Copy-paste journalism wants to be free

Google News is a depressing read for a journalist. It shows you how many news outlets depend on copy-and-paste reporting, regurgitating the same press releases and quotes in an infinite loop. Who needs all these clones of the same story, with the same basic facts and sources? [Read more…]

Does your site really need to be in Google News?

With print newspaper circulations crashing faster than the reality-TV hopes of Balloon Boy‘s family, you could forgive newsroom managers for chasing every available source of new readers. For many online publishers, affiliated with newspapers or not, the Holy Grail of traffic is inclusion in the Google News index.

Get in Google News, and links to your stories will be e-mailed to millions of Google’s news alert subscribers, whenever your stories hit the right keywords. Post a hot story quickly, and you could end up on Google News’ highly clicked front page.

But is inclusion in that index or other search engines’ news indices really worthwhile for the majority of online news publishers? I’m going to argue… no. (Well, at least it’s not worth making a fuss over.)

Why on Earth wouldn’t a news site want the higher public profile and increased traffic that inclusion in Google News could bring? Look, if your site’s goal is to appeal to a global audience, especially ones looking for news related to specific keywords and phrases, you need to be in Google News and should do everything you can to get included. If you are CNN, or the New York Times, you need to be in Google News and optimizing your pages to perform well within it.

But what if you aren’t looking to reach a global audience? What if your site’s focus is local, as are the readers your advertisers want to reach? What if you are trying to build an online community, cultivating ongoing relationships with a core of contributing readers?

“Drive-by” visitors from search engines inflate your site’s traffic stats, but they don’t help you reach those goals. Worse, traffic numbers plumped by infrequent visitors clicking news alerts create a distorted picture of your website’s health and viability.

Many newspaper executives might take some comfort in the large number of readers visiting their newsrooms’ websites. But let’s look at how engaged those visitors are with these websites.

Or, more accurately, how they are not.

An Editor & Publisher report on September 2009’s Nielsen Online report on the United States’ top 30 online newspaper websites (by most most unique visitors) showed that the mean amount of time spent for that month on one of those websites was just nine minutes and 22 seconds.

That’s a tick under 19 seconds per day on average, if you considered each website visitor the equivalent of a daily subscriber. I doubt that even the speediest reader can get through many articles – much less any advertisements – in under 19 seconds.

So, clearly, online visitors are not as valuable to today’s news websites as daily subscribers to the local newspaper were a generation ago. Diminishing engagement with their audiences, whether reflected in lower print circulation numbers or by less time spent on the website, is what’s driving legacy news businesses’ failure to hold on to their once-lucrative advertising market share. No one’s going to pay top dollar to reach an audience which isn’t there.

Start-up local news publishers must act smarter. Work to build your website by developing local community contacts, not fattening the visitor logs with out-of-market visitors driven in by search engines. Use social media to encourage current readers to invite new ones. Build content and report stories that local readers will want to recommend.

Looking over the metrics for the websites I manage, I see a clear pecking order in the amount of time spent on the site versus the way a visitor accessed the site. Here’s that list, from most time to least:

  1. People referred to the site via an e-mail forwarded by a friend or colleague
  2. People searching for the site’s name in a search engine
  3. People accessing the site via bookmark or direct-typed URL
  4. People accessing the site via a link in its e-mail newsletter
  5. People accessing the site via its Facebook page or Twitter feed
  6. People accessing the site via a direct link from another, non-search website
  7. People accessing the site via a link on another social bookmarking site (i.e. Digg or StumbleUpon)
  8. People clicking from Google News
  9. People searching for a term in a search engine

For what it is worth, there’s a cliff-like drop-off in time spent between the social bookmark links and the Google News and search engine referrals. In my experience with my websites, people whose initial visit to the site is driven by a referral from a friend or colleague, or from searching for the site’s name in a search engine, spend far more time on the site and are far more likely to return than those referred by a search engine.

As an industry, we’ve got to develop a deeper reading relationship with our audience. From the data I’ve seen, the shortest route to that goal lies in building traffic through human connections, not search engines and their news pages.

