What You See is Not What You Get

Among the three U.S. newspapers that circulate print editions to over a million weekday readers, the New York Times, with a little over 1.1 million readers, ranks a distant third to USA Today (2.2 million readers) and the Wall Street Journal (2.1 million readers). Yet in online readership, the Times is unparalleled. It not only beats out its competition, it beats out its own weekday print edition. Last December the Times’ internal numbers recorded an astonishing 1.2 million unique daily online visitors. (All told, The Big Three circulate 5.4 million newspapers every weekday, and draw 2.9 million readers online.)

With that many readers relying on online newspaper Websites, the question arises: What are those readers getting? An informal Campaign Desk survey indicates the answer to that question is: Not necessarily what they think they’re getting.

The New York Times Online is not the same as the New York Times. The same holds true for the web sites of the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal. To be sure, many of the stories are the same and the newspaper’s banner may appear atop the Web page. But according to online editors at all the news organizations, online users are reading a different publication than the ink-and-paper product.

Don’t feel too bad if you didn’t realize that; neither did two high-profile reporters that Campaign Desk has written about, John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal and Richard Stevenson of the New York Times.

Stevenson complained to Campaign Desk after we took him to task for a Feb. 18 story from Fort Polk, La., that appeared to swallow the White House line that President Bush’s had visited the fort on a spur-of-the-moment decision. In fact, in the final print edition of the newspaper, Stevenson’s story noted that Fort Polk officials had planned for the visit for days. Our mistake was relying on the version on the Times’ Website, in which a late update that Stevenson had filed never appeared. The Times does its best to update the Web edition as well as the print edition, but Stevenson’s files just slipped through the cracks, an editor told us.

That can happen occasionally, because the Web operations of most major papers represent worlds unto themselves. Just as newspapers have foreign news desks and sports desks, the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times now have quasi-autonomous “continuous news desks” (called the extended news desk at the Los Angeles Times), staffed with editors and reporters dedicated to providing up-to-the-minute news coverage on the Web.

The editors of these continuous news desks start off their mornings by identifying the major stories of the day and contacting the print reporters assigned to those stories. Ideally the print reporter agrees to cover the event for the continuous news desk, as Stevenson did with Bush’s appearance in Fort Polk, La. Robert McCartney, assistant managing editor for continuous news at the Washington Post, says this is the “first choice always” because it brings the Website “credibility, knowledge, context, and sources that readers trust.”

But at times, the print reporter declines the continuous news request. As Stevenson told Campaign Desk, “If I feel that I don’t have a story nailed down sufficiently, or that I don’t have time … or that taking the time would prevent me from doing the reporting I need to do, then I won’t agree to do a continuous news version.

In such a case, the continuous news desk editors assign their own news reporters to the story. The continuous news reporter contacts the print reporter assigned by the print editors to obtain background and source contact information. If the print reporter is able to phone in reporting, the two reporters co-author a story. If the print reporter cannot phone in details, then the continuous news reporter uses the background info to report out the story on his own. That’s not as good as the real deal, McCartney says, but it does provide the online reader with a story that carries “most of the [print] reporter’s credibility.”

These continuous news stories go up on the various Websites and are identified with time stamps and special URLs. As the day nears its end, and final versions from the next morning paper’s become available, ideally the continuous news stories come down from the site and the paper edition stories go up. This is exactly how the Times’ Stevenson understands the process, he told Campaign Desk: The “continuous news versions … are replaced online by the presumably more polished newspaper version after the editing process is completed.”

The various newspapers identify the difference between continuous news stories and print editions various ways — but the sites offer no clear guidance to help the reader make that distinction. The presumption seems to be that readers will figure it out for themselves. All three of the papers change the URL and remove the time stamp, while LATimes.com and WashingtonPost.com include page and section identification from the morning’s paper.

Even if online readers do parse the code to get to the final online version, there is still no guarantee they’ll get a final print version. (Remember, Stevenson’s updates to his story never made it into the final online Times.) As writers revise, web editors try to manually update the online versions. But, says Bill Brink, the Times’ managing editor of continuous news, the process is “subject to human error.”

An online reader seeking an online replica of the morning’s paper can click on the “print edition” link on the papers’ Websites. Less prone to error, these versions are available at the Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times makes only its front page available in this format.

However, Kinsey Wilson, editor-in-chief of USAToday.com, told Campaign Desk that in truth, a mere one percent of readers make their way to the online replica of the actual print edition, and most of them are reporters who appeared in the morning’s paper or readers sent USA Today’s way by links from other Websites.

Editors defend the difference between their online and print editions by asserting that any reader who wants the real story is going to get his hands on a print edition. Richard Core, editor of LATimes.com, told Campaign Desk that “if you want the story that people — radio or TV — are referring to, then go to the print edition. People understand that the Website is going to be updating throughout the day.”

