If newspapers like The New York Times want people to pay for online news, they need to demonstrate greater commitment to accuracy -- and to correcting their mistakes.
In a January 2009 essay about efforts to convince readers to pay for online news articles, The New York Times' David Carr noted one publication that has enjoyed rapid growth in its online paid subscriber base: Cook's Illustrated. According to Carr, "[T]he company has 260,000 digital subscribers at a cost of $35 a year, and that group grew by 30 percent in 2008." A few months later, The Boston Globe reported that the magazine's print subscriber renewal rates “are about 78 percent. ... Most magazines would kill to have renewal rates near 60 percent; the average across all consumer magazines is between 35 and 40 percent.”
Cook's Illustrated's success in charging for online content is remarkable when you consider just how easy it is to find free recipes on the Internet. From the Food Network's Web page to Epicurious.com to countless amateur gourmets, you can quickly find a recipe for just about anything from meatloaf to chateaubriand with a port reduction sauce.
But Cook's Illustrated has one big thing going for it: trust. Subscribers trust the magazine's recipes and equipment recommendations because of the dozens of tests that go into each one. And unlike most magazines, Cook's Illustrated doesn't run ads, so readers don't have to wonder if the magazine is recommending an OXO garlic press on Page 13 because there's an ad for an OXO salad spinner on Page 21.
There are lessons here for news organizations like The New York Times that want to charge for online content. People may pay for things they don't necessarily need, or that don't give them everything they want -- but it's doubtful they'll pay for things they don't trust. Granted, it is almost certainly not plausible for the Times to forgo ad revenue, but that just means the paper has to be careful to maintaining its readers' trust in other ways.
Unfortunately, the Times seems to be doing very little to give readers a reason to trust its journalism.
The two most basic things a news organization needs to do in order to earn trust: Make as few mistakes as possible, and quickly and clearly correct the mistakes that do occur (as some inevitably will). The Times itself has made clear the importance of those two things. In 2005, a New York Times “Credibility Group” prepared a report (PDF) for executive editor Bill Keller on steps the paper had “taken to increase readers' confidence in The Times.” Among the Credibility Group's recommendations:
Nytimes.com should improve its electronic posting and archiving of corrections.
Corrections should be posted as promptly as possible, even before they appear in the paper. A correction should appear in the text of the online article, with a note appended to inform readers of the change.
Nytimes.com should stop its current practice of keeping outdated and possibly inaccurate multiple versions of news reports posted for several days. The final New York print version, when it becomes available, should supersede all others.
In response (PDF) to the Credibility Group's report, Keller wrote:
It's amazing that some people at this paper believe fact-checking is someone else's responsibility. It is not. Accuracy is everyone's responsibility.
Mistakes that are not corrected live on in the archives, and get repeated in subsequent stories.
I have asked Al [Siegal] to consult with Len Apcar to make sure that corrections are posted as promptly as possible on Web versions of our stories, and that the website make a routine practice of promptly substituting the final New York print version of news stories in place of earlier versions.
Unfortunately, that's just talk. When it comes to actually fact-checking and posting corrections when necessary, the Times' track record in recent years has been abysmal.
Let's begin with the most clear-cut example imaginable: A factual error The New York Times has already acknowledged, but refuses to correct on the Web.
On March 18, 1994, the Times published an article by Jeff Gerth that falsely reported that during Bill Clinton's tenure as governor of Arkansas, Tyson Foods “benefited from a variety of state actions, including $9 million in government loans.” The article suggested that Tyson won such benefits because of its lawyer's personal and financial relationship with the Clintons. Over the next few weeks, two more Times articles and an editorial mentioned the $9 million in loans Tyson received from Clinton's state government. But those loans never happened, and on April 20, 1994 -- more than a month after the initial false report -- The New York Times ran a correction stating, “Tyson did not receive $9 million in loans from the state.”
In May 2007, Media Matters discovered that the articles were available on the Times' Web page, with the original false claim about $9 million in loans, and without a correction appended. Even after Media Matters pointed out the articles, the Times did nothing for months, as I explained in a September 2007 column:
In four different places, a visitor to the Times' website can read that Tyson benefited from $9 million in government loans while Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas. It isn't true, and The New York Times has admitted it isn't true, yet they leave the false claim on their site, without appending a correction, even after it has been publicly brought to their attention multiple times.
Then, on October 17, 2007, the Times posted the following under the header "Correction: For the Record":
An article on July 5, 1994, about James B. Blair, then the general counsel for the Tyson Foods company and a longtime confidant and personal emissary for Bill and Hillary Clinton, misstated benefits that Tyson received from the state of Arkansas while Mr. Clinton was governor. Although the company did benefit from at least $7 million in state tax credits, it did not receive $9 million in loans from the state. (The error appeared in three other articles and in an editorial in 1994, all of which were corrected on April 20 of that year. The correction should have been appended then in The Times's archives to those articles: one on the front page on March 18 about Mrs. Clinton's commodity trades in the late 1970s; a March 19 article about President Clinton's defense of Mrs. Clinton's investments; a March 30 article about the White House's disclosure of the amount Mrs. Clinton invested in commodities trades, and a March 31 editorial.)
