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Feb. 9, 2009, 4:16 p.m.

The NYT and “real-time news”

On Saturday, the “public editor” of the New York Times, Clark Hoyt, published a long discussion of a story the newspaper had recently reported, and how problematic it was for the Times, and titled his column “Reporting in Real Time.” The original story was about how New York Governor David Paterson had decided not to appoint Caroline Kennedy (who later withdrew from the race) to the Senate because of concerns about a tax issue and an incident involving a nanny with an expired visa. But as the story evolved, it appeared that the Times had been played by an anonymous source within the Governor’s office who wanted to slam Kennedy (as described in this NYT followup).

In his description of the events, Hoyt says reporters knew that the paper’s policy is to avoid the use of anonymous sources if the quote in question is damaging to the subject of the story, but they checked with a senior editor and the decision was made to proceed — in part because “the New York Post had just beaten The Times by nine minutes in publishing its Kennedy-had-problems story.” The editor who gave the original story the green light told Hoyt that “there was a sense of expediency because it’s a very competitive story.” Although the original version of the story that was posted to the website was about the Paterson claims, it evolved through the day and eventually the claims were effectively discredited in what had by that time turned into a very different story.

Is this an example of how the news business is evolving online in real-time, or an example of how a newspaper can screw up its reporting on a competitive news story? Hoyt seems to see it as the latter, saying “The Internet is The Times’s future. But the Kennedy saga is a sharp reminder that a newspaper that prides itself on getting things right must exercise great discipline before pushing the button on a fast-breaking story.” But is that really the case?

Obviously the Times — or any other paper — wants to be as correct as possible before a story is published. But to me, the Kennedy story evolved exactly as many stories evolve in real-time online (or in the environment of a news wire, as one person has noted). Readers complained to Hoyt within minutes of the story appearing, as did some other NYT editors, and as a result the story was broadened and more fact-checking was done.

That to me is a success. One revealing comment from Hoyt’s piece was that while the traditional newspaper once-a-day news cycle “allows more time for reporting and thoughtful discussion” about how a story should be framed, what happened in the Paterson/Kennedy case was that “normal news reporting, in which a story changes in content, tone and emphasis as more is learned, played out in front of the whole world, instead of in the newsroom before publication.” To me, that seems like a positive benefit, but Hoyt seems to disagree. Does he not want readers to see the journalistic sausage being made?

POSTED     Feb. 9, 2009, 4:16 p.m.
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