. I do not assume that I have some special magic that sets me above the masses, especially NewsForge masses, who are about as smart a mass as you're likely to find.

I go to Linux User Group meetings and other tech-type gatherings regularly, and I listen to what people have to say. I am often the dumbest person in the room, not the smartest, which may not be proper journalistic ego but is the plain truth. Many of the people I interview for NewsForge stories are doing world-changing research or development of some sort. I'm just a guy with a pen and notepad who writes down what they say and passes it along. As long as I make accurate notes, do some decent background research, and spell all the names right, I've given you a competent story. This is craftsmanship, not art, more like building a simple brick wall than painting original murals on a cathedral ceiling.

I live in an information bazaar, you might say, rather than
preaching from a pulpit in a cathedral while wearing robes that set me apart from a bowed-headed congregation. I am not a Priest of the Information Age, in other words, and those who set themselves up in that position are the ones who have the greatest trouble adjusting to the open nature of the Internet as both news dissemination medium and as a research tool.

19th century journalism on the Internet

The funny thing is, journalism wasn't always considered a profession. It was regarded by most of its practitioners as a craft or trade until the second half of the 20th century, and not one that paid notably well, either. You could go to a humble rowhouse neighborhood in Baltimore in the 1920s or 1930s, and in the middle of a block inhabited by blue-collar workers stood the house of H.L. Mencken, commonly regarded as one of the greatest newspapermen of the last hundred years. He drank in local bars, too, with his fellow Hollins Street residents, and went to the same parades and other events they attended.

Mencken may be revered by journalism professors today, but he never went to college, and in many ways was a typical beer-loving resident of the rowhouse neighborhood where he grew up, known as 'Pigtown' because great herds of pigs were often driven through the streets to nearby slaughterhouses -- where many of Mencken's neighbors worked.

The reason Mencken was a successful newspaper writer and editor, beyond mastery of the English language gained through incessant reading, was the fact that he was part of the community for which he wrote, and got an earful from the drunks in the local bar if he got a fact wrong. Newspapers in the early 1900s were much more of a community phenomenon than they are now, with many newspapers in most cities, each of which had its own readers who felt they had a right to tell reporters and editors exactly what they thought of their work, often in obscene terms.

Before Mencken's time, when the vast majority of Americans lived on farms or in small towns, newspapers were even more tightly integrated with their communities. Often -- on smaller weeklies -- the editor, chief reporter, head ad salesperson, typographer, and printing press operator were the same person.

Starting a newspaper back then was a matter of buying a used printing press and some lead type, finding a likely town and renting a space on one of its main streets, then ordering some paper and ink. and selling ads and writing stories to justify putting the ink on the paper, and handing the finished product to local youngsters to deliver to subscribers or sell copy-by-copy to non-subscribers.

Since small newspapers' staffs were typically small, contributions from local writers and business people were eagerly accepted. Letters from readers often made up as much as 40% or 50% of some papers' total editorial copy. And in small towns, if a newspaper got a local story wrong or left something out, you'd better believe most residents would know about the mistake within a day or two and would make sure the editor was aware of that mistake, possibly by knocking on the door of his house at midnight to tell him.

NewsForge replicates that 19th century small-town newspaper in many ways, including its focus on local news. The only two significant differences are the change from physical printing and distribution to electronic communications, and that the NewsForge 'locality' is defined by common interests rather than geography.

In all other ways, really, NewsForge is just like a small newspaper 150 years ago.

And you, just like the readers of that small newspaper back then, may know more about some of what we cover than the reporters writing the stories and the editors who check them for accuracy.

And you, just like the readers of that small newspaper back then, should feel free to tell the reporters writing those stories and the editors who check them for accuracy about any mistakes you see or additional information that should be added to them.

And since NewsForge editors and reporters are humble craftspeople, not 'Media Priests' who set themselves up as superior to readers, your stories are just as welcome as anyone else's -- as are your comments and emails, which we always receive gratefully, even on days when we're too rushed to respond to them as thoroughly as we'd like.

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