Code Talking

A new way to float corrections down the river of news

I’m a man of modest dreams.

I’d like to see the Montreal Canadiens win another Stanley Cup as soon as possible, and for the Toronto Maple Leafs to never win one again. I’d like to enjoy good health and a happy life. And I’d like to see corrections evolve in new and useful ways as journalism continues its march online.

By those standards, it’s been a good week. Hockey season kicked off last night with the Habs beating the Leafs, and I had a phone conversation with a programmer at the Los Angeles Times that gives me hope for the future of corrections.

My conversation with Ben Welsh, a database producer at the Times, also helped me realize one of the barriers to innovation: corrections aren’t viewed the same way as articles, sports scores, or a breaking news ticker. They are perceived only as being part of the stories that spawned them, rather than content that can stand on its own.

I guess I’m saying: if you love corrections, set them free.

If we can change the way news organizations view corrections, then corrections can truly become integrated within the river of news we hear so much about.

Right now, I can sign up to receive e-mail alerts from The New York Times about just about any topic or personality that appears in their stories, but I can’t subscribe for correction alerts. For whatever reason, corrections aren’t seen as being important enough to warrant this kind of treatment. This is why we don’t have more RSS feeds for corrections, why many organizations still don’t have online corrections pages, and why there are so few correction-related tools for readers.

The good news is that, thanks to some work by Welsh, we have a small test case of what a corrections back-end could look like.

Earlier this year, Welsh was working on a mapping project for the Times’s special projects group. In the course of his work, he created some code that would enable the site to publish all of the updates and corrections made to the map. He called it “django-correx” to indicate that it was built for the Django Web application framework, and to indicate that it deals with corrections. This bit of code takes corrections and allows them to be customized and integrated as part of a Django-based Web site or application. It’s in effect saying: this is valuable information for readers, and here’s a way to manage it.

Django-correx allows a news organization to attach a correction, or update for that matter, to any object, whether it be a photo, news story, map, or other piece of content. Not only will a correction exist as part of the object it seeks to fix, but it can also exist as a stand-alone entity. As a result, you could publish a constantly updated corrections feed on a homepage, or slice and dice the corrections into customized content packages.

“You could have on your site a list of all the changes made, or create an RSS feed,” Welsh told me. “Or could have a list or feed of all the changes about photos or blog posts.”

I asked him if this framework could grant my wish of an article-specific corrections feed or sign-up feature, and he said yes. Django-correx took him a few hours to develop and a few more to improve. Now anyone can download the code to use and improve it.

Django-correx was never implemented by the Times (“I came up with technology to solve a problem, and then we decided we didn’t want to solve it anymore”), but Welsh has a very basic implementation of it on his personal Web site, Palewire. Just click on the red loop icon that’s positioned sixth from the left on the top menu bar and you’ll be brought to an automatically generated online corrections page. Click on the post listed there and you’ll see the highlighted correction appear at the top.

Those two elements—a corrections page and a correction being placed at the top of a post or article—are not new. What is new is the ability to take a correction or some form of update to an article, blog post, photo, or other piece of content, and present it in a multitude of ways. Welsh’s blog has a tumblelog and he easily included his corrections in this constantly updated list of links, Twitter messages, and songs he’s listened to. He also created a corrections RSS feed.

If you’re a news organization running a Django-based website, Welsh has created a basic yet high flexible and customizable corrections system for you.

“The Spokesman-Review runs on Django and they have a site-wide stream that has the latest stories and photos on the homepage, so it would be pretty easy to imagine a correction or update being a new kind of content in that stream,” he says. (Just click on the “Latest everything” tab near the top of the homepage to see the stream.)

The problem? “Corrections aren’t viewed as being part of the stream,” Welsh says.

We’re going to have to change how journalists view corrections before news organizations will think of implementing something like django-correx. Before corrections become part of the stream (or river, if you prefer).

Along with changing minds, we need to develop similar plug-ins for WordPress and other major blogging platforms and content management systems so that correction streams, feeds and email newsletter will become standard on news websites.

Welsh has done the initial work for Django. Who wants to carry the dream from here?

Correction of the Week

“The Game Meats Company at Myrtelford is a halal-accredited organisation which processes only goats, emus, ostriches and deer…At no stage did export operations manager Rick Cavedon say Senator Fielding had ’saved our bacon’.” – Border Mail (Australia)

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star.