Now you see it, now you don’t

When Jill Abramson takes over as the new executive editor at the end of the summer, The New York Times that she oversees will be a very different organization than it was when she joined it 14 years ago.

The Times’s transition from a print-dominated operation to a digital-minded one has progressed at a striking pace, and in the last few months it has closely resembled a full integration of the old ink-stained approach with the purely electronic. Where once The Times’s online content was prepared by a separate and subordinate “continuous news” operation, it is now managed by the same people who run print.

Traditionally in newspapers, it was the person holding the title of “news editor” who controlled the final content of print pages, often exercising power late at night, long after the top editors had gone home. Now, at The Times, news editors ride herd all day and deep into the night — steering content to digital platforms and, yes, the daily paper.

This integrated system is the product, at least in part, of a months-long study by Ms. Abramson last year. It seems like a good idea that she took the time to prepare herself in this way for the duties of executive editor, which she will assume in early September.

I wish her well as she and her colleagues confront the enormous challenges that The Times faces in such a turbulent period. And as they do, there is one thing in particular that I hope they keep in mind: Like the newsroom itself, the daily news report is evolving rapidly, and The Times will benefit by having clear standards for how mistakes and changes are handled in the fast-paced digital environment.

Unlike print, digital news is often updated throughout the day and night, sometimes many times. Versions evolve and sometimes morph into something quite different. Mistakes happen and are fixed. How The Times tracks and manages this can be very confusing.

For example, in the days after news broke that Arnold Schwarzenegger had fathered a child with his family’s housekeeper before becoming California’s governor, The Times ran an article about her, describing her neighborhood in Bakersfield. Some readers complained that this invaded her privacy.

You won’t find that article anywhere on now, though, because later the same day a completely different story, written with a different focus by a different reporter, replaced it online and eventually appeared in the paper. Meanwhile, the original article appeared elsewhere, including on the front page of The Press Democrat, a newspaper in Santa Rosa, Calif., that is owned by The New York Times Company. The story can still be found on that paper’s Web site.

A different example arose on the Op-Ed page, where on May 1 the columnist Ross Douthat responded to the breaking news of Osama bin Laden’s killing by writing a column on Bin Laden’s failure to strike further against America after 9/11. Mr. Douthat had already written a piece for that day, about Libya, which appeared online but then, like the original housekeeper article, went poof when it was replaced — gone forever.

It’s problematic when content just disappears. It can also be problematic in a different way when content changes more subtly as a story evolves through the course of the day. One recent example even involves The Times’s June 2 coverage of Ms. Abramson’s appointment. An early version of the article included this quote from her: “In my house growing up, The Times substituted for religion. If The Times said it, it was the absolute truth.”

Later versions appeared without that quote, and various news organizations and bloggers saw this as airbrushing something that could cause problems for The Times. In response, a Times spokeswoman said the story was updated with fresher material from Ms. Abramson’s speech to the staff later that day.

Finally, in addition to changes that vaporize information and leave people wondering, there are occasions when corrections are likewise vaporized and therefore go unacknowledged in the often-ephemeral digital domain.

Philip B. Corbett, associate managing editor for standards, told me that The Times published a correction online after an article on Jan. 8 erroneously reported that Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona had been killed in the Tucson shooting. I hadn’t realized a correction was ever published, and I can’t go online to verify it now because the correction is no longer there.

The reason, as Mr. Corbett explained, is that the story itself, crafted in New York early in the coverage, was replaced later by a new article written by a Times reporter in Tucson. The paper felt that the old correction shouldn’t be appended to the “new” story, though the subject was the same and the article was just one more version during a day of fast-breaking developments.

When I queried Ms. Abramson about these issues, she affirmed that The Times’s standards for publishing corrections are as strict online as in print. “Our policy, when an error occurs in an earlier version of a story, is to acknowledge it, so the notion that we are covering up or hiding our errors is wrong,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Indeed, in the online world, the chances of a serious error in The Times going unnoticed or uncorrected are pretty slim.”

My preference would be that The Times do more to document and retain significant changes and corrections like those I have described. It has a policy against removing material from its archive (except in rare cases), on the principle that the record should be preserved. The Times should clarify its policy on replacing stories online, which looks like de facto removal to me, and offer the public a better-documented archive that includes all significant versions and all corrections. A clear policy statement on this, posted online, would make it easier for readers to understand The Times’s approach.

Right now, tracking changes is not a priority at The Times. As Ms. Abramson told me, it’s unrealistic to preserve an “immutable, permanent record of everything we have done.”

I realize there are other priorities. But more attention to this issue would bring two clear benefits. First, The Times could offer more transparency to its readers and stem the erosion of trust that occurs when readers don’t understand mysterious content changes. Second, by more carefully retaining important published material, including all corrections, The Times could reinforce to its staff the importance of accuracy and full disclosure when errors happen.

Enforcing and publishing a clear set of standards would go a long way toward ensuring that time-tested news values survive in the digital age.

This column was originally published in The New York Times on June 25, 2011.

Comments are closed.