When Web print stories disappear, the meaning of 'archives' fades

“So let us drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of a history that will never be completed about a world we can never understand.” — Philip Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, 1946-63

If Graham thought it was impossible to do a first draft of history in the newspaper, imagine how much more impossible he would consider our present time, when newspaper stories are examined, prodded and picked over on newspaper sites and in online archives.

Now, the struggle over writing and editing the first draft of history includes a little birdie on the shoulders of journalists telling them that their work might live on forever on the global Web — and not just in a musty morgue or library. While most editors and ethicists believe that every single story that appears in a newspaper should also appear on the paper’s Web site and archive, there have been exceptions to the rule.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer didn’t post a recent story on teen suicides on its Web site for two days, the Missoulian (Mont.) took a story about competitor New West off its Web site after a few days, and the San Francisco Chronicle spiked a 1999 story about the Columbine shootings due to complaints about a videogame angle. Plus, after a high-profile lawsuit from freelance writers, many online publications and databases had to pull their stories due to lack of compensation.

In the case of the Post-Intelligencer, reporter Claudia Rowe wrote a sensitive story about three teens who had recently committed suicide in succession over a number of weeks. When Rowe first approached suicide experts in her reporting, they were wary of the possibility that press sensationalism could in turn cause more teen suicides.

“Before the story was printed, we had experts who were nervous that we were even doing the story,” said Mark Matassa, city editor at the P-I. “Some of the feedback we were getting was that anytime you write about this, there’s a danger of provoking more suicides, which obviously wasn’t our intention. But it’s also not our intention to not do important journalism because somebody’s afraid that someone might take it wrong.”

Once the story ran on May 23, however, those same experts were relieved at Rowe’s sensitive handling of the material and were satisfied with wider Web distribution. However, the editors held off on posting the story online initially, with the twin concerns that teens were more likely to read it online and that the editors might lose control of where the story was posted and passed around online.

“The initial thinking was that because we were taking so much care with the presentation of the story in the newspaper, if we put it online, we don’t have the same control,” Matassa told me. “The story gets picked up and moves around the Internet really quickly. We were nervous about presenting the story in a way that allowed us to ensure that we were doing it properly.”

This passage, in particular, shows how technology itself played a part in the story: “Technology, it turns out, was central to the way their deaths unfolded,” Rowe wrote. “Each boy sent an electronic goodbye to his friends moments before pulling the trigger, and each has since become part of an ongoing cyber conversation among the network of teenagers left behind.”

But after two days of holding off on posting the story online, the editors had enough positive feedback to feel comfortable putting it on the Web — though they included an Editor’s Note explaining their thought process.

Editor’s Note: This story, published in print editions of the Post-Intelligencer on Monday, May 23, was not immediately posted online primarily because of the effect experts advised us it could have on suicidal teens. After seeing the story, suicide-prevention experts now believe it is responsible and constructive and deserves wider dissemination. For those reasons and after many requests from readers, we reconsidered and are posting Monday’s story.

While Matassa is not in charge of what goes online at the Post-Intelligencer’s site, he does have a deeper understanding of how the Web’s extension of a print story’s life affects the work done on the front end.

“Even more so, you better make darn sure your stories are right, that they’re smart, thoughtful stories, they quote people accurately, you get the facts right and aren’t making stuff up — all those things that you expect journalists to do,” he said. “Especially because they’re living online for eternity and beyond, that ought to doubly get your attention.”

Aiding and abetting the enemy in Montana?

Not all cases of spiked stories online involve sensitive social issues or court-ordered removals, however. In Missoula, Montana, the daily Missoulian newspaper rules supreme. When the upstart New West grassroots media Web site came to town, the reigning daily refused to sell classified job ads to the startup.

Then Missoulian business reporter Robert Struckman did an in-depth story on New West in March and interviewed its founder and editor in chief, Jonathan Weber. The story was approved by Missoulian publisher John VanStrydonck and appeared in print and on the newspaper’s Web site. However, a few days later, the story inexplicably disappeared from the site and searches for keywords brought up nothing.

