The Washington Post publishing slip should give us all food for thought

I’m not sure what the hand-wringing is about with regards to the Washington Post prematurely publishing an article that featured the editor’s notes to the journalist, which was quickly grabbed and reproduced on Gawker (where it remains long after the Wash Po took the story down and put up an apology for the mistake instead). 
In the Gawker article, the comments centre mainly on the editor’s question contained with brackets in this sentence: “Each year, about 12,000 U.S. women get cervical cancer and (ANOTHER? OR IS THIS PART OF THE 12,000) 4,000 die.”
The debate rages over whether it was a”stupid question” (as one poster puts it) or whether it’s valid. No one in the comments seems to really know what that sentence means. I don’t. I do, however, find it deeply ironic that people are rowing back and forth on the issue without seeming to realise that the very need to debate it underlines the editor’s original point. 
Columbia Journalism Review says the ‘most writer’s worst nightmare’ moment is a glimpse into the progression of a news story, but I think it actually gives the reader greater insight than just that A-B journey. 
It allows, unintentionally of course, readers to see the level of scrutiny that writers can be subjected to. The sheer number of questions and suggestions here show just how much the person editing that piece cared about not just relaying the correct facts, but about making it an easy read where everything was explained and also – and this is equally important in my view – caring about the writing. 


The person who edited the piece makes all sorts of suggestions that improve the flow of the copy, tweaks and amends that would let the reader just read, without them being jerked out of the story by sudden gearshifts in pace, bad grammar or questions that haven’t been clearly answered. As a former news editor, I know how much rewriting is part of the job – the facts might be there but they are buried so deeply in impenetrable prose that there’s no way you could foist them on an unsuspecting public. Sometimes it’s just faster to rewrite it yourself than send it back to whoever failed utterly to see the glorious story buried under a ton of wordy crud in the first place.
A design editor once suggested a new byline format: “From an original concept by XX XXX” which would acknowledge that while one person had conducted the interview, several others had  been involved in revising and presenting the finished article. I laughed, but now I come to think about it…

Also, it’s great for people to be able to see that articles that appear in print or online don’t spring, fully formed like Pegasus, from the editor’s brow. There are people working across various levels, making mistakes, making edits, making improvements, and you can’t show that with print. Online, there is more opportunity to show edits and progression – I’m thinking blogs just because that’s the simplest platform to clearly show updates but it’s something news sites need to think more of. 
I’m intrigued by the idea of how a wiki concept would work on a regional newspaper’s site. Or an annotation facility that allowed people to highlight certain parts and comment around it. My Kindle can do it – if I want to, I can see the notes and highlights other users around the world have made on paragraphs, sentences or words. Is it really that different?
And if you could do it, would you? Would a newspaper site add the kind of functionality that would hand so much control over to audiences? I like the idea in theory but I wonder if it’s the kind of thing that reads better than it lives – I’ve been bitten by trolls so often that sometimes it’s hard to remember that most of your readers would want the opportunity to engage on an equal footing, and not just use it for mischief and snark. 
On the whole, though, I would like to try this. I’d love an annotating option for text, and I’d really love to see if a wiki community on a regional news site could succeed. I’d also love to know if something similar could be attempted without expensive CMS overhaul. 

I am sure what happened with the Washington Post story wounded the writer’s pride – I can’t imagine for a moment it’s pleasant for all your scribing shortcomings to suddenly go viral – but I also think it’s a little bit great.



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About Alison Gow

I'm a journalist, particularly interested in story-telling, networks and digital innovation.
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