Major news Web sites routinely rewrite stories after they are published, sometimes so heavily that they only bear a glancing resemblance to what was posted earlier. This CNN/Money article about the penalty phase of the Microsoft trial is a prime example. What you see at the other end of the link is quite different from the story that first appeared at that URL. Even the headline and byline have changed. But CNN/Money managing editor Allen Wastler says there is nothing wrong with this practice, even though there is no indication on the site that the article was heavily modified after it first appeared.To see how radically this story was changed after Slashdot linked to it, check this snapshot of the original, provided by Slashdot reader John Harrold.
The second iteration was more favorable -- or at least less unfavorable -- to Microsoft than the original, but Wastler denies any Microsoft involvement in the change. "Advertisers do not interfere with our content," he says, and notes that neither he nor any other CNN/Money editors were contacted by Microsoft about this story. He does say, though, that the later version was "more balanced" than the earlier one.
In my experience, Microsoft PR people are not capable of reacting to anything as quickly as this story changed, so the chance of a conspiracy here is about zero. As for Wastler's "more balanced" comment, that is his judgement, and you are free to agree or disagree with it. (I'm sure some Slashdot readers will say he is correct, and others will say he is not. Editorial decisions never please everyone.)
"Writethroughs" are Routine in Online News
In the news business, stories that change after the originals run are called "writethroughs." This practice originated with wire services like UPI, AP, and Reuters, who might send subscribing editors a story with the headline, "Office building on fire in downtown Cleveland," followed by one or two paragraphs of copy, with progressively longer versions of the same story coming through the wire, hour by hour, as reporters on the scene gather more information.
Wastler says CNN/Money readers look at his site "like a wire service" and expect stories to change over the course of a day. As an example, during our phone conversation he pointed me to a recently posted CNN/Money story with the headline, U.S. productivity soars, and noted that this story might be updated and expanded several times, so that "by the end of the day, it might become a magazine length feature."
Online News Association President Bruce Koon says, via email, "Writethroughs are very common nowadays among news sites, from MSNBC to CBSMarketWatch to CNN. Pretty standard practice nowadays to freshen headlines and leads as new developments occur. Some sites have labels such as 'update' or 'breaking news' but it varies. For top stories, I don't see that kind of labeling." In his day job, Koon is Executive News Editor for Knight Ridder Digital, so he ought to know.
I was not aware that this practice was routine in the online news business until a few days ago. Old-style wire service writethroughs were as specific as a rigorously kept programmer's changelog, right down to paragraph and line number. Maybe I'm naive, but if I am going to trust a news source, I expect that same level of care in story updates, or at least something like News.com's corrections page, which lets readers know what changes, if any, have been made to published stories before they are archived.
What's the Difference Between an Update and a Correction?
I doubt that most news site readers know the story they are seeing at the moment they read it is not necessarily the same as the story that was published earlier at the same URL -- unless we tell them. We run the risk of getting into the habit of "getting it first" at the expense of "getting it right" if we start thinking, "Well, we can fix it later, so let's go with what we have now even if it's not confirmed as carefully as we'd really like."
This is not the same as running a story that begins by saying something like, "An unconfirmed statement by...," followed by a later story that either confirms or denies the original statement, and it is not the same as an Update notice added to the original story when it is expanded or corrected. At CNN/Money, when a story is updated it gets a fresh time/date stamp, and Wastler says that's plenty. The problem with this is that someone reading the latest version who didn't see the previous one has no way to know that an earlier -- possibly incorrect -- version ever existed.
Columbia University journalism professor Sreenath Sreenivasan (AKA Sree) says, "You really need to make it clear to your readers if your stories have been changed or updated." He makes his students do that on Columbia's Web sites, even though some of them complain that commercial news sites, where many of them hope to work after graduation, wouldn't necessarily make them take this extra step.
Sree feels strongly that if a Web site changes a news story, for whatever reason, it should put, "'last updated at' or something like that" along with the original publication time and date.
More Analysis of the CNN/Money Story Example
Andrew Nachison, of the American Press Institute's Media Center, took a close look at our original CNN/Money example and gave us this analysis:
The Microsoft trial story on CNN looks like a typical write-thru of an earlier story, with new information from afternoon events. The morning's top news, that a Microsoft witness had trouble answering some questions, got bumped lower in the story as other witnesses testified later in the day. On its face, no big deal.
