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September 19, 2006

On Media: Web’s ‘deadline now’ mindset creates bad trends

Last Thursday, the city’s news media focused on two stories: a speech by Sen. Barack Obama at Slugger Field and the anticipation of an impending announcement by Ford Motor Co. affecting 9,000 Louisville workers. About the time Obama was pumping up Democrats on one end of Main Street, a handful of journalists were on the other end of Main, at the 21C Museum Hotel, debating how the Web has changed news coverage. The way media covered both stories provided ample evidence of new Web approaches.The meeting started about 7, the same time Obama was to speak. But when Kim Kolarik, new media director at The Courier-Journal, showed the current version of the C-J’s Web site, we saw reporter Kay Stewart’s story on the Obama event, which included interviews with folks talking about the inspirational Illinois senator. Stewart was sending copy to editors as the event unfolded.The Ford story, meanwhile, had all reporters scrambling for something new to report after Ford announced it would reveal its plans the next morning. Ultimately, in that unfolding drama, local news stations did something else I hadn’t seen — they carried a live Ford podcast the next morning.Both the C-J and WHAS-TV launched their Websites in 1997, less than a decade ago. Both unveiled redesigns in the last month, and both sites are constantly updated, no matter when print deadlines occur or newscasts air. Both are in a race to beat the other to the Web with stories — an effort precipitating drastic changes in practice for reporters.For one, the Web has created a “deadline now” mindset that pushes reporters and editors to get stories live on the Web immediately. That’s created new competition for Web-news consumers that puts TV, radio and newspapers (and, for that matter, news bloggers) on a level playing field.Chris Poynter, a C-J reporter, noted that the Aug. 27 Lexington airplane crash illustrated the dangers inherent in this game. In its haste to be first to get the names of victims on the Web, the C-J (and others) made a huge error — they reported the death of Priscilla Johnson, chairman of the state’s Commission on Human Rights, when in fact it was a different Priscilla Johnson who perished. The mistake was live on the C-J site only briefly, but during that time news consumers were told a public figure had died. That is an egregious journalistic sin.Others providing this incorrect coverage included at least one blogger — Mark Nickolas of BluegrassReport.org — who reported Johnson’s demise when he posted a note from Treasurer Jonathan Miller at 5:52 p.m. Two hours later, in his 47th update of the story in just over 12 hours, Nickolas posted a second note from Miller, which said Johnson was alive and well. If you read the posts about his coverage on Nickolas’ site, most are grateful for his work — especially those in other cities who couldn’t watch local news. This is not to single out any media — but the fact that any outlet went forward with the story without checking with the victim’s family illustrates the shortcuts that have become acceptable in the Web era.Back at 21C, WHAS-TV GM Bob Klingle, the only business guy in a room of hardcore journalists, raised the temperature with views that were anathema to old schoolers. Klingle said the need for speed was real — he boasted of his station’s 160,000 regular site users, all of whom agree to be spammed five times a month for the privilege. Reaching that audience, Klingle maintains, is a big hit with advertisers. Those outgoing e-mails account for 30 percent of the site’s revenue. The way to reel in that online audience, he said, is to have the big stories first.Klingle maintained that getting it first in a competitive news environment sometimes trumps accuracy. WHAS had a reporter, Travis Kircher, covering the David Camm trial earlier this year by blog, posting updates from the trial from inside the courtroom with a laptop and online connection, some truly exclusive reporting on a big story. Kircher said the posts weren’t always accurate on the details (such as the spelling of names) but that he posted the information anyway, knowing he could go back later and get it right.While that seemed OK to him and Klingle, it drew plenty of objection from journalists. Why not wait until the story could be vetted? What’s the rush?An unintended effect of the Web is that the accuracy standard has been lowered — though most news consumers seem to have accepted it. Maybe those consumers still trust the news in print more than online news, but it may not matter — at least to the corporations that own the media outlets.The inescapable truth is that accuracy is routinely sacrificed for speed in journalism, and the acceptance of errors is a troubling tendency in all media. Contact the writer at rick.redding@insightbb.com