Good questions! Brisbane turned it over to Jolly, who responded, to his credit: “Put simply, we goofed.” He reiterated his points from above about the common practice among sports writers in preparing a column prior to night games—games which often end on deadline. But Jolly conceded that the timing was off in this case:
Beyond that, we should have realized the considerable attention that this particular column had received online before the game: it had quickly moved to the top of our most e-mailed list, and it was getting dozens of comments from readers. Since we were out on a limb with both the column and the headline, we should have been sensitive to the fact that any changes we made would override the version that was first published on the Web.
Jolly concluded that “we let down readers” on this occasion, and agreed with Carlisle that a better idea might have been to leave the original story about the Patriots’ overall season as it was, and have Rhoden write a second one about the game itself. Jolly also wrote an editor’s note on the updated version on the Times site on Dec. 29, indicating that “This column was revised from an earlier version written before the game” and directing readers to the public editor column.
Brisbane ended his column with a reference to both that discussion and another letter from a reader that took issue with the Times’s practice of publishing an article with one headline in print and a different one online:
My hat’s off to Tom Jolly for falling on his sword on this one. Readers appreciate it when journalists acknowledge mistakes rather than make excuses.
But these letters illustrate a new reality for Times readers: multiple media channels result in multiple versions of a story and a headline. One could argue that this is a triumph of news distribution and availability, but one could also argue that this is the end of the definitive version of anything.
I think that last point is going a bit far. Sure, breaking news stories evolve in real time, and news organizations have to keep up. And yes, bold-type “UPDATES” have become commonplace in online stories. But the ability to publish multiple versions, to put less emphasis on “definitiveness,” should not give news outlets license to erase the past, as tempting as it may be. Even in opinion columns. Especially not merely for the sake of avoiding embarrassment.
If journalists draw certain conclusions from one set of facts, and the next day presents a new set of facts, and new conclusions, okay. We should examine our views and why they may have changed, in a way that brings our readers into the process. It takes a lot of guts to question yourself and your viewpoints in a public forum. Politicians apparently aren’t allowed to do that. But as for journalists—lucky for us—it’s part of the job.