Weber suspects the publisher was upset with positive coverage of a competing outlet and had it pulled online.

“It’s sort of like trying to pretend that it was never there, some kind of rewriting of history,” Weber told me. “It’s kind of peculiar and not an appropriate thing to do. We had a story about something a guy had written on his personal Weblog, and we did a story about this, and when the guy realized we were doing a story, he took his Web site down. But we found the site in the Google cache so he wasn’t actually able to expunge his Web site. So you can’t really fully expunge something from the Internet.”

In fact, the story is far from expunged from the Net. Weber had e-mailed a copy of the Missoulian article to a friend and had that copy to post on New West. He then used the whole embarrassing episode as the basis of a second-person screed about VanStrydonck’s thinking.

“It’s harder to control the pesky journalists in your own newsroom,” Weber wrote. “They actually go out and do a story about one of those new competing publications, granting it far more publicity and business advantage than it ever could have gotten from the advertisement that you so shamelessly refused to run. But God forbid you try to tell them what they can and can’t run. It’s not like the old days, when the Missoulian was a wholly-owned mouthpiece of Montana’s copper magnates. Now you have to appear editorially upright. Reporters and editors can piss and moan and run stories that undermine your business strategy. At least you can order the offending story expunged from the archives!”

Despite repeated phone calls and e-mails, VanStrydonck and Struckman refused to comment for my story, leaving Weber’s screed and posting of the Missoulian story as the last word on it. However, there’s one interesting aspect of the Case of the Disappearing Business Profile: The Missoulian Web site itself is far from comprehensive when it comes to posting print stories online. Due to cutbacks or lack of interest, the site is not a complete archive of print material, undercutting the newspaper’s own online authority on its reporting.

When complaints spiked a story

There was a time not that long ago when newspaper Web sites were almost completely off the radar for newspaper executives. At the old San Francisco Chronicle — pre-Hearst buyout — the SFGate online arm was run completely separately with almost no input from print editors.

It was in those days, in April 1999, that the newspaper ran a story about the Columbine High (Colorado) shooters that combined wire services with a staff byline, Jaxon Vanderbeken. Vanderbeken’s reporting included quotes from a police expert on Goths, Sergeant Dave Williams from the Dayton, Ohio, police department. One particular passage relating to Williams raised the hackles of videogamers:

“Sergeant Williams says some Goths act out a bizarre and elaborate role-playing game, ‘Vampire: The Masquerade.’ He said one particularly dark aspect of the Gothic is when role playing is carried to extreme. ‘The game — Vampire: The Masquerade — I call it Dungeons and Dragons on steroids,’ he said, adding that players assume the persona of vampires and act out attacks. ‘There are people who I have seen who lose touch, who think the gaming system and mythos are real. They have gone off and done some very strange things. Basing things on my experience, is there a propensity for this? It’s possible.'”

The publisher of the “Vampire” game, White Wolf, lashed out at the Chronicle’s coverage with a press release. The Chronicle itself ran a longer, more thoughtful story which included interviews with teens who consider themselves to be Goths and who play the game “Vampire” but don’t make the connection to violence.

But even after all those moves, the SFGate continued to get complaints about its first story on the subject. The paper finally pulled the story from its archives and left a note up on the original URL saying, “This story was removed by the San Francisco Chronicle. A subsequent story on the same subject can be found at the following URL [pointing to the later story].”

“[After White Wolf] linked to the story, we heard impassioned complaints from HUNDREDS of kids — even after we corrected the story and said there was no evidence that [the shooters] ever played those games,” said SFGate editor Vlae Kershner via e-mail. “After a few weeks, we got tired of taking the heat and took down the story. I should add that under our current corrections policy, if the same thing occurred again we’d correct the mistake online and annotate the article as corrected, but we would not delete it.”

Though the story isn’t in SFGate’s archives, you can find a full copy of it on an Italian gaming site. So even the best efforts of expunging the past run into trouble online, where so many people can cut and paste text elsewhere and the Wayback Machine can archive it all.

