Earlier this week I was reading the NY Times’ Media Decoder post about my friend and former colleague Joan Walsh’s announcement that she was stepping down as Salon’s editor to write a book. (The estimable Kerry Lauerman replaces her.)
So I’m reading along, and I see that her new book is going to be titled Indecisive:
Hmm. Joan’s a pretty smart editor and writer, and somehow Indecisive is just not the kind of book title I would expect her to end up with. Doesn’t exactly grab you by the lapels.
A little later I saw a message from Joan on Twitter reporting that, indeed, the Times report was wrong — the title of her book, which is going to be about how the politics of fear are hurting the U.S., is, in fact, Indivisible. Which makes much more sense: it’s pleasantly allusive and clearly related to the subject matter.
Several hours later, the Times blog post had been revised to reflect the correct title:
But this change has occurred without any notice whatsoever on the copy.
There are two ways of viewing this practice. One is, who cares? It’s the Web, you can change stuff any time you like. Why shouldn’t the Times go ahead and use this malleable medium in a malleable way?
The other is to say that we’re now practicing journalism in an environment that lets us change text at will, and as a result, we need to be extra careful about maintaining accountability for what we post.
Looser practices in this area, like Slate’s now-closed 24-hour “window” for making changes to stories, remain common. The Times itself appears to have chosen a variation of this approach, one that sounds arbitrary and inconsistent as articulated last month by associate managing editor Jim Roberts:
Particularly in the realm of breaking news (but also in the realm of features, enterprise projects, and in this case, advance obits), we are constantly refining what we publish online. Articles grow as we learn more information, and sometimes change direction if the news dictates. Often what gets into the printed paper (where space is much more finite) is a tighter edit on what we publish online.
… Because our editing and publishing systems for print and the Web are intertwined, we often (but not always) use the final printed version as the final archived version that stays on the Web, the theory being that this version of the story has all the accumulated wisdom of our editing process in place. There are many exceptions to this, particularly developing news stories that continue to be updated through the night, well beyond the deadline of the print edition.
In other words, as Roberts explains it, each story the Times posts on the Web is an “iterative” work-in-progress, undergoing a process of “constant refinement” until it congeals into a (sort of) final form for print — but said form can still keep changing, too. So the Times-on-the-Web is always subject to change, and there appears to be no clear line separating “changes that require a correction” from those that don’t that editors can draw and readers can understand. (Compare the Times’ handling of the Walsh error to the humble Galleycat publishing blog, which saw fit to put a correction line on its updated post.)
I predict this policy will last only until the next major blow-up, when readers call foul after observing some particularly sensitive Times story get “refined” in an unaccountable manner, and Times editors wake up to the reality that this policy undermines their own traditions of paper-of-record accountability.
The answer is plain, as I’ve been arguing for some time now: The Times and other papers should preserve their freedom to improve stories while simultaneously retaining their readers’ trust by exposing the “history” of revisions to every story they publish. This can be done in a manner that’s unobtrusive. Once it’s coded into the publishing platform, it requires zero additional work on the part of editors and reporters. It just makes sense.
And here’s why it’s important: When your publishing tools let you change posted content without leaving a trail, and your publishing culture doesn’t strictly limit or control journalists’ ability to make those changes, they will be tempted, sooner or later, to try to hide substantial and important mistakes. This is only human. No newsroom — even one as careful as the Times — can assume that its denizens are exempt. The solution is obvious: deliver writers from temptation, and track changes for readers.