Piercing the editorial veil

In his latest column, Steve Outing suggests that, in this post-Jayson Blair era, newspapers expose the inner workings of a news story’s life online, showing everyone who has touched the story from the reporter through the copy editor, desk editor, etc, etc. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure how practical it is, and I KNOW that most editors won’t like the concept.

First, go read Outing’s column. I’ll wait.

Doing the least that Outing suggests (adding the reporter’s AND the editor’s email addresses to tagline) is probably do-able and would be approved by most editors. It shows that individual editors are as responsible for a reporters’ work as that reporter. It also names names instead of offering an impersonal institutional email address, which is a good idea anyway.

However, putting into action the full version (showing all the people who touch a story) would require a level of work that many news staffs would likely balk at, much less meet the approval of editors and publishers. In addition to just the main thrust of his column, Outing also plots this one feature for news websites as just one small point on a curve reaching toward the “next wave of journalism.”

First, the practical aspects of this one feature.

In order to publish a list of every person who has “touched” a story in its progress from reporter and photographer to reader, you would have to actually keep track of that information. Most newsrooms (at least the three I’ve working in/with) don’t track this info. Sure, on any given night, it would be pretty easy to determine who did what on a given story, but that data usually isn’t recorded anywhere. Most editorial software systems don’t track this data in a way that would make it easy to put on the web. They probably should, but that’s sortof another issue.

Then there’s the issue of actually putting it on the web. Many news organizations are woefully understaffed when it comes to web content producers. They’ve barely got time to do what they do now (just put up the paper’s stories on the web more or less as they appeared in the paper, with little or no additional stuff), much less add in a lot of niggling details (or, if you prefer, valuable metadata) about each and every story that goes up. Some systems are at least semi-automated, and only if this data is easily accessible by whatever Rube Goldberg contraption (and I’ve seen — and built — some doozies) puts the stories on the web could this even be possible.

For those of us whose editorial content management systems don’t interface directly (or well) with the web CMS (and don’t forget the archive system!), this comes back to doing it manually, and again we’re hit with the understaffing problem. Newsrooms are tight these days, too, not just online staffs, and the newsroom staff’s “job one” is getting the newspaper out. The website is often a distant second in consideration when it comes to valuable time.

Second, assuming that it’s possible, will management want to do it (or even be willing to allow it)?

Showing everyone who is involved in the production of a particular story would likely strike many editors as revealing too much of the internal processes of the newspaper. There’s no requirement that newspapers “show their work” like you had to do in 7th-grade algebra. That’s not saying they shouldn’t do so, but most don’t and, more importantly, don’t want to. I’m sure all of these issues will vary wildly from newsroom to newsroom, but with few exceptions, newspaper managements are often very conservative and tentative about how much to show and give on the web.

I think it’s unlikely that the full version (exposing everyone who’s touched a story) will get put into play at many newspaper sites. It’s too time-consuming (and, thus, too expensive), and it represents a movement in a direction that the inherently conservation media business resists, though in his conclusion, Outing point precisely in that direction:

The next wave of journalism should include much public comment, feedback, advice, tips, and complaints. It should contain more information than has ever been made publicly available before. It will make newspaper journalists accountable and journalism credible. It will take us beyond the Jayson Blair scandal.

I know a lot of editors who would disagree with that statement. In fact, I think they would vehemently disagree. For most newspaper management, the news business is a one-way street, where the paper presents the news to the readers, making the decisions about what’s important and what readers should know. That’s how the newspaper industry has worked for decades. The one avenue for public comment on news stories is the “letter to the editor,” which often suffers from timeliness, editorial bias, etc., etc. The last thing most editors would want to see on their sites is unmoderated “public comment, feedback, advice, tips, and complaints.”

It’s going to take a big leap of faith and a lot of experimentation (including some embarrassing mistakes) to work out the details of Outing’s “next wave of journalism.” It was already looming on the horizon, though, before the Jayson Blair scandal (and the inevitable pile of similar problems that are likely to crop up at many news organizations). Now, however, post-Jayson Blair, more people (readers and publishers alike) may see more of a need for those changes. However, the ideas are going to be met with powerful resistance all up and down the line.

It’s going to be an interesting journey.