Friday, December 26, 2008

Getting a different mindset about corrections and changes

It's the online era. Things have a long life - far longer online than in newspapers or on broadcast.

Yet we still seem to be of the newspaper mindset -- if something is wrong take it down, purge it, but don't provide any easy-to-find connections (think about the fact that most of your newspaper's corrections are on some inside page instead of on the front of the section where the article appeared). And it's even worse in broadcast where the operative mindset still seems to be ignore most errors - we can just get it right in the next newscast.

That's not good enough anymore. Changes have to be transparent. Learn to use the "strikethrough" code in HTML to show most changes (for legal reasons, libelous ones may have to be purged).

Corrections have to be linked back to the original article, and if you are going to purge something, the correction/explanation needs to be at the URL of the original.

For some insight on why, read this E-media Tidbits post by Amy Gahran from early December*. And read the comments from a person also caught in the tangle of an article that started out online and was changed before going into print.

It seems to me a couple of things are in order:
  • If you put an article online and think it might need to be updated, etc. (for instance, as in the case of the aggrieved commenter above, an article rushed online to avoid being scooped), consider using a wiki so that all changes can be tracked.
    • (I know I'm being Pollyannaish here, but we're far enough into the 21st century that any reasonably competent modern publishing system should allow users to switch among a blog, a standard "story" unit and a wiki easily.)
  • Start updating newsroom work flows and mindsets so that a correction is generally not seen as a traumatic thing but a natural outcome of the evolving way we are publishing online (keeping in mind that some will be more severe and may require management intervention).
  • Set up guidelines for transparency. These should include:
    • Clear refer lines atop stories to any further clarifying material, and a link on the clarification/correction back to the original.
    • Striking out, not eliminating, most disputed text.
    • Corrections at the original URL, or some kind of redirect, if the original has to be purged for legal reasons.
    • Versioning of stories being developed online with the ability to track back as in a wiki.
    • The ability for anyone in the newsroom to question something and the decision-making on whether to update pushed down as low as possible in the supervisory chain -- much as any worker on an auto assembly line can stop it by pulling a "defect" switch.
  • Finally, a concerted effort is needed from publishers, broadcasters, etc., to get the courts to recognize and accommodate the technological realities. Fact is, in too many jurisdictions the company lawyers are concerned -- and in some, rightly so -- that current law makes it risky to be transparent.
The courts have shown themselves to be about a decade behind in refashioning the law to respond to major technological changes. We're about due for a spate of digital cases that could help redefine online and how it is used for at least two more decades (think of the Gatehouse suit against Boston.com just this week over "deep linking.")

Newsrooms need to get their acts in order and then be prepared to press the case to bring more of our case law and common law into the digital age.

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* Yes, early December. I'm a little behind on the reading.

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