However, CNN did a disservice to its audience - especially the audience paying close attention to that particular story - by failing to explain the changes. A brief note would have helped, or a link to a journal of update notes for the story, so users - like newspaper wire editors - could, in a glance, understand how the story had changed from previous versions.
Something else would have helped CNN's audience: if CNN had an obvious, standard policy for publishing update notes that the audience expected and was used to.
What's most remarkable to me is that we're well into the digital publishing era but most digital news providers have yet to develop clear standards for how to handle updates and notes about updates so users are better informed. Publishers need to do this for two reasons: first, to better serve their audiences (which should translate into credibility with the audience) and second, to promote expectations and standards that audiences can come to expect of all credible news providers.
Errors that require corrections add a whole different level of challenge to digital publishing. Today it's virtually impossible to erase a mistake once it's published online. Web browsers call up cached versions stored on hard drives, some sites intentionally archive Web sites for historical research, and Internet service providers like AOL cache popular pages to speed service to customers. So AOL customers may hit a cached version of a story that contains errors corrected in a subsequent version that has yet to be cached by the AOL servers.
If online news publishers truly have their audience's best interests in mind then they should go out of their way to alert the audience to corrections and to make it clear when an update corrects previously published errors. They need to set the record straight.
University of Florida journalism professor Mindy McAdams has also looked at our example story. She says:
Updating the story in real time without noting that it has been changed: That's okay by me, in principle. But in this case, it's really very different.
I would be inclined to believe the Money.CNN folks who told you it's no big deal -- for them. In other words, I do NOT believe it's sneaky or anything like that.
But for the rest of the world (non-journalists), this MUST be very confusing!
I asked Wastler if CNN/Money had ever thought about archiving older story versions as new ones appeared, and linking from the new versions to the older, archived ones. He said, "The name of the game is speed, getting [stories] up on the site." He talked of the sheer number of stories a site like his publishes daily, and how loading any more work on his editorial staff, like moving old story versions to an archive, "would bog things down." I pointed out that this was something a simple script could do with a single "replace story/move old story to archive" click from an editor, and his reply was, "Well, I am not as technical as you... I don't know about that."
(This was not a hostile conversation. Wastler reads Slashdot now and then and likes it, and says, "My tech guys love Slashdot." Perhaps one of you Slashdot-reading CNN tech guys could talk to Wastler and other CNN editors about automatic story versioning. Wastler said that because of syndication deals and inbound links, his main concern was keeping a stable URL for each story even if went through a series of updates. This should not be hard to arrange.)
Future Directions for Online News
In a followup email, Bruce Koon said the idea of constant story updates on the Internet should not surprise anyone. His exact words:
How is the model different from TV or radio broadcast news? As news gets reported as it's happening, facts are going to change, new developments are happening. If anything, we've been trying to get newspapers away from this notion that they print once. The Internet is about continuous updates and reporting.
Also, unlike Slashdot or other new forms of information gathering and reporting, news audiences only go to a news site a few times a day to read what the latest news is. Most seem to know that the version of the story they're reading now is different from what they read before, just as they know the top of the hour report on the radio news may be different from what they heard two hours earlier.
Based on Koon's statement, the long term question seems to be whether Internet news evolution should be based on a broadcast model, with broadcast-style immediacy as its most important goal, or whether it should be based on a print model that assumes we are writing the "first rough draft of history" so that what we say today has archival significance tomorrow.
I think the two patterns are going to coexist, and rather than "convergence" we are going to see a gradual divergence between the two as "Internet news" simply becomes "news" instead of being seen as different or separate from other media. Watching how readers (viewers?) react to this change (assuming they notice it at all) over the next decade or so is going to be interesting.
A big part of the change is going to be figuring out how to maintain audience trust when it is so easy to digitally morph stories, pictures and almost anything else into states that are far different from their original ones. As Nachison points out, despite the apparently transitory nature of online news, nothing on the Internet ever quite goes away. It is all archived or cached somewhere once it gets into digital form, whether it was originally prepared for delivery on the Internet, on printed pages or for cable or over-the-air broadcast.
Professor Sreenivasan says, "We're all in the early days of this business. We need to evolve standards."
That we do. But is the "we" who evolves standards going to be the people who read (or view) the news or is "we" going to be the people who produce it? And that leads to another question: Where will we draw the line between reporters and readers/viewers, or will we even bother to differentiate between them, when PDAs with broadband wireless connections and built-in digital video cameras become common, everyday consumer items?