It won’t be wrong till morning

8 Jul

Well, that story didn’t last very long. Ten minutes after I’d launched it onto the internet, I noticed its sheepish-looking author approaching the home news desk. I didn’t catch all the conversation that followed – at least not the first part – but the news editor’s rising “You mean it’s wrong ALREADY?” was audible in most parts of the newsroom.

After the apologetic reporter had shuffled away (“Well, how do you think I feel?”), the task of taking the story down and deleting it began. If a story is as (a) legally fraught and (b) libellous as this one was, there’s no room for the cheery news-website attitude of “never wrong for long”. Delete and apologise is the order of the day.

But that’s an extreme case. When the mistake is less explosive, and the story is sound enough to stay up on the site while the wrinkles get ironed out, the question then becomes one of degree: how wrong can you be, and for how long?

In fact, the question of “how wrong” can probably be solved using a traditional newspaper yardstick: if it’s so bad that it would have to be pulled off the page altogether, then the same should happen on the web. If it can be legitimately fixed by the stone sub deleting a line and getting a new headline set, then it’s fine to stay up on the site, with the proviso that you should make the changes with expedition. But the question of how long an online story can be worked on and refiled before it becomes a matter for the corrections desk is an entirely new one, for which there is no print-era precedent.

In the old days, an evening newspaper reporter might have two or three stories on the go at once, but she could expect to file each of them only once, towards the end of the day. That allowed time for more information to be gathered, more sources to return phone calls and more colleagues to be consulted for advice. But web news is rolling news, always wanting some copy on what’s breaking, so newspaper writers have had to learn the art of filing “first takes” within 15 minutes and thinking more deeply afterwards.  This routine is now ingrained at the Tribune: stories often come and go two or three times during the day, the last time “for web and paper”. On big set-piece news events like the Budget, reporters actually write to timetables, with set filings expected as the chancellor progresses through his speech.

So no one is expecting completeness on a first take. And, implicitly, total accuracy is no longer expected first time either. Errors of a non-fatal nature – that is, those that do not invalidate the news content of the piece altogether – can be rectified and included in the next web update without any need to acknowledge the error (although if readers have pointed out the mistake in the comments below the article, it’s good manners, and good accountability, to acknowledge them).  But the reader’s editor has shown no appetite for getting involved if a fleeting inaccuracy occurs in a hasty breaking-news piece whose expected shelf-life is about half an hour. Indeed, practically speaking, how could he? The mistake can be fixed in less time than it takes to notify him, and the article itself will often have been replaced in toto before the corrections desk gets back from lunch.

It’s dangerous to take that approach too far, though. We have quailed at a policy of endlessly, silently, perfecting old stories as the days and weeks go by, and rightly so. There’s something slightly Orwellian about a newspaper that, on its record, has apparently never made a mistake. And in any case, so many news stories have self-limiting relevance: no one clicks on the “jury has gone out” story once the “verdicts in” story is written; further discreet polishing would be pointless.

So the point at which a faulty story stops becoming a work in progress and crystallises into a mistake must be somewhere in between. At the Tribune, the rule is an overnight one. For the length of the calendar day on which a story first appears online, it can be modified and republished on the website without official intervention; but from the day after online publication, any complaints and corrections must be routed through the reader’s editor, and any resulting amendments must be explicitly noted at the foot of the article.

Why is that the rule? Well, you have to draw the line somewhere. And what could be more natural for a group of daily print journalists than to draw it at the end of the night, after the last edition has left the print works and nothing further can be done to put things right? We may be a global news website with tens of millions of readers, but we’re still a newspaper at heart.

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