Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The era of corrections.

Not every online publication runs corrections as a policy, but many do. If they all did, we'd be awash in a stream of them, every day.

(For clarity: a "correction" meaning the note describing the change, rather than the change itself.)

When I started my publishing career -- I say "publishing" and not "journalism" because we often write in this capacity but we very often do not report on anything -- I was very proud to have never had one of my published pieces require a correction.

This all changed when I started blogging.

(For clarity: I'm using "blogging" as shorthand for an all-day, aggregation-based, multiple-post publishing assignment, whether fact or opinion or both. You can also "blog" once a week, called a "column" elsewhere, because let's face it, a blog is a publishing mechanism, not a style, format or assignment.)

Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton's recent column about this issue -- in his example, a young blogger for his newspaper named Elizabeth Flock made enough aggregation errors to warrant a resignation -- resonated with many people in this industry. Print dinosaurs saw it as evidence that their religion was better; web denizens saw it as an unfortunate incident that wouldn't happen to them; media critics used the incident to continue clucking about how aggregation is ruining the industry.

I read it as a warning, but also a reflection of the truth. Mistakes -- from typos to misattribution to straight-up factual errors -- are made often and with regularity. Web-savvy types pride themselves on correcting things swiftly, but that often doesn't happen. (On to the next one.)

Who's to blame for all of this? You can blame the person, as the Post did; you can blame the publication, as Pexton and other media critics did. I'd like to add another entity to shoulder a portion of the responsibility: the industry as a whole.

I've read several instances of pushback to this phenomenon, saying that it's a matter of education, or editorial support, or whatever.

Here's Post digital news executive director Katharine Zaleski's take:
We're deeply conscious of the imperatives our bloggers face and go to great lengths to ensure they have the editorial support they need. We tell bloggers that their first and central priority is accuracy, not speed, not buzziness. The Washington Post's standards apply every bit as much to our digital work as they do to our print edition. And our bloggers honor that.
With all due respect to her -- I'm sure she's just fabulous -- this is nonsense.

Even if the Post has all of these measures in place, Flock was averaging about six posts per day -- not one-paragraph briefs, as Pexton points out, but "often 500-word summaries of complicated news events." This kind of assignment is rampant on the web. Even if they are the most basic of summaries -- just the facts, and on average 300 words -- that still requires the Post or anyone else to vet, in real-time and every day, 1,800 words on six completely different topics. Who else but The New Yorker has the ranks of fact-checkers to handle that task?

The answer is no one. That responsibility falls on the shoulders of the blogger. For any other assignment, it's not an unreasonable expectation -- features writers are responsible for the accuracy of their copy, even if they benefit from fact-checking. But features writers don't write 1,500 words per day and own their same-day publish button, too. (Could you even imagine?)

When a writer gets stuck mid-story, a popular editor's refrain is to "go take a walk." It helps to clear the mind, with the hope of returning to the story later with perspective. You can't see the forest for the trees when you're in it. The problem is that rebloggers are always deep in that forest, their minds racing from one story to the next, their days a cascading crush of RSS feeds and tweets and news headlines from elsewhere. They careen through their workday like pinballs. If you can get them to remember to eat lunch on time -- at all, really -- it is a management triumph. Nevermind the chance to clear their head and get perspective on a blog post or six.

I'd know. I do it for a living. Perversely, I ask writers to do the same.

So let's call a spade a spade: the problem with reblogging isn't the format (the brevity of which some appreciate), the very nature of aggregation (which has been done for centuries in print), the writer (who is no more or less talented than a traditional reporter) or even the intentions of the publication (who sees the need to engage its readers on a daily basis). It's the assignment; that is, the frequency requirements that we place on a single creator. Whatever the format, it's a recipe for disaster. There is no room for perspective. 

Echoes get distorted as they bounce around. "Whisper down the lane" wouldn't progress if everyone checked out the facts. And we know how that game is designed to end.

(As amusing as The Awl's take is on this subject, it's too focused on ethics. Anyone who covers business knows that market forces, not ethics, are more likely to dictate actions.)

Now hold on, you might say. The assignment comes from the publication; the editor. That's true, but it's mirrored off an industry standard. The Post likely designed Flock's assignment in imitation of what it saw elsewhere on the Web -- perhaps Wonkette, perhaps Politico, perhaps Fishbowl DC. This was, and is, the going norm. (You might argue that if the Post had to come up with its own rules on this, it would have never embraced such an aggressive mission -- it would have thought it reckless. Uh, yeah.)

Online-only publications began this practice because they are, by their nature, lean startups that must maximize their output. It's not unusual to hear about insane work hours coming out of Silicon Valley's newest projects; the same goes for the young website. With a very limited budget and no advertising/marketing/buzz underscored by advertisers' insistence on volume, websites launch at full-tilt. They ease on the gas, per capita, as they get older and bigger.

If you were launching a newspaper, you wouldn't try to publish morning, noon and evening editions all seven days of the week immediately, would you? If you were launching a magazine, you wouldn't try to push for 12 issues in a year right away, would you? If you were launching a radio or television station, you wouldn't try to fill 24 hours of airtime immediately, would you? But websites try to do this, because there is very little cost to the mechanism of publishing and generating copy is so much cheaper than buying the syndication rights to Seinfeld.

(Still, they try. has had more partners than Warren Beatty, from Mashable to The Frisky, as it tries to publish as much content as possible, compressing the news cycle to the point of infinity. Ditto Business Insider.)

The only true sin the Post committed was starting this venture in the first place. Unlike many online-only publications, it benefits from a steady stream of mulled-over, edited, fact-checked content. (Us online-only publications, even the big ones, should all be so lucky.) The Post already has the ability to capture your attention each and every day; it really didn't need another person trying to fill a 24-hour news cycle by herself.

Professionally, I'm trying to do my part to ease this burden. But, somewhat like the U.S. vs. overseas manufacturing battle, the market forces are often at odds with this -- sure, I can pull back on that frequency, but I risk getting run over by everyone else out there in the industry in terms of capturing readers' limited attention. (To continue the metaphor, sure, I can manufacture in the U.S. for higher rates -- a.k.a. pay writers better to produce less -- but I lose the volume, and thus reach, and in the end my global competitiveness. Even if it's really just a race to the bottom.) It's a big gamble, one I'm willing to take, but a gamble nonetheless. It's always hard to justify hanging a left when everyone else is turning hard to the right.

My point? The fundamental issue with all-day, aggregation-heavy blogging not singularly a matter of ethics or support or writer or editor or publication or advertiser or even reader. It is all of these things together, an industry problem, and it will take a lot of things moving in concert to change in a meaningful way. We humans are just not built for this level of productivity -- whatever the quality.

Until then, let the corrections flow forth.

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