SA: I think there’s a bit of a sense that because the story can be constantly updated, that any particular piece of it is a bit of a work in progress, and I need to think more thoroughly about how to avoid that perception. We don’t want to be updating and changing each particular blog post. We want to let the work have its own end point and have a reader expect that the next post will add to it, rather than each post should be expected to change when circumstances merit. At a certain point, you’ve got to cut off any story. But the Internet still allows you the ability to build rather quickly and adjust your coverage as necessary.
One of the things that I wonder about for online reporting is the degree to which the correction is your friend. It used to be that a correction was a kind of black mark. And there’s no excuse for factual inaccuracy, but what the Internet has done is allow you to say in a more transparent and comfortable fashion, ‘There’s some more information here’ or ‘There’s some more context I should have added’ or ‘There’s something I missed that I shouldn’t have,’ and just allows you to update that piece so that it works, in a both transparent and journalistically sound fashion. The correction, I think, is becoming the update, and that is a net gain for everyone.
GM: Are there any particular stories that you’ve worked on that illuminate either the strengths or imperfections of this model?
SA: Last year, I wrote a series that I’m pretty proud of called “The Rise of the Counterinsurgents,” about this new generation of theorist-practitioners around counterinsurgency who had come out of Iraq and Afghanistan and were in think tanks in Washington and certain places in the Defense Department and the State Department and were thinking through what this current era of warfare meant both tactically and strategically. And I wrote ten of those—it was a series that I would also develop on the blog, so I guess I wrote maybe thirty installments of it over the course of eight months. And there was one particular installment whereby I profiled a really prominent counterinsurgent named David Kilcullen, who’s since written a really excellent book called The Accidental Guerrilla, which is one of the seminal texts of this new generation of counterinsurgents.
And I met up with Kilcullen, we were talking around a bar, and he used some kind of hot language to describe the Iraq war. I thought that was just good stuff to quote—the interview was on the record, and so forth. And so I quoted that and I put it in the piece. It was literally just one word in this piece, but it caused him some agitation, and he wrote a post on Small Wars Journal clarifying his views on Iraq, and I read it and thought, ‘That’s a really fair point,’ and I wrote a post explaining not just why I used the word that I used in the quotation, but that in retrospect I was wrong and I shouldn’t have done that, basically because it detracted from the broader story that I was telling and that Kilcullen was really working on.
And it got me thinking about the difference between a hot quote and explanatory capability, and perhaps if I wasn’t so focused on getting this piece to kind of pop as much as I could, I would have not made that judgment error. And what I liked about that was of course not just the embarrassment that that caused me and the difficulties it caused Dave, but that a reader could see the thought process that went into that decision, and could see it change. There’s a lot of times that I think reporters are afraid to say straight up that they made mistakes, that there were judgment calls that they shouldn’t have made, and more importantly don’t explain to their readers what the circumstances were that led to that, and that’s a kind of outmoded way of thinking. There’s an appetite for people who are our readers who’ve been frustrated at the opacity of journalism for years to have a more personal connection with authors.
GM: What are your strategies for dealing with the challenges of not having a legacy brand behind you?