Before Christmas, the New York Times set off a web firestorm with a Vows column that was highly controversial, to say the least: It told the story of TV reporter Carol Anne Riddell and ad executive John Partilla, who divorced their spouses and split up their families to wed. The two acknowledged the pain they’d caused — Partilla said that “I did a terrible thing as honorably as I could” — but Times readers for the most part found the two selfish and self-centered, and lacerated the couple in comments before the Times closed them. The reaction was similar on other websites and blogs, making for a spectacle that was simultaneously cringeworthy and fascinating. Internet shamings are always striking, but relatively few of them are so thoroughly self-inflicted.
But the column raised journalistic questions as well — and offered a valuable lesson in why news organizations need to be more open about the reporting and editing process.
In his blog for Forbes, Jeff Bercovici began with a pointed question: “Why were the ex-spouses of the newlyweds not mentioned by name in the story? Did the reporter call them for comment, as basic journalistic practice would dictate?” Asked that question, Riddell — perhaps beginning to understand she’d aimed both barrels at her own feet — declined to say, telling Bercovici that “I really don’t want to wade into this any further than we already have. It’s not helpful to anybody.” But she did say that the paper had been free to tell their story without preconditions: “They made their own decisions on that front.”
So Bercovici asked a Times spokeswoman, who said that “we do not comment on the process of editing and reporting including who was and was not contacted for interviews related to a specific story. The Vows/Wedding column adheres to the standards of the Times.”
Bercovici kept digging, and reached Riddell’s ex-husband, media executive Bob Ennis. Ennis said he hadn’t been contacted, and then lowered the boom on his ex and the Times. “The primary story here is not that interesting. People lie and cheat and steal all the time. That’s a fact of life. But rarely does a national news organization give them an unverified megaphone to whitewash it.” Ennis said he didn’t expect the Times to fact-check a style story, but added that “there’s a difference between that and publishing a choreographed, self-serving piece of revisionist history for two people who are both members of the media industry.”
Ennis was absolutely right — and the Times spokeswoman, asked to answer for the paper’s reporting, did the Times no favors by climbing atop a high horse and delivering a statement that only things made worse. The Times’ response reminded me of Cody Brown’s “magic journalism box,” an opaque structure inside which sources, information and everything else get turned into a finished newspaper story. With this model, Brown notes, a paper develops its brand “as the voice of god. … The community does not own the paper, an average person has little ability to influence it and because of this the paper is under constant scrutiny. … When they drop a story, it is designed to be read as fact.”
The problem with that opaque box, as Brown notes, is that it invites constant scrutiny — and when “newspapers publish something wrong, it doesn’t take more than a few careless edits for a newspaper brand to fall to pieces.” And in recent years, of course, the Times has had a couple of disasters emerge from its opaque box, leading to internal turmoil and giving its critics ample ammunition.
But you sure don’t see any evidence of lessons learned in how the paper handled this particular mess. The Times spokeswoman’s response is voice-of-god stuff — it’s not exactly illuminating (bad) and reveals this particular god as somewhat less than infallible (worse). For the Times clearly didn’t adhere to its own standards, telling one side of a painful story that obviously had another. Worse, it opened itself to charges that the story existed because a member of the media was doing a favor for another member of the media, as Ennis insinuated.
So what are the lessons here? I see three:
1. Innovation isn’t everything: Many commenters remarked that they expected feel-good stories from Vows. This is the kind of reader mindset that drives newspaper editors crazy, and often leads to ill-advised attempts to shake things up. (Ask anybody who’s ever tried to improve the comics page by turfing out ancient, boring strips. Beware the wrath of Mark Trail fans!) Yes, the newspaper’s job includes giving readers spinach to eat — but don’t try to get readers to eat it by mixing it into their ice cream. Familiar routines and comforting features are an important part of serving readers, too.
2. If you start open, stay open: The Times took the rare step of allowing comments on the Riddell/Partilla Vows column — but then closed them after about 24 hours, with the torch-wielding mob still in full cry. That looks like a second-guess. Think twice about changing course, and if you do so, explain why you’re doing it.
