The L.A. Times responds

The LA Times just responded to my post about its excoriated editorial that reacted to the new GoogleNews feature enabling subjects in news stories to respond… at Google. Jon Healey writes:

Hey, thanks for the post. It’s a sign of bad writing when so many people miss the point, and aside from you, just about everybody seems to have missed the point of this editorial. I’ll take the rap for that. The comment about Osama was meant to be ridiculously over the top because, as the Times’ editorial board has said in the past, publishers have been quite wrong about Google. And that includes the guy soon to be my boss. Maybe it was confusing to readers to include a non-genuflecting reference to the new boss….

Anyway, some readers also seem to think we were criticizing Google by saying it’s not journalism. Umm, we’re not *that* hubristic. We were simply trying to remind people of the shortcomings inherent in its approach. For starters, unfiltered does not equate to true. And IMHO, it’s a really bad thing if people assumed that the comments are, in fact, screened for truth. They won’t be. That’s not to say newspaper stories are, but at least there’s often some critical thinking at work there.

Here’s the scenario that really troubles me. Investigative reporter digs up tons of documents showing that Company X lied to regulators. Reporter calls Company X, which curtly denies wrongdoing and stonewalls. Reporter writes story, including denial. Company officials then use Google to launch a lengthy and utterly bogus defense of their behavior. Is that a value add by Google? Sure, it’s just as easy to dream up the opposite — where a reporter writes something that’s just plain wrong and Google provides what amounts to a high-profile forum for a correction. And maybe that will end up being the predominant use. But there’s no telling, and in the face of conflicting assertions, Google won’t be giving readers any help figuring out who’s right. As the editorial says, that’s not its mission.

BTW, we do give people fora to respond to stories about them after they run. In addition to letters to the editor and op-eds in the newspaper, we have the Blowback section online. It would clearly be better if we enabled people to comment and discuss stories online on the same web page as the stories themselves, and we’re on our way there. So yes, what Google’s doing is a prod for us to come up with a better mechanism online. All criticism on that front is accepted.

One last point: the criticism of journalists’ listening skills (and those of the organizations they work for) is apt. But Google’s new feature isn’t just about that. It’s also about giving newsmakers a route around skeptical ears. We in this biz get it from both ends, remember; we’re stenographers *and* deaf. But sometimes, we’re also capable of recognizing when someone is lying, spinning, dodging or obfuscating.

I’m not arguing that less information is better than more information. I’m just saying it’s good for readers to understand what they’re looking at and how it got there.

All this is all the more reason why news organizations should enable comment and response at their own sites, on their own stories. And how will we deal with Healey’s fear about reporters not being there to provide facts, counterbalance, and perspective? That’s easy: The reporters should be part of that conversation. When challenged, they should come back with more facts. When wrong, of course, they should say so. And we ought to be able to subscribe to that ongoing discussion and the reporting around it. I do agree with the critics who say that newspapers without comments on stories should be ashamed that GoogleNews beat them to it.

  • http://opinion.latimes.com/bitplayer Jon Healey

    Hey, Jeff, you might want to reformat this post because it’s not clear where my comment ends and yours begins. I can’t claim credit for the last graf, and you shouldn’t be blamed for the ones above it.

  • Eric Gauvin

    same comment…

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Newspapers are used to having the last word, but this brave new world of interactive networks deprives them of that privilege. The loss of this privilege is no doubt traumatic to them, but they’re smart enough to know there’s no turning back. The first part of the franchise to fall was the false authority of the Editorial, as it was erected on the weakest foundation. Newspaper editorialists are generalists, they were easily trumped by the self-published experts with the blogs. Now the Internet is going after the subjectivity of news coverage, and we don’t know where that’s going.

    It’s at least a little encouraging that the LA Times recognizes theoir authority is under attack, even if they’re not quite realistic about the nature of the threat.

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  • http://www.howardowens.com/ Howard Owens

    So I’m guessing Jon Healey is reading these comments.

    I don’t think you get it, Mr. Healey.

    Let’s say company X stonewalls, and then comments as you say … well, why do you think that ends the conversation. Company X just made news by their comments, not matter how untruthful. Your story just got better. The reporter goes and writes a story about the comments and debunks them. More truth is illuminated. Readers are better informed, and they have a clearer picture of who company x really is.

    This is better journalism. This is better civics.

    Google is HELPING you. And us. If it works (and I’m not sure it will, but I appreciate the effort).

    One of the main things that really bugged me about the LAT piece, and I still don’t think you get based on the above, is that you think readers are not smart enough. That’s the common journalistic hubris. If we aren’t there to guide readers and make sure their information is properly filtered and balanced, they won’t really be able to figure out things on their own and separate fact from spin, etc.

    But, how good has journalism done at that over the past couple of decades anyway?

    First, readers are smarter than most journalists give them credit for; Second, thanks to blogs and such, they’re getting smarter. The thing about the new information economy is we all have to be smarter, and that’s happening, because we’re largely on our own for filtering news and opinion. I, for one, thing that’s a good thing. It’s actually BETTER for democracy.

    Sometime you might want to walk across the hall and have a long conversation with Matt Welch about all this. It would help a lot.

  • Jim Wilson

    Healey: “It would clearly be better if we enabled people to comment and discuss stories online on the same web page as the stories themselves, and we’re on our way there.”

    Eh? Other newspapers don’t seem to have a problem doing this. Here’s just one example from a local paper in Staunton VA:

    http://www.newsleader.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070823/NEWS01/70823001/1002

    Maybe the LAT needs a new webmaster. Jeff: Is your son available for consulting? :-)

  • Greg0658

    Reporters are still needed in a world of diverse websites. Maybe a single or couple sites will become topdog. But when you have 500 blog entries to muttle thru, then what will you do?

    Here’s a story from back here. How would I have known of this development without them? I called in to the talkradio for more info please.

    Our Miller Group (radio & newspaper) reported about 6 months ago and a new episode yesterday of Landlords arrested and buildings up for confiscation by the legal system for allowing illegal drug activities.

    What I don’t get is why the illegal activities are ongoing – can’t Law & Order break the loopholes – and why now it’s the Landlords duty to evict these types from the neighborhoods? IMO very dangerous precedent fellow citizens.

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  • Eric Gauvin

    Jeff,

    You’re right. The ability for readers to comment on news stories will be soon be the norm, but I don’t think it adds as much value as you predict. I read sfgate.com quite a lot and it has this feature, and I can’t say it plays out anything like what you describe. It usually seems like a place for people to let of steam, make off topic statements, make insults, argue amongst each other, show their stupidity, etc. Theoretically there could be someone with enough facts and writing ability (let’s face it most average people don’t have these skills, that’s why we value trained journalists) who can build on and extend the reporter’s work, but more often than not comments come in the form of attacks on the reporter’s skill, credibility and relevance, with the assumption that the reporting system is bogus, and flawed in the first place. I don’t think the kind of facts, corrections, counterbalance and perspective you describe will be produced.

  • http://berkeleydmec.org Nate

    Based on what you’ve quoted him as saying, Jon Healey sounds like a smart man to me. For the sake of maintaining existing newspaper brands, I hope he succeeds in persuading those around him.