More is not always better

One of the truisms about recent reductions in newsroom staffs is that fewer journalists equals less quality and lower standards. And undeniably, the cutbacks over the past decade have diminished coverage of state legislatures and county courthouses. But as we learn from Columbia Journalism School’s thorough examination of the Rolling Stone debacle, simply assigning more journalists - particularly more editors - to a story provides no guarantee of quality. It may make things worse.

Before “A Rape on Campus” was published last November, Sabrina Erdely’s story was read by at least six people: the publisher, two senior editors, two fact-checkers and a lawyer. That is a lot of scrutiny - far more than most newspaper or digital stories get, and more than is applied to many magazine stories these days.

And even so, the story was a mess - thinly sourced, full of erroneous assumptions, and plagued by gaping holes in the reporting.

Columbia’s report indicates that a groupthink settled upon the people responsible for doing the vetting and challenging that any such controversial story would require. The magazine placed so much trust in Erdely, and in the young accuser’s account, that it willingly and repeatedly suspended basic rules of journalistic due diligence. As editor Sean Woods said, “Sabrina’s a reporter I’ve worked with for so long, have so much faith in, that I really trusted her judgment.”

Just as damning, this story had so much internal momentum that no one - even those employed as fact-checkers - felt empowered to challenge it. The head of the fact-checking department realized there were reporting gaps, but told Columbia, “These decisions … were made by editors above my pay grade.”

It recalls a similarly catastrophic story from last year: “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” in which the ESPN-backed website Grantland profiled a woman named Essay Anne Vanderbilt. She had invented an ingenious golf club, but Grantland’s story eventually turned into an examination of Vanderbilt’s life, including her faked academic credentials and, more importantly, a gender change. Not long after the reporter learned that Vanderbilt was born as a male, the inventor killed herself, and the ensuing story would be excoriated for its callous treatment of the sad episode. Grantland’s editor, Bill Simmons, later acknowledged the story’s shortcomings, while also revealing that at least 13 people - including ESPN.com’s editor-in-chief - had read the story before publication. Their reaction, he said: “All of them were blown away by the piece. Everyone thought we should run it.”

When doing big, investigative stories, reporters face many challenges: recalcitrant sources, complex numbers, buried records. Editors, whose labors are usually cloaked in anonymity, are spared most of those hurdles. But they face their own internal newsroom challenges, particularly when handling a potential blockbuster story. They must keep their star reporters happy, trim verbiage that interrupts the narrative, and deal with the expectations of bosses hungry for prizes and traffic.

A single, talented editor with an intact set of vertebrae can manage that. Adding more editors to the mix rarely helps.

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Bill Grueskin is former academic dean at Columbia Journalism School. He is now on the school's faculty and is also executive editor/training at Bloomberg News.