Last month, the hardworking gang at Politico got into a dustup with critics after an editor made a change in an already-posted story. The story was about the Rolling Stone/General McChrystal affair; the change removed a phrase that described how beat reporting works; the phrase had drawn considerable attention, and so did its disappearance.
I’m not going to add to the volume of commentary on that affair. I’m interested here in the larger issue of the mutability of online content, and how responsible news organizations deal with it.
A story posted at Slate yesterday sheds considerable light on this issue, in the course of making a few stumbles of its own. (The story includes quotes from a recent post I wrote about best practices in online corrections.) It’s remarkable that, after 15 years of Web publishing experience, we haven’t gotten better at handling changes to news published online. Before this post is done, I will offer a straightforward, concrete proposal for doing so.
Any news organization that strives to present a version of reality to its readers or users must come to grips with the fact that reality is always changing. Print publications have always taken daily, weekly or monthly snapshots of that reality, and everyone understands the relationship between the publication date and the information published under it. Radio and TV offer a closer-to-live reflection of the ever-changing news reality, but until the Web’s arrival their content was so fleeting that the new update pretty much obliterated the old version of any story.
The Web changes all of this. It is both up-to-the-minute and timeless — ephemeral and archival. This offers newsrooms a fundamentally different opportunity for presenting timely story updates while honoring and preserving the record of previous versions. Sadly, not a single news organization I’m aware of has yet taken advantage of this opportunity.
Instead, what we have is a big mess, with publications tripping over the distinction between revisions and corrections, and readers left to harbor suspicions of deception.
Politico got into trouble because, during the course of what it apparently viewed as a routine update, it changed a passage that (some of) its readers saw as significant. Worse, it provided no notice of the change.
Nothing presses the public’s Orwell alarm faster than altering a published or posted text without copping to the revision. If the text is the subject of criticism, even worse.
But of course, on the Web, everything is the subject of criticism. Editors and reporters rarely keep up with the full extent of the arguments over their work. Therefore, they should assume that some reader somewhere is likely to care about any change they might make. Be careful with the changes!
The problem is that changes are necessary and desirable. Changes are how you keep up with reality. We have to allow stories, especially breaking or running stories, to evolve. But journalism, thus far, has offered us only two models for doing so. The dominant one is the old wire-service model: There is one story that represents the latest reality, and it’s regularly updated to reflect new developments. Traditionally, wire services shared these stories with their newsroom customers. Newsrooms would either grab the latest version at deadline and print it, or use the running reports as the basis for broadcast updates.
Unfortunately, this approach is a disaster online. At best, it leaves the public confused about which version of the story is canonical: Where do I find the story I was reading a few minutes ago? If it’s different, how do I know what has changed? At worst, it saps readers’ trust, as Politico found.
At Salon, we learned some of these lessons during the Florida recount in 2000, and later after 9/11, as we struggled to perform the wire-service dance in a medium that’s ill-designed for it. What we should have done then, and what many smart sites have done since in similar situations, is embraced the second journalistic model for presenting changing stories: the blog format. It’s useful because the newest information is always accessible but it doesn’t obliterate the older stuff. But the blog structure falls down where the wire-service model excels — in offering readers an up-to-date, one-stop overview of a big story.
Back to the Slate piece, now. Intrigued by Politico’s admission, in the course of the McChrystal ruckus, that it often edits already posted stories without noting the changes, Slate’s Jeremy Singer-Vine undertook an investigation into Politico’s practices. He wrote a script to scrape the text of Politico’s stories at regular intervals after publication; this data would show how many Politico stories changed, and exactly how they changed.
The results — what I’d describe as a modest amount of mucking about, none of it hugely significant — are less interesting than what happened once Singer-Vine contacted Politico about the changes. It seems that the moment Politico’s editors realized that Slate was calling them on this practice, they scrambled to come clean. Most of the stories cited in Singer-Vine’s study now sport notices from Politico explaining that they’ve been changed. Singer-Vine, in turn, had to add a bunch of corrections to his own copy, since he’d originally took Politico to task for failing to come clean.
Slate — unlike Politico, whose editor apparently doesn’t believe in the value of an explicit correction policy — has long had forthright corrections practices; I think of it as one of the good guys in this realm. But in the course of making multiple small corrections to Singer-Vine’s piece, the magazine has now admitted that “we do not notify readers about minor corrections that we ourselves catch within 24 hours of publication.” Which I think means that Slate changes stories after they’re published without notifying readers — exactly what it is accusing Politico of.
Most editors will correctly argue that the average reader doesn’t want to know every time they fix a typo. On the other hand, editors can never know when a change they consider insubstantial — like Politico’s removal of the line about beat reporters — might seem underhanded to someone.
In sum: The Web lets us correct and update at will; it also insures that readers will question any change that isn’t acknowledged. But acknowledging every little change can lead to grotesque results. Singer-Vine’s piece illustrates this nicely. It is now striped with rows of correction notices, like the fat marbling a steak, and contains Escher-like sentences like this: “A previous version of this article also incorrectly stated that Politico had originally incorrectly stated that Howard Kurtz published the first report of sexual-harassment allegations against Al Gore.”
Something definitely went amiss with Slate’s little experiment — but the project also points the way out of this mess. What Singer-Vine’s script did to Politico’s stories was what every software project does as its developers write code: it built an archive of successive versions of a text, with changes — “diffs” — noted from one to the next. This is called versioning. Most software developers use it continuously in all their work. Versioning is common in the culture of computing because it’s the sort of thing computers do cheaply and well. You can see it at work on the “view history” tab of every page in Wikipedia.