Okay, so traffic from search engines isn’t helping build a loyal audience for community-focused publications. But it can’t hurt, right?

Maybe it can. Forgive me while I drift into speculation here, but I’ll do this as an appeal to readers who might be more connected with the “dark arts” of Internet marketing than I am. Of the sites I’ve run over the years, the ones included in the Google News index have encountered a far, far greater incident of spam attempts in comments and other UGC features than those not included in the index.

And that’s not explained simply by site popularity, either. My two biggest family-owned websites are not in the Google News index, but OJR is. And OJR elicits exponentially more comment spam submissions than the other two sites, despite the fact that those sites receive around five to 10 times the daily traffic of OJR. (It’s gotten so bad that we now hold all comments not from site authors for approval before posting on OJR.)

If you’re ready to dismiss that observation as a single data point (and you should be), allow to me suggest that others may be experiencing the same. Speaking with other Web publishers, I’ve heard those whose sites are in the Google News index report getting hit with platform-independent comment spam at a far higher rate than those whose sites are not. (This isn’t to say that sites not in Google News don’t suffer spam attacks. The highly popular sites not in the Google News index tend to be blogs and forums running off-the-shelf publishing software, which from time to time attract spam attacks targeted specifically at those publishing systems. But those attacks are aimed at the publishing platform more than at the individual websites.) These submissions are typically human-generated, and include link spam either in the comment itself, or on the reader’s site profile page.

Are spammers targeting sites in the Google News index? I haven’t spent enough time with the black hats of the ‘net to know, despite my suspicion. Consider this my appeal to those who have to provide an answer.

In the meantime, from a system administration stand-point, I want my website to be well-known to people in its target community… and completely off the radar of spammers and search engine black hats. To me, that means:

  • selecting a publishing system with an enthusiastic support community that’s aggressive about security,
  • making sure that my site’s home page uses sound search engine optimization techniques to appear at the top of results pages for my site’s name and its community name,
  • and spending my energy to cultivate connections within my target community, offline and on, staying clear of link swaps, black hat SEO and becoming a spammer myself.

Getting into Google News? (Or Yahoo! News or Bing’s news page?) Meh. Put that at the bottom of your priority list. As an online news publisher, you have better ways of building your readership community. Focus on those, instead.

Rewriting history: Should editors delete or alter online content?

Elizabeth Zwerling is an associate professor of journalism at the University of La Verne in Los Angeles County.

By the time I got the e-mail from the spokeswomen for a major credit card company asking me to delete her quotes from an article we’d run almost a year before, I was skeptical. She had already contacted the reporter with various versions of her concern: she’d been speaking off the record, the reporter must have confused her with another source, the quotes were wrong. A man “representing” her had called the managing editor urging him to omit the quotes from the archive. “I think he was a lawyer,” the managing editor told me at the time. (He wasn’t.)

I’m faculty adviser for the Campus Times, a 2,000-circulation weekly newspaper of the University of La Verne in Los Angeles County. My staff of undergraduates occasionally gets things wrong and corrects them. But this was a solid story by a conscientious reporter, puzzled by the content, urgency and timing of the source request.

Most likely the credit card spokeswoman – a woman a Google search revealed is widely quoted by Reuters and CNN, among others – had searched herself online and found our story about college students and credit card debt, in which she spoke openly, if off-message, about the age group’s unchecked spending habits.

Easy access to online news archives is one of the Web’s amazing benefits for journalists – or anyone wanting background on people or events. But the fact that last year’s or the last decade’s news stories are just a mouse-click away means that anything one says to a reporter – perhaps in a moment of vulnerability – can be entered into a very visible long-lasting record. The visibility of this record, its effects and what to do about those, if anything, is a contentious topic among editors and ethicists across the nation, as the sense – and the reality – of new media is that stories live long past their press dates.

The credit card spokeswoman scenario was fairly easy to resolve: The reporter had kept her notes, we reviewed them against the archived story and the now 2-year-old story remains unchanged in our archive. The spokeswoman’s discomfort with the story, particularly given her profession, I concluded, did not come close to a threshold for altering the permanent record.