Thus, he cautions, “if someone from a blog links to one of the [continuous news] stories that has a time stamp, it would be more precise to label it LATimes.com or the online edition of the L.A. Times,” as opposed to referring to it as The Los Angeles Times.

That’s news to Tucker Carlson, co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire.” Carlson says Core has it entirely wrong if he thinks that pundits reference the print editions. “Everyone, at least at my network and bureau, gets stuff off the web rather than print.” In fact, Carlson continued, “During the day my producers shoot me [articles] by email and we put the whole show together” using the Web versions.

As for New York Times reporter Stevenson, he suggests that “journalism critics and bloggers” (such as Campaign Desk) should “practice what they preach, and make a phone call or send an e-mail to the reporters involved before they draw a judgment about the stories they are evaluating.”

That comment misses the point. “Journalism critics and bloggers” may have the time and the means to compare online versus print editions, once they learn there is a difference, but the reading public can’t be held to such a standard. When people see the New York Times logo, they assume they are reading the New York Times, regardless of the medium.

Compounding the confusion over the different versions, at many papers the Websites operate as semi-autonomous units that draw a majority of their content from the print newspaper, but alter the presentation for the digital medium. Wilson, of USAToday.com, says the online team has a “fair amount of autonomy in applying our news judgment in which stories we select and what kind of play we give them,” because the Internet audience has different expectations than the print audience. For the Internet editions, “Currency is paramount. Speed is paramount. Brevity is paramount. … where we do depart is because of what the audience wants online. Our goal is to really be available to people wherever they seek news.”

McCartney of the Washington Post emphasizes that, however the Website may differ from the newspaper, “we only have autonomy in the sense that we have a different time frame. We don’t do anything that the newspaper doesn’t support, approve, endorse or back. We are not trying to carve our own path except for getting breaking news of importance to the readers while maintaining the Washington Post’s rigorous standards for accuracy and fairness.”

The editors for the Websites at the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and USA Today echo McCartney sentiments.

Gossipmonger Matt Drudge tested this standard on Feb. 12, when he posted a breathless rumor on his Website that suggested Democratic presidential frontrunner John Kerry had an affair with an intern. With one exception, the major papers’ Websites held true to their word and did not use the Internet as an excuse to sidestep journalistic ethics or short-circuit standards of verification.

USAToday.com “coordinated very closely with that story in particular because it could potentially affect the credibility of the brand,” McKinsey said. In fact, USAToday.com did not reference the Kerry rumor until the following Monday, when the woman issued a press release to deny the rumors.

The one exception to the restraint exhibited in reaction to the Drudge item was the Wall Street Journal’s free OpinionJournal.com, which cited the rumor only hours after Drudge waved it in front of the online world. Tony Lee, editor and chief and general manager of the Wall Street Journal Online network, calls the OpinionJournal.com the “independent Website of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial staff, not its news staff — a sort of online editorial and opinion page.” Bill Grueskin, managing editor Wall Street Journal Online, reiterated Opinion Journals’ independence; he has, he says, “no oversight or input into what they do on their site.”

A situation like that can cause confusion even among staffers. Apparently unaware that OpinionJournal.com had jumped on the story like a cat on a mouse, John Harwood, the Wall Street Journal’s lead political reporter, told Howard Kurtz on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” that there is “one thing that we at the Wall Street Journal can agree on. This is not a Wall Street Journal story” because “not only are there no facts to the story, there are no allegations, either.”

And therein lies the problem. The Journal has so many online incarnations that reporters for the newspaper itself, like Harwood, can hardly be expected to keep track of all its Web cousins. Currently the paper-and-ink versions of the major newspapers are still the dog that wags the tail. But, as online readership comes to dwarf print circulation, which seems only a matter of time, newspaper editors are going to have to decide which version of their own product to hold to the highest standards — the quaint relic of yesteryear, or the version that most readers turn to in real life.

Already, according to recent data from Media Metrix cited in a study of “E-politics” conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a “record 150 million Americans went online [in September 2003] and somewhere between half and two-thirds of those who go online get news there.”

It seems likely that millions of Americans, just like CNN’s Carlson, assume that the stories they find on the websites of major newspapers represent the final word. As online readership continues to close the gap with print circulation, perhaps it’s time that newspaper websites deliver on that implicit promise. Or, at the least, make it clear that they aren’t.

Correction: The above post has been corrected to reflect that the woman allegedly connected to Kerry issued a press release denying the rumor, rather than holding a press conference. It has also been changed to correctly reflect Robert McCartney’s title as assistant managing editor for continuous news at the Washington Post, not WashingtonPost.com.

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.