Why not adopt this technique for every story we publish? Let readers see the older versions of stories. Let them see the diffs. Toss no text down the memory hole, and trigger no Orwell alarms.
Versioning should be the model for how we present the evolution of news stories on the Web. In fact, it makes so much sense that, even though right now no one is using it, I’m convinced it will become the norm over the next decade.
Today it might seem like overkill, but that’s how all new Web phenomena present themselves to us. It might sound like a lot of work, but once it’s incorporated into a newsroom’s content management software, it’s probably going to save time presently wasted on posting jerry-rigged correction notices. It can be presented unobtrusively, so that the vast majority of readers who don’t care will never need to see it — but the bloggers, pundits and critics who do care can feast. (Blog software could do this too: WordPress already stores each revision of a post as a separate version; someone could write a plugin that lets visitors access all versions of any post that have been created since its first publication.)
In software development, versioning is most useful as a practical tool for “rolling back” to an earlier version of code after some new addition has gone awry. In journalism, versioning can be valuable as a foundation for trust. It’s a smart way to solve the dilemma that Politico and Slate and everyone else faces in trying to keep information up to date and correct small errors without seeming to be playing fast and loose with the public record.
Public versioning for every news story: it’s time! Otherwise, we’re going to be wasting a lot of time struggling to pinion dynamic information on static pages, and accusing one another of tampering with history.
LINK UPDATE: Regret the Error’s Craig Silverman takes Politico to task for its editor’s casual dismissal of the value of a “black and white policy” on corrections. He also points to an example of a journalist who’s using versioning right now. — although from what I can see, the example, David McCandless, is labeling his work by version number but not exposing previous versions.
- July 21, 2010 @ 06:56:15 [Current Revision] by Scott Rosenberg
- July 21, 2010 @ 00:34:33 by Scott Rosenberg
- July 21, 2010 @ 00:30:03 by Scott Rosenberg
- July 21, 2010 @ 00:28:41 by Scott Rosenberg
Source code management was exactly what I thought of–this isn’t a problem that journalism needs to struggle with. The answer is obvious, and there’s a great case study in Wikipedia.
Better CMS systems like Drupal have versioning built in and viewable with a module or two.
Turn on revisions and install Diff, and you’re there.
So that’s the technical solution. But what about the editorial issues—does the internal back and forth with a story go public? Only changes after the story is published?
More daring/exploratory newsrooms could experiment with exposing the pre-publication editing process but let’s take this one step at a time!
For the issues at play here, I’m thinking primarily of using versions as a way to expose any changes/edits made to an article post-publication.
“We do not notify readers about minor corrections that we ourselves catch within 24 hours of publication.”
Nor would anyone want them to, it seems to me. Am I wrong? What about the time-honored system of “an earlier version of this story stated that blah blah, but instead blah blah.” If I see Version 3.2 of a news story, I don’t think I’m going to be combing back through the out-of-date versions in most cases. But you’re right, we can’t have news material mysteriously disappearing.
This reminds me of the idea of having journalists post full transcripts of their interviews. No doubt somebody is gonna want journalists to post their medical records alongside their articles, too. Pretty soon you’re gonna have a 1,000 word article and 25,000 words of supporting material and ephemera.
Dirk, my argument is that journalists aren’t going to know in advance which “minor correction” will make them look untrustworthy. So it’s in their interest, and in readers’ interest, for all changes to be publicly available. But like I said, most readers won’t care, won’t “comb back” through old versions. But they should be there so that if a problem arises, we can review the record.
Full transcripts is an important idea too! If the 1000-word article is an important one, then 25,000 words of supporting material might be valuable. Remember, it’s the Web, storage is near-free and near-infinite. It costs more in lost credibility to hide this stuff than it does to make it available.
This is something that I’ve thought for a long time, Scott. Instead of posting lots of messy and confusing corrections, why not be able to show exactly what changed, when it happened and why? The way most of us work online these days is through a series of sometimes big but mostly incremental updates — fix a typo, move a graf, give it a better headline. Most of the time, like Politico with McChrystal, it’s not to hide anything or correct an error, but simply to make the story better or clearer.
This kind of idea was partly the inspiration behind Beta Journalism, a News Challenge proposal I made this past year. It morphed the idea of a news story into a work in progress, rather than a final draft. The biggest difference with Beta Journalism, however, is that it also included the ability for readers to suggest changes, which would ultimately be accepted or rejected by a moderator (the writer or editor). All of it would be transparent by simply clicking a link or tab to see what changes had been made and suggested. Like what you’re suggesting, the idea borrowed heavily from Wikipedia and other CMSs, but it gave news organizations the control over the content that many of them still desire.
The full proposal is gone from the News Challenge site now. (It made it past the first round, but fell off in the second.) But a blog post I wrote about it last September is still available: http://www.heatcity.org/2009/09/everythings-better-with-beta.html
I like those Beta Journalism ideas a lot, Nick — hope you get the opportunity to develop them.
I generally find that it’s easier to make change in the news world happen by increments, so my hunch is we can first try to get news organizations comfortable with the idea of versioning, and *then* move them along to reader-suggested revisions…
Reader suggested revisions. Ack. How about patient suggested surgical procedures? Or input on bridge building from citizen engineers?
Scott wrote: “Dirk, my argument is that journalists aren’t going to know in advance which “minor correction” will make them look untrustworthy.”
David Joachim, NYT
@scottros @mterenzio @AntDeRosa @mathewi
A compelling idea
one advantage of hosting your site via github is that the history is there too.