One of the first things I learned as a rookie reporter was to ask everyone I interviewed how to spell their names and what their middle initials were. Who cared about the middle initial? Mostly, nobody. But obtaining it, the reasoning went, was a sign — to both the interviewee and, later on, your readers — that you cared about the details and could be trusted to get them right.
I still care about details and aim to spell names right. Mostly, I don’t bother with middle initials any more. Still, I take note when I see a Web writer who does. So I perked up while I was reading a breezy but lengthy piece titled “Die, Newspaper, Die” by
Mark Morford, a columnist at SFGate, the Web site of the foundering SF Chronicle. In his piece, Morford attempts to sum up the latest round in the Web’s discussion of post-newspaper journalism. He comes down on all sides at once, but with a definite leaning towards the value of the old pros, the sort of reporters who still bother to ask for middle initials:
In the howling absence of all the essential, unglamorous work newspapers now do — the fact-checking, interviewing, researching, all by experienced pros who know how to sift the human maelstrom better than anyone, and all hitched to 100+ years of hard-fought newsbrand credibility — what’s the new yardstick for integrity?
Alas, if including middle initials, and getting them right, is one of those yardsticks, Morford comes up short. For some reason, in referring to Steven Johnson — the widely known writer, founder of the pioneering Feed magazine and more recently Outside.in, and author of a currently much-discussed post on the new journalism ecosystem — Morford calls him “Steven P. Johnson.”
Now, getting a middle initial wrong could happen to anyone. But in Steven’s case, the man’s URL — at stevenberlinjohnson.com — includes his middle name. Morford even links to it.
A tiny thing, no doubt. But in a column whose title is “Notes and Errata,” it really made me wonder how much of that “100+ years of hard-fought newsbrand credibility” is left to salvage.