A Good Convention to Follow

headline from 9/21/08 LedgerLet’s hearken back to the “old days.” The 1990s. Television handled breaking news. They called it that because they always broke into your favorite program.

Newspapers didn’t cover “breaking news.” At best, your morning paper might include a story that happened late the night before. Oh sure, newspapers in the 1930s had special editions. Those were gone along with evening newspapers.

Anyway, newspapers today are online and they feature breaking news. That’s fine — except when the still listed breaking news is 18 hours old.

Newspapers are online, but they fail to follow an important online convention. Let the readers know where you’ve updated the story. It’s fine to add or fix information as the story progresses, but make it easy for your readers to follow the changes.

Why? Sometimes you might read a story, remember a detail, and return to find that information is missing. Worse is when you link to the story and your readers find it is missing. It would be nice to know your memory isn’t bad. Also, it stops newspaper readers from claiming the paper covers up errors.

Why bring this up today?

A little after 10 Saturday night, the Ledger published a story about three pedestrians struck by a vehicle on US 98 North. The short article also had the line “A drunk driver may be involved, according to the police radio.” The story was based on police radio reports and included a byline. The headline: “Police Radio: Child Killed in Crash on U.S. 98 N. in Lakeland”

The police sent a media alert about 10:51 pm. It included: “3 PEDESTRIANS STRUCK, ALL WERE TRANSPORTED, CONDITIONS UNKNOWN AT THIS TIME”

A little after Midnight the Ledger ran a second story. It carried odd published (Saturday, September 20, 2008 at 12:01 a.m.) and last modified (Sunday, September 21, 2008 at 12:20 a.m.) dates. Obviously, the published date was 24 hours off. This is the version printed in the Sunday paper. It also mentioned a child had been killed and “several other people were seriously injured.” The article added: “Police dispatchers said a drunk driver may have been involved.” The headline: “Struck by Car, Child Killed, Several Injured”

About 10:33 am Sunday Lakeland Police Department spokesman Jack Gillen felt a need to correct the Ledger. He sent a media alert: “UPDATE ON PEDESTRIAN ACCIDENT INJURED IN ACCIDENT WERE A 30 YR OLD FEMALE AND HER 2 CHILDREN AGES 2 AND 9 MONTHS THERE WERE NO FATALITES AS WAS

A little after Noon today a third, more complete, and more accurate version appeared at the Ledger online. Oddly, the published and last modified dates were the same from the 12:20 am Sunday story. This story was headlined: “Mother, Two Young Kids Hurt in Accident.”

What does it all mean?

Obviously, the Ledger tried to cover the story with the resources available. I can’t say I agree a police radio is a valid source, but that’s a personal call. I commend the paper for making sure to update the story as they learned correct information.

However, I wish they’d follow convention and leave the article at a single URL. Show revision numbers, dates, and time. They could strike old information or place new stories above the old with a note about revisions.

Don’t confuse readers by changing the URL, leaving some versions online, completely replacing a version with a new version but keeping the old URL or having the old URL forward to a new. Don’t change published or last modified dates, or anything else that makes it difficult to follow the evolution of the story. For archive sake, also include any errata on the page, rather on a separate page.

Newspapers are joining the online publishing world. They need to adopt some online conventions that are reader friendly.


For the sake of space, I haven’t included the full text or screen grabs of the various articles. Since the URLs have changed and could change again, I didn’t include links in the story. I do have all links and screen grabs in my notes if anyone would like to see them.

Update: 5:18 – The Ledger has another update. This one has yet another URL and the same incorrect published date. However, it looks like it has a later modified date and time.

Update: 11:21 — Guess which part of the system doesn’t include a spellchecker to warn you when you mistype?

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