New York Times public editor Art Brisbane today addresses an issue that MediaBugs and I have been talking about for a year: the need for news organizations to maintain a record of the changes they make to published stories.
I’ve argued that posting such “versions” of every news story — the way Wikipedia and every open source software project does with their own work — would help newsrooms regain public trust and free journalists to update their work more vigorously while staying accountable.
Brisbane seems to agree, but sounds doubtful that the Times is going to do this any time soon.
Right now, tracking changes is not a priority at The Times. As Ms. [Jill] Abramson told me, it’s unrealistic to preserve an “immutable, permanent record of everything we have done.”
I know the Times has tons of claims on its resources. Jill Abramson has a million demands to juggle. But let me respectfully dispute her “unrealistic” judgment.
Versions of stories are just data. For the Times, or any other website, to save them is a matter of (a) storage space and (b) interface tweaks to make the versions accessible. Today, storage is cheap and getting cheaper, and Web interfaces are more flexible than ever.
Really, there’s nothing unrealistic about preserving an “immutable, permanent record” of every post-publication change made to every story.
Wikipedia — a volunteer organization run by a variety of ad hoc institutions — can do it. Any WordPress blog can do it. It seems peculiarly defeatist for our leading newsroom to shrug and say it can’t be done.
By making story versions “not a priority,” the Times is essentially abdicating its longstanding status as our paper of record as it makes the transition from paper to digital. I doubt that’s what its leaders intend to do. The more they ponder this, the more I think they’ll see that a versioning system for news is not only valuable but inevitable.
They were the “paper of record” only by default. The Internet has shown that that reputation was.less deserved than thought. They haven’t changed; everything else has. Some relevant quotes:
“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” –Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Norvell (June 11, 1807)
Knoll’s Law of Media Accuracy: Everything you read in the newspapers is absolutely true except for the rare story of which you happen to have firsthand knowledge. — Erwin Knoll, editor, “The Progressive”
(variant: “Everything you read in the press is true…. except the rare event of which you have personal knowledge.” Erwin Knoll writing in The Progressive magazine?)
“… it was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies – unless one counts journalists.” –Orwell, “Homage to Catalonia” (1938)
This is easily feasible using a service like http://PageFreezer.com. PageFreezer creates web archives of you webpages that are accessible by a timeline or full text search.
PageFreezer can archive changes in your website on a scheduled bases (every x hours, once a day) or on a real-time basis, capturing all changes that news organizations make to their website.
Fer chrissakes, all they have to do in the short term is add a log table that would allow editors to note a sequence of changes made and on what days if they don’t have the resources to provide a fully integrated Wikipedia History feature. Scott, you and I both know CMSes. They’re ugly beasts, but you can extend them and make them work for you.
I suspect that some of what is coming into play with this issue has to do with legal concerns and libel liabilities.
Wikipedia has a process to remove legally questionable additions – it’s called Oversight. It’s not well-known among users of the encyclopedia but those of us who patrol recent changes have cause to use it from time to time. Administrators are notified and remove the offending content, making it invisible in the article’s history (but still available to law enforcement and senior administrators if necessary). Naturally this is mainly used in instances of possible libel, potential harm to minors, threats of violence, and the like.
The NYTimes’s deletions, however, seem to go further in that legally unremarkable content is replaced without comment.
OT, but related.
Just wondering if Media Bugs is going to draw attention to The Toronto Star, a participating member of Media Bugs, who, as I previously noted earlier this year, compulsively publish lies and fabrications.
It’s gotten even worse over the course of the year. So much so that Melanie Philips in the UK has successfully sued them for slander and they have been forced to remove the column in question along with posting an apology for 14 days their web site .
Canuck: You’re welcome to post a bug report relating to the Toronto Star. Technically MediaBugs doesn’t aim to cover media outside of the US but we don’t mind hosting such reports.
I’m not sure what you mean by “a participating member of Media Bugs.” The Star does use a “report an error” button, which MediaBugs thinks is a good thing; but the Star doesn’t have Media Bugs operating behind the button — they have their own internal error report system.