The error in the July 5 article was discovered during research after the watchdog group Media Matters twice pointed out that the 1994 correction had not been appended to the other articles.
Well, it took several months and a great deal of prodding, but at least the Times solved the problem, right? Wrong. To this very day -- nearly two and a half years later -- those articles are still available on the Times site. They still contain the false claim about the $9 million in loans. And the necessary correction still is not appended. See for yourself here, here, here, and here. Even after the Times admitted it had failed to append the correction to the articles, it still didn't append the correction!
Remember, back in 2005, the Times' Credibility Group wrote: “A correction should appear in the text of the online article, with a note appended to inform readers of the change.” Executive Editor Bill Keller responded by instructing two staffers “to make sure that corrections are posted as promptly as possible on Web versions of our stories.” It seems there remain some glitches in the system.
The best you can say for the Times' failure to correct those 1994 articles is that the paper has been shockingly negligent. The current controversy over the paper's coverage of conservative activist James O'Keefe's ACORN videos cannot be characterized in such charitable terms.
As Media Matters' Eric Boehlert and Brad Friedman of The Brad Blog have documented, the Times reported that O'Keefe visited ACORN offices dressed "in the gaudy guise of pimp" and "so outlandishly that he might have been playing in a risqué high school play." But it turns out that there is no evidence that O'Keefe actually wore his “outlandish” costume in his dealings with ACORN employees. (What's the difference? O'Keefe's costume was so over-the-top that anybody who took him seriously while he was wearing it would look absurd, which is presumably why O'Keefe wanted the Times and other media to believe he wore the getup into ACORN's offices.)
According to Friedman, when contacted about the Times' baseless reporting that O'Keefe was dressed in the gaudy costume while meeting with ACORN employees, New York Times “Senior Editor/Standards” Greg Brock responded:
Our article included that description because Mr. O'Keefe himself explained how he was dressed
and appeared on a live Fox show wearing what HE said was the same exact costume he wore to ACORN's offices. ... If there is a correction to be made, it seems it would start with Mr. O'Keefe himself. We believe him. Therefore there is nothing for us to correct.
That would be a reasonable response -- if the Times had reported that O'Keefe said he visited the offices dressed in the costume. But that isn't what the Times reported: The paper reported that O'Keefe did visit the offices dressed in the costume. Brock's suggestion that the Times was right to state that as independent, verified fact based on nothing more than O'Keefe's word is simply stunning. But it only got worse when New York Times public editor (that's what the Times calls its ombudsman) Clark Hoyt got involved. According to Friedman, Hoyt told him:
Under the circumstances, I am recommending to Times editors that they avoid language that says or suggests that O'Keefe was dressed as a pimp when he captured the ACORN employees on camera. I still don't see that a correction is in order, because that would require conclusive evidence that The Times was wrong, which I haven't seen.
That is an absolutely amazing statement. Hoyt clearly agrees that there is no evidence that O'Keefe “was dressed as a pimp” when he filmed the ACORN employees, otherwise he wouldn't recommend that the Times avoid using such language. But he doesn't think the Times owes its readers a correction, because he hasn't seen “conclusive evidence” the paper was wrong. That's ridiculous: The Times could (and should) easily append a correction stating that there is no evidence O'Keefe was wearing the costume -- that doesn't require “conclusive evidence that the Times was wrong,” it simply requires acknowledging that the Times made an assertion without evidence and retracting the assertion.
Hoyt essentially said The New York Times has -- and should have -- higher standards of evidence for running retractions than for making assertions in the first place. That is exactly the opposite of the way a trustworthy news organization would behave.
And it fits a pattern of behavior in which the Times seems to look for any excuse not to correct faulty reporting. Last year, Los Angeles Times reporter Jim Rainey wrote a devastating piece about an “egregiously error-ridden tribute to Walter Cronkite” by The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley. Rainey quoted Hoyt describing Stanley's piece as the product of “a television critic with a history of errors [who] wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant [but] were not.” Rainey also noted that in 2005, former public editor Byron Calame wrote about “what he said was a cut-and-dried inaccuracy, in which Stanley accused Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera of grandstanding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. ... Rather than agree to a correction, however, Times Editor Bill Keller defended Stanley.”
None of this is meant to deny that the Times is capable of producing quality journalism or that it often does so. The problem is that when the Times stubbornly refuses to correct glaring errors of fact, it undermines that journalism by making it impossible for readers to trust the paper. The Times' reluctance to run necessary corrections presumably stems from a concern that its credibility would be damaged if it is seen as mistake-prone. But the paper's credibility stands to suffer far more if it is seen as refusing to correct mistakes. As Keller told Rainey: “One thing that sets a serious newspaper apart from most other institutions in our society is that we own up to our mistakes with corrections, editor's notes and other accountability devices, including the public editor's column.”
If the Times wants to be a newspaper worth paying for, it needs to live up to Keller's description of a serious newspaper.
Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.