After Twitter falls for a URL trick, Gannett fixes a company-wide glitch

Photo: AP

How long does it take a major newspaper chain to fix a very public glitch in its CMS?

About a day and a half, apparently—at least, based on what we saw from the Gannett websites this week.

On Wednesday, The Tennessean, a Gannett paper, published a story about a top state Republican lawmaker suggesting that the National Guard round up any Syrian refugees who have been resettled in Tennessee. Unsurprisingly, the story quickly found a large audience and was widely shared online.

But not all that social sharing was through the URL the paper had assigned. A little after 5 pm Wednesday, a Nashville-based Twitter user sent this message:

Readers who clicked the link were taken to The Tennessean’s story at this URL:

http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2015/11/17/can-you-believe-this-asshole/75936660/

…which has one notable difference from the URL the paper actually assigned:

http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2015/11/17/tennessee-gop-leader-round-up-syrian-refugees-remove-state/75936660/

Apparently, @cwage, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, knew something that Gannett and The Tennessean might not have: Anyone could plug anything at all in the SEO keyword part of the URL, and, as long as the other elements weren’t changed, the link would work—no hacking, coding, or other skills required. And you could do the same thing for the Arizona Republic, the Detroit Free Press, USA Today, and seemingly any publication on the Gannett CMS.

For readers who didn’t know about this one weird trick, the “asshole” link looked like either an eye-catching slip-up or an intentional and especially aggressive use of “social URL.” As you might imagine, it created some buzz on journalism Twitter Wednesday night. Meanwhile, The Tennessean’s social media staff explained—and explained, and explained—that it was a “trickster,” not anyone at the paper, who had assigned that specific URL. Before long, they seemed to be getting the message out. (Employees at the paper offered the same explanation to CJR when asked about it.)

Then, Thursday night, the process started all over again. The Twitter user @SlacktivistFred tweeted the “asshole” URL, deeming it “delightful” and giving a shout-out to the “nameless Tennessean copyeditor” who had presumably assigned it. That message quickly drew scores of retweets, including one from a Twitter investor with 1.6 million followers. (By this point, The Tennessean had stopped trying to set the record straight on its public Twitter feed.) Journalists were picking up on the URL again, too:

By midday Friday, the spoof URL had been shared 470 times on Twitter, according to the tracking tool Topsy. That’s a tiny fraction of the total social shares for the story, but still enough make a bunch of people think The Tennessean had published something it hadn’t—or, in the case of people who had learned the story behind the URL, to bring awareness to a pretty widespread Gannett glitch.

That glitch is fixed now, though. We don’t know exactly when it happened—Gannett’s chief technology officer didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment—but by a little after 10 this morning, the “asshole” link was redirecting to the one The Tennessean assigned. The same thing now happens with URLs for other Gannett publications, too—you can still type whatever you want into that field, but it will redirect to the original URL. That’s probably a good thing for Gannett, even if it makes the internet a less interesting place for “tricksters” like @cwage—who, by the way, subtly acknowledged his role from the start.

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Greg Marx and Corey Hutchins are, respectively, a CJR assistant editor and a correspondent for CJR's United States Project.