The Register Citizen is an 8,000-circulation paper serving Litchfield County, Conn. It’s owned by the Journal Register Company, which is engaged in a rather radical process of transformation with the goal of turning it into a digital-first news organization that embraces the new world of media. That focus is evidenced by the fact that the Citizen now draws 140,000 unique visitors to its Web site per month. The company’s new philosophy is perhaps best demonstrated by a small box that sits at the bottom of every story on the site.
That box recently became slightly famous thanks to positive mentions about it from the likes of Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, and Craig Newmark. It’s also been a hit with Citizen readers.
The mysterious box in question is a completely essential but unfortunately largely uncommon feature on news websites. It simply enables anyone to easily and quickly tell the paper about an error contained on the page in question. The box features the words “Fact Check” in bright red and the encouragement, “See wrong or inaccurate information in a story. Tell us here.” Below that is a text box where people can enter their error report, the title of the article, and their e-mail address. The reports go to publisher Matt DeRienzo and the paper’s editor.
DeRienzo set off interest in the fact check box with a recent column in the paper:
On any given day, we are going to make mistakes. We, unfortunately, do more than our share of simply “getting it wrong.” Far more extensive, though, at our newspaper and other media outlets, are errors of omission. We don’t go deep enough into a story, or we miss pieces of information and perspective that would change readers’ perception of an issue.
Launching a formal “Fact Check” program was our effort to, at the very least, declare our acknowledgement of this dynamic. It was an invitation to every reader, source and community member to hold us accountable and engage in correcting, improving or expanding the story.
The fact check box initially appeared on the homepage back in late May.
“Readers should not have to come knocking on your door to try to find an editor or reporter,” DeRienzo told me. “It should be a much more open process than that This is just being very clear to readers [and saying] that we want you to send in errors, we’re listening, there is someone on the other end.”
It seems to be working. Reports are flowing in and the majority of submissions are worth reviewing, according to DeRienzo.
“Probably from June, July, and September we got 100-plus substantial reports,” he says.
And since they added the box to every story on the site a few weeks ago? “Four times that much.”
“We make mistakes, we’re not perfect,” he says. “There’s no magic dust that you can sprinkle to get things right. Our audience knows that, and they know we have young reporters. But it’s the same for The New York Times.”
As noted in a previous column, there isn’t a standardized way for people to submit an error reports to a news organization. Some sites offer an e-mail address and phone number on their corrections page. Many others have nothing. In fact, I’d wager that most news organizations have little or nothing when it comes to a prominent and user-friendly way for people to report errors. Considering the fact that the press has always relied upon the public to point out the vast majority of our mistakes, this is a serious deficiency. It also helps explain why one study found that only 2 percent of factual errors are corrected by U.S. newspapers.
The Register Citizen has shown that even a very small paper with limited resources can implement something easily. And they’ve shown that it works. DeRienzo says his paper has become an example for others in the Journal Register chain, and many of them have implemented some element of the fact check box.
That’s one step. As he notes, it’s also important for each paper to keep the lines of communication open with readers about how the submitted reports are having an impact. DeRienzo’s column and subsequent blog post are examples of this.
“One of the key things about it to make it successful is to report back regularly to readers about how it’s working,” he says. “Don’t just make it so that people send [reports] out into the ether and don’t know if an editor has seen it or not.”