A few months earlier a colleague shared a similar scenario, albeit with a more dramatic request. In late 2005 he was asked to alter the archive of a 1999 story about same-sex couples by one of the sources profiled in the La Verne Magazine. “She said she wasn’t gay anymore,” said George Keeler, journalism professor and magazine adviser. “It was a painful thing, but I wrote her back and said I wasn’t going to erase (her past),” The story, now eight years old, come up first when the source’s name is typed into Google and Yahoo!’s engines.

“It’s not like it used to be when clippings would just molder in the morgue of the newspaper office,” said Craig Whitney, standards editor for the New York Times, who said the Times frequently fields requests to alter archives.

“A source will call saying the paper reported an arrest, then didn’t report the dismissal of the case,” Whitney said. “We can’t go re-report the who (sometimes 20-year-old) story and we can’t just take their word for it: ‘The judge threw out the case.’ ‘Where’s the judge?’ ‘He’s dead.’ ‘Where’s the record of the case?’ ‘In some archive in Fort Dix.’ We recognize it’s frustrating. We can’t do anything.

“Sometimes it’s a case where somebody is embarrassed about a part of their past that they don’t deny, which wasn’t so prominent (before online archives and Google),” Whitney said.

The New York Times has received requests from divorced couples to remove archived stories about their marriages, said Leonard Apcar, former editor-in-chief of

“We’ve always had a sense that the archive is historical,” Whitney said. “What’s changed is now anybody can consult it from home. We haven’t figured out what to do, if anything. We’ve had some meetings and we’ll have some more to… figure out something to do that’s ethically responsible, that doesn’t compromise the integrity of the archives, but addresses the need for clarification, elaboration,” Whitney said adding that the Times has never deleted anything from its online archives. “I doubt if we ever would. The question is, is there something else we can do that falls short of rewriting history?”

The answer to that question seems to depend on the story, the publication and a variety of circumstances, which like the medium, are still evolving.

Editors at the Pasadena (Calif.) Weekly felt they found a fair solution when in 2006, they decided to remove the name of an ex-con from an archived story, six months after it came out in print.

Joe Piasecki, the paper’s deputy editor who also reported the story, had covered a protest at San Quentin Prison a week before the execution of Crips co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams, where he interviewed a man who said he’d been in prison with Williams. Piasecki researched the man’s background through the Oakland Tribune’s (offline) coverage of the man’s 1998 trial and found the man had been charged with raping and sodomizing his former girlfriend, and convicted of assault. Piasecki included that information in the story along with the man’s claim that he was innocent. “I’d called the Tribune library (to make sure) he was who he said he was,” Piasecki said.

The story ran Dec. 8, 2005, in the Weekly, its sister paper the Ventura County Reporter, and on the Reporter’s Web site. At the time the story went up, the Pasadena Weekly didn’t have a functioning Web archive, so the source’s call went to the Ventura, Calif., newsroom first. Then Piasecki and Pasadena Weekly Editor Kevin Uhrich were consulted.

“Our first reaction was ‘no don’t change it’,” Piasecki said. “I tend to say that unless (the reporter) screwed up, don’t change it. What’s true is true.”

Piasecki said his publication made an exception here because the man wasn’t familiar with the Internet, and because his quotes toward the end of a story about someone else, were not critical to its “material essence.” The man had served two years at San Quentin and remembered seeing Williams there; his quotes added color to the story, Piasecki said. The quotes are still in the Ventura newspaper’s online archive, only the man’s name was removed.

“The guy said every time he applied for a job they Googled his name and this was the only hit,” Piasecki said. “We took his name out so he could move on with his life.”

“I didn’t see any harm,” Uhrich said, adding this is the only time the Weekly has edited an archived story beyond correcting specific factual errors and taking offline a guest editorial he learned after publication was largely plagiarized. (The paper’s own Web site hosts archives dating back to January 2006.)

At the New York Times, even plagiarized stories remain as part of the permanent record. Those by ex-Times reporter Jayson Blair still appear intact in the Times archives with editor’s notes appended to the articles.

