Times ‘Updates’ Make Clark Hoyt Want to URL

Over the past two weeks, the Times public editor Clark Hoyt has taken the Times newsroom to task about a breaking news story in late January that detailed how and why Caroline Kennedy decided to drop out of her pursuit of Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat.

Mr. Hoyt’s central objection had to do with the headline that The Times placed on its Web site starting at 2:52 p.m. on Jan 22:  “Taxes and a Housekeeper Are Said to Derail Kennedy’s Bid.” Within the story, there were nearly no details about the housekeeper, and that headline stayed up all day long, changing only slightly. (“Snags for Kennedy Said to Be Taxes, Housekeeper” was the headline if you looked at the Web site that night.)

Finally, by day’s end, after the whole story about Caroline Kennedy’s nanny and housekeeper proved to be non-credible, the Jan. 23 print edition of The Times went to press with the headline “Paterson Is Set to Name Senate Pick.”

Though the content of the story changed markedly throughout the day, only one version stands on the site, because changes were made to the same article page without showing the revisions. If you were curious to watch how the story changed throughout the day—say, the way you would if you were to look on Nexis in the old days and see how one story changed from Sept. 6 to Sept. 7—you wouldn’t be able to. And The Times doesn’t feel it’s necessary to offer its readers that chance, either.

In his column, Mr. Hoyt wagged his finger and asked whether the nature of the Web was eroding the paper’s standards; the editors at the paper said no, and that was that.

“In general, our policy is live articles on the Web are a work in progress by definition,” said Craig Whitney, the paper’s standards editor. “We’re not archiving each successive iteration of it as a finished product as we do with the printed paper.”

And in fact, it’s only the side constraint of a printed edition of the paper that made readers come to expect a permanent archive of published errors followed by separate, published corrections. The Times can’t pull back all its newspapers from readers’ hands and replace them with corrected ones. If the Web allows The Times to remove an error, why not just remove it?

For some blogs, including even Gawker, a standard practice is to keep the original item as is, and either provide updates or put in the updated, correct information in a new post.

“The pages are enormously confusing as it is,” said Jon Landman, digital editor at the Times. “Clutter is a problem. Everything, as I’ve said to Clark, is a balance. You can have one imperative that conflicts with any number of others and you have to make some choices.”

“To ask people to negotiate successive editions is not helpful to readers,” he continued. “Helpful to researchers, yes, but not to readers.”

“Can we flagellate ourselves more effectively?” said Mr. Whitney. “We’re blessed with plenty of opportunities to do that already. I don’t think we need to do that anymore.”

jkoblin@observer.com