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Don’t discount the editor when the focus is ‘online-first’

Newspapers have been quick to tell us about the latest trends and help us prepare for a changing world. But they’ve been amazingly slow to recognize the changes that are necessary to remain relevant. And now, as newspapers finally enter the 21st century, “online-first” operations risk losing what made them great in the first place: the trust of the communities they serve.

I hope that the successor to Booth Newspapers in Michigan can combine an online focus with a newspaper’s commitment to truth and accuracy. I’m watching with interest as my former colleagues transition to new roles with MLive Media Group, the statewide news operation that has veteran journalists focusing on delivering the latest news online.

I tuned in the other day to a Poynter chat to hear John Hiner, vice president of content for MLive, talk about the skills needed for an online-first news operation, and I was impressed with most of what I heard. Only one answer made me cringe.

I spent 10 years on the copy desk of the Grand Rapids Press, which is now part of MLive. It hurts to see staffs cut, great journalists move on, and the print offering reduced. But I can’t help being excited about the approach MLive is taking to supplying news in the digital age.

There was one response that seemed already antiquated. It was an answer (to my question) in which Hiner put immediacy first. Here is my question and his response in its entirety:

Comment From EditorMark How are you integrating copy editing into a 24-hour, online-first operation. Is it publish and fix, or does everything stream through a copy desk first? John Hiner: EditorMark, thanks for that question. It’s a common one from readers and professional journalists alike. First, anything that appears in print is editing and proofed multiple times. And much-to-most of what goes on the web is preread, as well. But one key distinction is that we empowered — train, and then empower — our reporters to post directly to the web and engage with their audience as necessary. For instance, from a city council meeting with breaking news. From the scene of a train derailment. Or when comments are blowing up on a story. We need to be able to react to stories as they evolve, and when the audience is demanding them. There is not always a pat editing structure around that. One thing I will say, and this is simply a fact — web audiences react differently to errors or typos than do print readers. I’ve never had a web reader print out a story, mark it in red and mail it to me with a nasty note. They point out our mistake, we fix it and thank them. The web audience seems to appreciate and expect that. btw, everything is *edited* and proofed. Oops!

I grant that the Internet affords us the opportunity to tells stories as they happen, but the idea of young reporters trained to publish without an experienced set of eyes vetting what they are sharing is scary. I would be petrified if I were a reporter, and I would be petrified if I were a publisher.

This was my immediate impression. The next day, the former executive sports editor at Grand Rapids Press shared on Facebook an embarrassing correction for the days-old MLive. Mary Ullmer prefaced the link with “Why reporters/copy editors/editors with a knowledge of the community should not be discounted.”

Here is the correction Mary referred to, in its entirety, from reporter Ross Maghielse:

In a story that was posted this morning, “Tuesday’s Flint-area prep basketball forecast,” I mentioned that there was “speculation” that the Flint Metro League was “disbanding.” Although it was stated as speculation and not fact, it was completely off base and should not have been included. The information that it came from was confused with changes that already took place with the Big 9 conference and Saginaw Valley along with potential changes with a different league not associated with the Flint area or the Flint Metro League. As a new reporter to the Flint area, I confused the leagues and information into a small snippet of a larger post. The story has been edited with a correction and retraction embedded in it. My apologies for giving the appearance of credibility to misguided and confused speculation regarding the Flint Metro League.

I appreciate the full explanation and the fairly prominent position of the retraction. Newspaper corrections are often brief and hidden at the bottom of page 2. This one still was the ninth item with a full headline on MLive’s Flint Sports page more than 48 hours after it first ran.

I can’t speak to the editing process this story went through, but “speculation” of any sort should raise a red flag for a copy editor. The source should have been clear, if not in the article then from the reporter or from a previous article on the subject. Quite simply, newspapers — and by this I mean those on your computer screen or those at your doorstep — don’t deal in this nebulous thing called “speculation.” Speculation might drive financial markets, but people and procedures are necessary to close down sports leagues. Copy editors know this.

I really hope MLive succeeds. One simple piece of advice: get a copy editor into the process as quickly as possible on every story. The value of trust is difficult to measure, but trust is the most important thing newspapers have going for them.

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