An eternal life for plagiarism

While these examples deal with controversial subjects either with the public at large or within the newspaper’s management, what about all those plagiarized and problematic stories penned by Jayson Blair at the New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today? You might be surprised to learn that all those stories remain intact in those newspapers’ archives as well as databases such as LexisNexis — but with large editor’s notes at the top of them. (Perhaps most bizarrely you have to pay to read an archived version of Blair’s fabricated stories at NYTimes.com.)

USA Today, the New York Times and Washington Post all adhere to a pretty simple guideline to online posting of print stories: If it ran in print, it’s part of the public record and must run online. USAToday.com vice president and editor in chief Kinsey Wilson said that even a made-up story by Kelley about vigilantes among Israeli settlers is still available online with a detailed correction at the top.

“In that case, as well as in other less egregious cases where stories are found to contain inadvertent factual errors, our practice is to append an editor’s note or a correction rather than purge the story from our online archive,” Kinsey said via e-mail. “I can’t rule out the possibility that we might remove a story from our servers under certain circumstances — a finding of libel, for example, or a simple production error that led to content being published in error. But as a rule we do not think the public or our readers are served by ‘disappearing’ stories that have been vetted, published and then later found to be problematic.”

Online research databases also strive to keep the public record complete. Judy Schultz, spokeswoman for LexisNexis, says that it’s a very rare occurrence when stories are pulled and mainly under court orders such as for the freelance writers who sued.

“I think [pulling stories] is something that would be negotiated,” Schultz told me. “One of our aims is to create an archive of publications. Once something’s in print, you can’t really take it back. I’m trying to leave you with the impression that we would not normally do that. The only time that I know we have removed anything from our service was when the freelance writers sued the New York Times and us and other sources…In the normal course of business, we would leave the original story in with the correction.”

The Post-Intelligencer’s Matassa doesn’t believe in that blanket rule, however, and thinks of the Web as more than just an online archive for static copy.

“I don’t think you need to leave the wrong version on there for a historical record,” Matassa said. “I think you want to have the right story living on. If you do a story that you determine is false or the source cannot be verified, the wise thing to do is take them off. I think of online as more than microfiche. It’s a publishing venue that continues publishing. That’s different than something you check out of a library to look up and see what ran on a given day.”

But ethicists believe that appended corrections are appropriate — in most cases. Stephen Ward, associate professor of journalism ethics at the School of Journalism at University of British Columbia, told me that online is indeed a different animal than microfiche but that archives should be just what they mean: the original record preserved. Ward thinks that a correction would even lessen a libel threat. He points to one example in Canada of how spiked online stories could hurt the public at large.

“In 2004, the National Post carried a small correction saying a medical reporter had been dismissed for a series of fabricated quotes and sources in a number of stories,” Ward said via e-mail. “The newspaper assured the readers that no false ‘medical’ information had been provided. But questions arose later as to whether, in fact, questionable medical information had been provided via the fabricated stories. When an ethics researcher tried to research these stories and these claims, he found that many of the stories had been removed entirely from the paper’s archives, making it more difficult to identify and obtain the original stories.”

Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, agrees with the general principle of running all print stories online with corrections noted. But she does see some gray areas.

“A story that causes obvious harm to an individual should probably come down,” McBride said via e-mail. “For instance, if you wrote a story that accused me of child neglect, and then you discover that you got it wrong, it wouldn’t be enough to just put an editor’s note at the top of the story that said: This story is erroneous. Because the accusation would be very harmful to me. That said, it makes me nervous when stories just disappear. I think the most responsible way to handle that is allow a site search engine to search the copy as if it was there. But then when the user calls up the story, he gets an editor’s note which explains why the story is not there but does not repeat the harm that was caused by the original erroneous report.”

But Ward’s point still stands. If you were the subject of such a harmful story, would you want the story expunged with a vague note about what happened, or would you want the original copy there to clarify exactly what was written? These are the types of things that drive editors nuts, keep ethicists up at night and ultimately mean less and less on the Net where a page posted for a few hours can live on for eternity.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.