In late January, the 26th to be precise, the Pioneer Press converted to a system, WordPress VIP, that among other things dramatically improved the look and function of its website. Less noticeable to the public was the ease with which the system now allows reporters to edit their own stories, an evolutionary step that certainly prompts the question of how far publications with decreasing budgets and staff can go and still deliver a product acceptable to discerning news consumers.
The woman guiding this shift at the PiPress is Jen Westphal, the paper’s deputy editor for digital news and social media.
She concedes the process is still in its infancy. “It might not be where we’re at a couple years from now, but we’re pleased [parent company Digital First Media] picked us to be the pilot program for all their papers.”
Streamlined updates and fixes
She explains that as it stands, some, not all, PiPress reporters have the ability to go back into a story after it has been edited and published and add new material, like a new quote or vital piece of information and make corrections. That may sound something less than groundbreaking to the layman, but prior to the updated software, adds and corrections were, and mostly still are, a cumbersome, bureaucratized process involving at the very least one other employee at the copy desk if not also the time and attention of the assigning editor. Under this streamlining the reporter makes his/her improvements and then notifies an editor of the update — a text will suffice — and moves on.
Note, though, that this updating applies only to the paper’s web edition. Stories committed to print still go through the traditional editing process. But, as Digital First regularly emphasizes to employees and the public, it sees its long-term survival in succeeding in an almost entirely-to-fully digital environment (kind of like MinnPost, when you stop and think about it).
For the moment the PiPress is using the enhanced WordPress system for breaking news stories, like this week’s caucuses, where news, numbers and quotes trickle in for hours.
If you’re thinking, “Why is this a big deal? It sounds like common sense,” you’re on to something. But tradition still has a tight hold on daily papers, and a fully staffed editing structure, assuring accuracy, clarity and respect for community standards remains one of newspapers’ mostly closely held traditions.
Different at Star Tribune
Speaking for the Star Tribune, Eric Wieffering, assistant managing editor for news (a title that suggests the layers guarding tradition) describes a system there that is not quite as flexible as the one in St. Paul, partly because of its use of SaxoTech, a more complicated piece of software. Reporters have the ability to update their web copy and clean up typos, “But it’s generally done in consent with an editor.”
The topic of reporters’ “self-editing” came up in a recent conversation with PiPress outdoors writer/union spokesman Dave Orrick. The context was the PiPress’ latest round of buyouts and how best to maintain financial viability and news credibility into a future certain to bring more and more staff reductions.
Freely speculating, it isn’t all that difficult to imagine a near-term future where, much like (oft-reviled) bloggers, mainstream reporters … edit themselves, certainly in fast-moving news environments, with an editor or copy editor following along to check for accuracy, clarity and … egregious activity.
“Trust” obviously is a key factor in such a future. As in:
Does the organization, which has legal vulnerability, trust the reporter enough to allow him/her to function with such an enhanced level of autonomy? Misplace trust and a company could be facing serious problems.
Restricted to a few
As I say, what I call “self-editing” at the PiPress is restricted to a few reporters. Says Westphal, “We trust our reporters to do the right thing and not do anything that might embarrass us.” She might have added, “… or themselves.”
Despite the bellicose accusations of political partisans, “rogue” reporters are remarkably rare beasts on the journalistic landscape. Traditional newsrooms have high sensitivity to such personalities and the vetting that goes into hiring all but eliminates the possibility of unpredictability in staffing. (That’d be for both good and bad.) Point being, there’s very little reason for papers not to “trust” the people they hire to operate more independently … especially if it saves the big company money and protects the number of people doing actual reporting.
Innocent mistakes, misspellings, typos and the like will never be eliminated entirely. But in a digital world of perpetual republishing that sort of thing can be cleaned up quickly and easily, either by the reporter, who long ago developed an aversion to embarrassing himself in public, or by just one other set of eyes.
The Strib and the PiPress are not currently living in the same financial universe. The former is enjoying relative stability under the ownership of local billionaire Glen Taylor. The latter is being squeezed relentlessly by its ownership group. But just as chaos breeds invention, punishing trend lines for future budgets may be pushing the PiPress into the logical future faster than the Strib.