“The Jayson Blair stories are going to (stay) in the archives,” Whitney said. “We can’t pretend he was never here.”

Because Internet databases do not discriminate in what they pick up and store, however, a ProQuest search of a Jayson Blair story with plagiarized sections called up the story without the editor’s notes.

Despite the timeless nature of online postings, laws that protect news outlets have not changed. No matter how emphatic or justified a source’s complaint may be, any threat to take legal action against the reporter or news organization after the one-to-two-year statute of limitations for libel law is an idle threat, said Roger Myers, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition.

Ethically, however, dealing with source requests to alter online archives is increasingly complicated, and as with just about every aspect of online journalism, still evolving.

When a story, column or even a reader response to a story is posted online then transferred to the publication’s archive, “it’s a matter of record,” said Robert Steele, a scholar of journalism ethics and values at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. “To change it would change a piece of history.”

If editors start removing some stories or parts of stories from archives, readers will begin to wonder what else is missing, Steele said.

And yet Steele, who advises newsroom leaders on a variety of ethical issues, acknowledges that in the rapidly changing media landscape, there are no absolutes.

“If it can be proven that the material did not come from the person whose name is attached, that would be a reason to take something down,” he said. “If it is substantially inaccurate, that would be a reason to correct it and in a rare case take it down.”

Or, Steele added, if a source could make a convincing argument that the story’s accessibility online poses a “profound and immanent threat to their well-being,” that might be a case to consider altering or deleting it from the record. Though he emphasized that these would be rare exceptions.

In the rare case when an editor does change or delete a story from the archive, there is no guarantee the original version of the story won’t come up in a Google search. As Paul McAfee, director of interactive operations at the Press Enterprise newspaper in Riverside, Calif., explained: “The major search engines crawl the news Web sites on a regular basis. They could pull up an erroneous story and ‘cache’ it in their archives. “Hopefully they will pick up the correction,” he said. Though he added that it’s likely that both the original and the updated version of the story will come up in a search.

There are formal request processes to have items removed from Google and the other search engines, but there is no guarantee their decision-makers will honor the request. Under federal law, “Internet entities that host other people’s content are not liable for that content.” Myers said.

While McAfee said policy at the Press Enterprise is to not alter any accurate news archive, he recently helped a reader who’d posted offensive comments on‘s message board, then wanted the comments deleted.

“Someone wrote a comment that sounded really racist, then a few months later they saw the light and changed their opinion,” McAfee said. When the poster asked McAfee to remove the comments from the message board, he agreed to. Unlike its editorial content, postings on the publication’s electronic message board are eventually purged automatically, he said. Because they are generated by the public and not by the newspaper’s editorial department, these message boards are not subject the publication’s editorial policies, McAfee said.

“I wrote (the poster) back, ‘It’s off our site.’ They wrote back ‘yes but it’s still cashed in Google.’ The Google spiders picked it up, it was stuck in Google’s cache. The person asked me to intercede with Google. I sent them the Web address and a form for Google. I didn’t do it for them,” McAfee said. “We disclaim any responsibility for anything on our message boards.”

Letters to the editor, on the other hand, are different from message board postings when it comes to online archives, editors say.

“We’ve had many experiences where letter writers, who espouse some wild or provocative opinion, want the letter taken off the Web years later,” said Clint Brewer, executive editor of the City Paper in Nashville, Tenn., and the Society of Professional Journalists national president-elect. But letters are also part of the historical record, he said.

Brewer said that while the landscape has changed dramatically, at this point newsroom leaders have a long-standing set of standard for accuracy and preserving the historical record based on the print journalism model. “It’s not apples to apples (but) that’s a logical place to start,” he said.

McAfee said he hopes the visibility and permanence of the online record – and the fact that even stories subsequently edited for accuracy may live online alongside the uncorrected versions – will make journalists take their job of getting it right more seriously than ever.

Whitney believes such visibility and permanence will affect sources: “I think that the arrival of YouTube and Internet and the fact that images and text last forever means that actions have lasting consequences. It’s more important than it ever has been for people before they do something (to consider the) consequences.”