Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Laying it on the (on)line

Well-known conservative blogger and radio host Hugh Hewitt made a point today that I've been thinking about for some time. It speaks to the shaky future of the newspaper business and at least one common sense step to avoid what is becoming a death spiral.

Why don't newspapers post all the background documents the reporter used to write the story right alongside the text?

Hewitt was talking about a story today in the Boston Globe focusing on an intercepted Mitt Romney strategy document, a 77-slide Powerpoint presentation. (Can't any of the Republican candidates for president secure their internal plans?) The paper published one of the 77 slides and reporter Scott Helman summarized the remaining material in his article.
The paper gives us a link to one slide from 77, thus not delivering on its primary mission of informing the public. Rather than putting the presentation out there for the readers to peruse, the paper wants us to believe that Scott will faithfully summarize the contents.

The paper wants its reporter to be the trusted intermediary of the news, but by filtering the story, the exact opposite effect is achieved: The paper loses credibility rather than gaining reputation for delivering news.

Who made the decision not to publish the 77 slides? What were they thinking? When will the paper figure out that a news organization's job is to deliver the news, not its reporter's view of the news?
Hewitt is dead on. In the days I was a reporter, stories weren't posted online therefore I never was accountable for how fairly I was quoting from reports, documents, court files, etc. Now, in the land of millions of bloggers and online sites, if the issue is important to somebody, chances are the source documents will show up. And if they are being twisted or distorted in newspaper accounts, somebody will point it out. So as they say in the pr biz, how about getting in front of the story, or in this case, the trend?

Ironically, the online posting of source documents was what exposed Dan Rather and CBS' 60 Minutes in the "Rathergate" journalism scandal. A "memo to file" relating to George W. Bush's National Guard service was exposed by online conservative bloggers Little Green Footballs, Power Line and others as a typographic fraud. The lesson there for journalism is not that is folly to post source documents; rather it is folly not to vet them first.

If reporters and editors know all the source documents will be posted online (Rathergate notwithstanding), I guarantee the balance and fairness of stories will improve. And there's a business reason to do so, as well. As readers become more sophisticated in their search for information, they will gravitate to sites that give them more of it.

News sites have begun posting source documents such as lawsuits and court filings sporadically. But they have a long way to go. Only a small percentage of source documents make it online next to the published articles.

Increased accuracy, accountability and site traffic. Seems like a slam dunk to me.

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