3. Remember that readers assume the worst: It’s an unhappy truth of journalism that in the absence of information, readers assume conspiracies, bias and agendas. The magic journalism box does us no favors here, allowing readers to imagine all sorts of malfeasance taking place out of their view. If they could see more of what actually occurs (within the bounds of propriety and responsibility to sources), I think we’d look far better than we do — readers would see that most reporters try to represent subjects and people fairly, and have a better understanding of why some sources aren’t identified. Rather than the opaque magic journalism box, give readers the marvelous journalism box, which is clear except for a few small areas shielded from view, with explanations for why those places are out of bounds.
When mistakes are made, this level of openness would give readers a better understanding of what went wrong, and let them see how often things went right. Is Ennis right that the Riddell/Partilla Vows column was a product of media ties? I’d like to think he isn’t, but the Times spokeswoman’s stonewalling response sure didn’t reassure me.
Some quick thoughts on recent topics making the digital-journalism rounds:
Gawker is changing the template for its sites, and a while back Nick Denton explained the thinking behind the new look. As always with Denton, he makes a lot of very smart points and dresses them up in a fair amount of showmanship.
The foundation of the Gawker redesign is that it’s ditching the traditional reverse-chronological blog design. Now there’s a splash story presented in full on the left and a scrollable series of headlines on the right. Denton notes that “every inside page will hew to the same template as the front page. No matter whether the visitor keys in the site address or arrives from the side by a link on Facebook or elsewhere, he or she will be greeted not just by a story but by an index of other recent items.”
In other words, depending on your philosophical bent you could say there will be no home page, every page will be a home page, or both. (The waning importance of home pages is a subject of longstanding interest to me.) I discussed what this means for sports sections in my weekly column for Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, but the basic lesson is the same for any news organization: Any article can be a window into a site, and in our era of search and social media, the model built around a homepage and navigation is increasingly out of step with the fragmented nature of how we find and read news. As Denton himself notes, “referrals from Facebook have increased sixfold since the start of the year; and audience spikes appear to be larger than ever before. We can turn more of those drive-by visitors into regulars by turning every page into a front page.”
It’s hard to imagine this trend reversing as social media becomes more and more ubiquitous, which means all the sweat and pain going into site redesigns is increasingly a misallocated effort. In a funny way, news people are a poor choice to design newspapers: We tend to be news junkies, and as such we have a well-honed understanding of how to navigate a newspaper in physical or digital form. But a lot of casual readers aren’t like us. Their home page is increasingly likely to be Facebook, and they may never see the front page of Gawker or the New York Times or whatever organization is the source of a story.
The reaction to Denton’s explainer was interesting. Reuters’ Felix Salmon broke down the likely effects of the new format on Gawker’s page views, predicting it will lead to a decline in views (because there will be fewer clicks to reach what you want to read) and kill Gawker’s sponsored posts, since the flow of reverse-chron news is marginalized, making it less likely that sponsored posts will be encountered within the flow. “There’s a whopping irony here,” he noted. “Denton was the first person to turn blogging into a large-scale commercial venture: he bet on the potential of the blog medium earlier than anybody else, and to a large degree he’s personally responsible for the reputation that blogs have among the population at large. He then brought on [Chris] Batty to try to sell ads against this strange new reverse-chronological stream of disparate posts. Now, however, it’s Batty who is fighting for what he calls the ‘narrative carrying capacity’ of that reverse-chronological stream: it’s Batty, the ad guy, fighting to preserve what you might call the essence of blog. And it’s Denton, the original Blogfather, who’s aggressively throwing it away.”
And in the New York Times, Nick Bilton started off with a very interesting historical parallel, showing a century-old NYT front page that’s a hopeless jumble of text and fonts, without the cues of modern newspaper design that help us navigate. “This change happened at The Times — and at other newspapers — over a number of decades as designers and editors figured out that readers didn’t want more news, but instead wanted a more concise culling of news,” he writes. “Now we’re starting to see these types of design and editorial changes take place with blogs and Web sites online.”
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Earlier this month, Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton walked an audience at the INMA Transformation of News summit through his blueprint for digital-first newspapers and tackling the necessary organizational and cultural change. I can’t do better than the 140 characters I used to call it out on Twitter, so here it is again: “If someone could only read one thing on changing the future of #newspapers, I’d have them read this.”
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Finally, here’s my take (also from NSJC) on whether the web is changing the rules for how news organizations deal with profanity.