Monday, June 29, 2009

The new news dialectic

In this age of well-trafficked digital social networks, two distinct types of news have emerged: the verified and the unverified.

Verified news is what traditionally has been printed on the pages of our newspapers and news websites and broadcast on the nightly news - fact-checked, reported impartially, presented in a coherent and contextualized manner, conveyed as a story of importance to broad segments of society.

Unverified news is what gets printed or broadcast on a variety of online and cellular networks and that also provides context and deals with issues of importance to broad segments of society.

Recently, and most notably with coverage of protests in Iran, the verified and unverified have been fused together on the websites and broadcasts of news organizations that would never have run the latter in the past.

From the New York Times:
“Check the source” may be the first rule of journalism. But in the coverage of the protests in Iran this month, some news organizations have adopted a different stance: publish first, ask questions later.

If you still don’t know the answer, ask your readers. CNN showed scores of videos submitted by Iranians, most of them presumably from protesters who took to the streets to oppose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election on June 12. The Web sites of The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Guardian newspaper in London and others published minute-by-minute blogs with a mix of unverified videos, anonymous Twitter messages and traditional accounts from Tehran. ...

Many mainstream media sources, which have in the past been critical of the undifferentiated sources of information on the Web, had little choice but to throw open their doors in this case. As the protests against Mr. Ahmadinejad grew, the government sharply curtailed the foreign press. As visas expired, many journalists packed up, and the ones who stayed were barred from reporting on the streets.
The writer is partly wrong here: News organizations had a great big choice. Pretending the situation was nearly automatic is a cop out.

That doesn't mean that the news organizations made the wrong decision. Indeed, responsible news organizations can act as a useful filter on the open spigot of social networking. Short of being able to verify the flood of information coming out of Iran, news orgs are in a position to begin the work of verifying information publicly while providing important context.

The New York Times, for instance, still has a reporter in Tehran and has a team of editors with institutional memory, so it doesn't have to blindly repeat what it's seen and heard on Twitter updates and YouTube videos. The paper also has staff that can sift through the flood of updates to pick out what is relevant, and help determine sources who are reliable (old fashioned reporter's work).

Again, from the Times:

Even anonymous Internet users develop a reputation over time, said Robert Mackey, the editor of a blog called The Lede for The New York Times’s Web site, who tracked the election and protest for almost two weeks. Although there have been some erroneous claims on sites like Twitter, in general “there seems to be very little mischief-making,” Mr. Mackey said. “People generally want to help solve the puzzle.”

Readers repeatedly drew Mr. Mackey’s attention to tweets and photos of protests in the comments thread of the blog. Some even shared their memories of the geography of Tehran in an attempt to verify scenes in videos.

Over time, the impromptu Iranian reporters have honed their skills. Some put the date of a skirmish in the file descriptions they send. Others film street signs and landmarks. But the user uploads can sometimes be misleading. Last Wednesday, Mr. Mackey put a call out to readers to determine whether a video was actually new. A commenter pointed to a two-day-old YouTube version.
This kind of fact checking is important in this new dialectic between reader and news organization. It's also why it's wrong for news organization to see this kind of collaboration as inevitable. That's passive and short changes readers. Information may be coming more quickly and from geometrically more sources, but news organizations still have a responsibility to avoid becoming platforms for untrue or overly biased information. They should be gatekeepers worth subscribing to.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Memo from Ron Redfern

June 15, 2009

To: All PEC Employees

We are changing our home delivery footprint in San Bernardino County.

In January of this year, we were faced with the choice of leaving San Bernardino County or implementing a very aggressive price increase to allow us to cover our costs of publishing and continue delivering in San Bernardino County. Unfortunately, a significant number of subscribers in parts of S.B. County refused to accept the increase in price and cancelled their subscriptions.

Consequently, after further review, we have made the decision to discontinue home delivery in certain parts of the San Bernardino market due to low penetration levels. We will continue delivery in those areas where subscriber acceptance remains high, but unfortunately we will eliminate home delivery service in Chino Hills, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana and Rialto on Monday, July 13, 2009. The final print edition of The Press-Enterprise will be delivered to subscribers’ homes on Sunday, July 12, 2009.

Residents of those areas will still have access to the daily product in two ways:

  • P-Editionfor the very affordable price of $52 for an annual subscription or $1.25 per week for a 4-week subscription. We have eliminated the paid wall on for the next thirty days so people with access to the Internet can “test drive” the P-Edition at no cost through July 12, 2009.
  • Newsstand racks and retail outlets – we are leaving the single copy distribution channel in place in the areas where home delivery is being eliminated. The Press-Enterprise will still be available for daily purchase at our various retail and news rack locations throughout the area. Current pricing is $0.50/day Monday-Saturday, and $1.50 on Sunday.

Please note that subscribers in the affected areas will be receiving letters in the next day or two informing them of this change. If you receive complaint calls, please refer them to our Customer Care Call Center. And if you have any questions, please feel free to talk your Vice President, or contact Kathy Weiermiller in Circulation.

Regrettably, the current economic conditions force us to make this change; however, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “Contrary to what is being written about newspapers, the rumors of our death have been greatly exaggerated.” We are optimistic about our future, particularly because The Press-Enterprise is the only major newspaper in Southern California to show readership growth of over 5% from last year, and our overall audience is up over 33% from last year. Because of that amazing growth during this difficult time, we remain committed to being the best provider of local news, information, and advertising in the Inland Region.

Thanks for your continued support.

Ron Redfern
Publisher, CEO & President
The Press-Enterprise Company