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Take Back the Facts

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Wow, All Things D’s Kara Swisher sure has some advice for Jeff Bezos as he takes ownership of the Washington Post.

I think her real point is this:

To me, the most important trick is to deeply inculcate the joy of Internet journalism, without losing (actually restoring to some degree, after recent cutbacks) the great editorial values and breakthrough journalism of the Post. Fusing the old-media storytelling and news-integrity values that I learned at the Post with the Internet values of speed and personality—and, well, some level of fun at the right times—is critical.

My advice doesn’t carry the same punch. Kara has greater stature and worked for the Post. Nevertheless, as I posted two days ago:

Put in editors and reporters who will investigate and report with vigor. The U.S. government is paralyzed; just look at the House of Representatives and Senate, which seemingly can’t agree on anything. Where are the investigative reports that expose corruption and hold every elected or appointed official accountable?…Mr. Bezos, give people something they can’t help reading, by making real reporting top priority no matter the risk.

Don’t Blame Craigslist
There is a broad misconception that Craigslist and entities like it ruined newspapers, which relied too long on classified ad sales. I disagree. The Google economy is the murder—giving away valuable content for free with no viable advertising model. There simply is too much free content out there, meaning too much ad space to fill. This keeps ad rates low, it’s simple supply-and-demand logistics.

Meanwhile aggregators—and I do mean the likes of Huffington Post—take valuable content the Washington Post or some other newspaper paid to produce and summarize and give it away for free. This practice, among others, has led to a terrible habit of single-sourcing some blog post or news report without ever checking the facts.

Ironic example, assuming things are what they appear: Washington Post claims that a humorous New Yorker story about Bezos making a 1-click error and accidentally buying the Post for $250 million is being reported as fact by China’s state-run Xinhua newspaper. I can’t read Simplified Han, and Google Translate doesn’t reveal enough nuance for me to discern whether the New Yorker story is being reported as fact or humor. For the purposes of my example, it doesn’t matter. Either Xinhua single-sourced the fake funny story and wrongly reported as fact, or Post reporter Max Fisher single-sourced Chinese media, which got the joke but he didn’t.

Source Me
The Fourth State is in a sorry state, and Google News and search contributes to its demise. Ad rates are low. Too much content is free. Too many sites take a pageviews-first approach—post first and as many stories as inhumanly possible.

Aggregators, like so many other blogs, typically source news to another blog or news site rather than doing original reporting. This kind of sourcing legitimizes what in this era of rumor as news could be factually flawed. A good journalist does original reporting, starting with seeking out additional or even independent sources. The objective is two-fold: Accuracy and objectivity.

Using a single source is often careless. Referring to another blog or news source as single source is reckless. Reporting news based on a single, anonymous source is negligence. Good journalists are mindful of their sourcing, particularly those sources who aren’t identified.

One rampant problem: The increasing number of unnamed single-sourced blog posts or news stories that seemingly countless other blogs link to. Gossip and rumor run amok masked as news. Let me be clear: Just because everybody says something is true doesn’t make it that way. My observation: Most rumor posts remain uncorrected when later proved to be wrong.

Reporting 101
Journalists need to get back to basics and source stories from credible sources, not someone else reporting X, Y or Z. Bloggers aspiring to be good journalists must adapt to standards of accuracy, accountability and, most importantly, sourcing. Accuracy and accountability standards are difficult to maintain without good sourcing. Sourcing another blog or news site without seeking to extend the story is weak journalism at best. It’s bad journalism when the sourced story is factually challenged. Rumor isn’t news just because some blog, or even news site, reported it.

The Washington Post stands at a crossroads, because of its purchase, and has opportunity to set the standard for all news organizations everywhere. The time is come for the newspaper to take risks again, some of which Kara Swisher suggests. If nothing else, the Post should push investigative reporting to the front, particularly standing as the popular paper of record in the nation’s capitol. If lazy bloggers and journalists are going to single-source anyway, how about giving them the most credible, accurate source of news stories—in the Washington Post?

Time is long past to take back the facts from rumormongers who feed off the Google economy.

Photo Credit: Communicore82

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