“The sheer impact of doing the wrong thing has grown tremendously because of the speed and reach of the new media, and that is leading a lot of these new brands to show a lot of traditional values,” says Eric Newton, senior advisor to the president at the Knight Foundation and former managing editor of the Newseum.
It’s about finding the right middle point. Some degree of perfectionism turns out to be good for business, and absolute perfectionism can prevent great journalism from ever happening at all. Journalists haven’t found a magic answer—the Knight Foundation just issued a $320,000 grant to support development of software that determines if viral videos are real. And the audience remains uncertain about what standards to apply: Twitter addicts are far more forgiving of mistakes than, say, subscribers to print newspapers, or readers of The New Yorker.
In every newsroom I visited, The New Yorker’s iconic fact-checking system was mentioned, not so much as an ideal, but more like an impossible standard that no mere mortals could reach. Despite the difficult advertising climate, The New Yorker still employs full-time staff checkers to verify every assertion in each piece. For an article I wrote last year, the magazine assigned two checkers who devoted much of their time to the story for more than five months. Each set of checks opened new avenues for reporting, immensely strengthening the story. From the perspective of a newspaper guy, the experience seemed to take place on a different planet from where I ordinarily live.
Such differences are okay, Newton says, because different audiences are drawn to the media that fit their pace and interests. “We get the media we deserve,” he says. But over time, “we all come to see that people want to know something that is true.”
In the newsrooms of this moment, with growing agreement that audiences want information that is true, journalists are coming together around the same basic questions: When is information sufficiently baked to be served up as accurate? Who decides? Should there be rules, or just ideals? Is it enough merely to try to be right eventually?
On the snowy evening before I drove up to south central Pennsylvania to visit the York Daily Record, its editors suggested I check out the liveblog they had created to cover the first significant storm of the year. The blog featured video snippets from staff reporters showing where slick roads were snarling traffic. There were feeds from the National Weather Service and tweets from reporters and competing media outlets. The editors were proud that their blog gave equal treatment to reader-generated content—pictures and tweets with the #pawx hashtag.
Reader Dan Sokil said roads were “slow with a solid layer of slush but passable slowly.” Jhofford20 posted: “What better way to spend a snow day than by drinking a couple beers.” Erin Kissling added: “Winter Storm Advisory: The state liquor stores are closed. this is bullshit.”
No one edits the storm blog at night, says Jim McClure, the Record’s editor, but there’s nothing on the blog he’d have taken out. The beers line “captures the feelings of the community,” and the profanity is fine because “we’re looser online.”
These days at the Record—which has 19 reporters on a staff of 55 journalists, down from 80 at its peak a decade ago—everyone blogs, shoots video, and posts on social media, as well as reports and writes. Reporters and photographers post directly to the site, “so it’s incumbent more and more on the reporter to get it right,” says metro editor Susan Martin. “Editors fix things after they’re online, as soon as we can.”
I chose to visit the Record because its parent company, Digital First Media, a chain of 75 papers, has turned its newsrooms into a whirl of do-it-all journalists no longer divided by digital and print. The Record’s reporters and producers are all over social media now, as well as on their own site and in print. But does that new multi-platform saturation require the Record to be more of a mirror of its community and less of a watchdog? Does the pace and approach of digital journalism detract from being the community’s referee of truth?
The Record’s restructuring was designed to “keep the same number of people on the street,” says McClure, who has been at the paper for 25 years. A new Design Center—basically a copy desk—designs and produces four regional newspapers from the Record newsroom, freeing journalists in Chambersburg, Hanover, and Lebanon to focus solely on generating local content.