In the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, papers should take advantage of their Web sites to improve reader interaction and make it easier to report errors.
No journalist likes corrections. My face turned 12 shades of red when I found out I got an important fact wrong in last week's column on the Los Angeles Times (and the mistake was regurgitated in Romenesko and IWantMedia). But the facts were fixed online, and a note on the correction ran alongside my column.
No such quick fix sits at the ready for The New York Times after the Jayson Blair scandal broke this spring. One of the most astonishing parts of the scandal was that so many errors went unreported by the subjects Blair lied about. To set the record straight, NYTimes.com did run a prominent correction box on its front page for days, along with free access to Blair's old stories so people could send in corrections. For that, they should be congratulated.
But the situation for corrections at The Times is far from perfect. The paper's internal Siegal Report noted that The Times needed to better monitor incoming e-mails, respond quicker and keep readers in the loop. In response to the report, the newspaper announced that it will hire a public editor -- similar to an ombudsman -- who will have the power to write about any reader-raised issues at his/her discretion, according to Leonard Apcar, editor in chief of NYTimes.com. In addition, there will be a standards editor who will "look at the guts of all the e-mailed corrections," Apcar said.
Apcar noted that The Times has had a "corrections czar," editor Bill Borders, in place for years -- though that was only part of his job. But for The Times site to be useful to readers, it must be easy to find a way to report errors, and the paper's staff must respond in a professional, timely manner. The site's home page does have a "corrections" link up above the fold, so to speak. The page has a phone number and e-mail address to report errors -- along with the most recent print corrections from the paper. Plus, if you know to go there, the Member Center's Site Help page includes a slew of e-mail addresses and phone numbers -- including an e-mail address for Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the paper's publisher.
So far, Apcar said, The Times hasn't implemented anything online to help readers contact them since the Siegal Report. However, as part of a redesign to accommodate new half-page ads, there is now a link at the bottom of almost every NYTimes.com page going to the corrections page.
Digging around online
All that doesn't do much to mollify someone like Robert Cox, a New York technology consultant who runs The National Debate Web site. He considers himself a typical Times reader and wanted to report a problematic quote in a column by Maureen Dowd from May 14. He used the general corrections e-mail address and phone number but never heard back from anyone -- even now. He decided that his only hope was calling the Times' switchboard and badgering his way to someone at the op-ed page.
"The first thing she asked me was, 'Who are you with? Do you have an axe to grind?'" Cox told me. "That shouldn't be the first response to people contacting them. When people have taken the time to write or call them, they should at least take the time to respond to them professionally.... They had a good response online [to the Blair scandal]. But they really need to change their attitude; it's not just about links to a corrections page."
That's true, but having easy-to-find contact information on news sites is half the battle for readers. Adrian Holovaty, the lead developer for the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World Web site, ran a series on his Weblog titled: "Find the Web Editor's Name and E-Mail Address Week." The results were not pretty for site designers. In a simple quest to find the Web editor's contact info on six top news sites, Holovaty only rated SacBee.com as being simple. Others buried the information -- if it was on the site at all.
"I have a feeling many site managers think they're doing a good enough job already, if only because they're intimately familiar with their own sites to such an extent that they think finding contact information is a piece of cake," Holovaty told me via e-mail. "The perfect example: During my series, one online editor e-mailed me to say, 'You won't have trouble finding that information on our site.' Well, I took him up on the challenge, and I did have trouble -- it took me about seven clicks to find the information. Will we begin to see 'correct this story' links within every article? I don't know, but it certainly wouldn't hurt."
While Holovaty concentrated on finding a particular editor's e-mail address, Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman, an online producer for TCPalm.com and a former intern at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Web site, recently graded top newspaper sites' corrections pages on his Weblog. Washingtonpost.com scored highest for having a long list of corrected articles going back a few months, while The New York Times got a "D" for not linking to the corrected articles or including anything before that day.
Julie Albertson, a producer/designer at AJC.com, noted in an earlier study on her blog that she found 80 percent of the top 100 newspapers online had no corrections page at all. "The fact that corrections can be applied directly to the online version of a story does not free a publication of its duty to alert readers to the correction," she wrote. However, The Times -- and most other newspaper sites and news sites -- don't bother noting corrections that happen to early versions of stories online. Apcar said NYTimes.com would consider an Editor's Note online "if we're way off."
Can readers make a difference?
Despite the attention of an AJC.com staffer on online corrections, the paper's own Web site doesn't show corrections online -- at least from what I could tell. Still, the AJC's ombudsman, Mike King, told me that there's been a much heavier volume of reader e-mails and calls for corrections since the Jayson Blair scandal put corrections on readers' radar screens. While The Times said it can't fix stories that are in their archives after seven days -- and must simply run an appended correction -- the Journal-Constitution does allow for archive fixes online, King said.
"We haven't changed anything on our Web site yet [to make corrections easier to report]," King said. "Our first concern was getting more errors spotted, and getting facts right. But changing the Web site is a worthy discussion for us to have at some point."
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram recently made its online contact list more reader friendly, adding phone numbers and e-mail addresses from the publisher on down. Tom "Lefty" Leferink, senior editor of multimedia for Star-Telegram.com, said the list had been "abysmal before," but he's not sure if the improvement was motivated by the Blair scandal.
Star-Telegram.com has a corrections page, but many stories are corrected online without being listed on that page. "I won't BS you that all our major corrections run on our online corrections page," Leferink said. "But it's something we should think about." Leferink also said that having contact information to report errors in stories could help on their corrections page.
The Star-Telegram is ahead of the game by having an ombudsman in David House, who recently asked for more reader input in the newspaper's editorial process. Lo and behold, he said he has already started to get a noticeable increase in reader e-mail and calls about errors, with about half the people contacting the paper for the first time.
Despite the poor state of newspaper site corrections, the major broadcast sites are even worse. MSNBC.com, ABCNews.com, CNN.com and CBSNews.com have no corrections procedure listed anywhere online -- from what I could tell. "I guess they get it all right," quipped The Times' Apcar. An ABCNews.com spokesperson told me the site doesn't include corrections because breaking stories change as they get updated.
Andrea Hamilton, a senior editor at MSNBC.com., said her site does include an editor's note when a story has been corrected, but there is no corrections page. However, that should change when the site undergoes a redesign in the fall. Hamilton said that not only is a correction page scheduled to be added, but they plan to add a link to the corrections page from every other page. The site also is considering including a corrections e-mail address after each story -- one of the better solutions.
Perhaps The Times' new public editor and standards editor can lead the way, with a more transparent and open process for readers on NYTimes.com. The problem isn't just within the site, but it's a good place to start to heal the rift with skeptical readers. A redesign is slowly being implemented on NYTimes.com, Apcar said, and the cluttered home page might even go on a diet of sorts. Hopefully, the staff contacts and corrections page will become an even more prominent and powerful feature, so readers can feel more connected to a news process that has shut them out in the past.