The US Securities and Exchange Commission is to investigate whether there was any impropriety in the posting of a six-year-old news story relating to United Airlines’ bankruptcy filing. United stock fell sharply on Monday as watchers reacted to what they thought was “new news”.
The case shows some of the rough edges that surround web publishing and it might be instructive to look at how such a case might come about.
The current thinking is that the old United story was accidentally reposted by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and then picked up by web-based news aggregators, and later Bloomberg.
Having worked on web news for about 12 years, I can see how such things can happen. In the mid-1990s, a site I edited used to run stories with the prefix ‘A Year Ago Today’ or similar. Despite the clue in the title, we frequently received mails criticising the stories as out of date, lacking context and so on. Partly this was our fault because the automatic time stamp might suggest to crawlers and casual readers that the news was freshly coined but it also pointed to the nature of web media consumption, namely that news scanning is the new reading.
Another issue that we came across back then was that the sheer volume of stories we were writing practically begged for errors to crop up. On at least a couple of occasions, I was guilty of writing the self-same story twice, having sniffed out a story and failed to recognise it as lacking genuine novelty. We worked fast, perhaps too fast, at the behest of publishers and in keeping with what we saw as the tenor of the times. Clunky CMS systems complicated the matter and editors frequently posted drafts or early-stage versions of reports. (Thank God for the ability to post later edits.)
Also, stories were sometimes posted to the sites of other units in the group or franchise partners. These would sometimes sit askew because of context, subsequent edits, the timing of posts or changes to headlines, images or other factors.
And of course, like most journalists we were under bombardment by squadrons of public-relations people who sometimes re-presented stories without stating that they were retreads. (Hey, that’s OK, most journalists think that ‘ethics’ is the county east if London where the cab drivers live.)
It wasn’t just journalism that the internet was doing funny things to, of course. At around that time, there were some early concerns about stock valuations being pumped up by share pickers wishing to gain a very quick return on investment by leaving comments on forums.
So, a few take-away suggestions:
Publishers should use time/date stamps but also flag why and when stories are being posted second time around.
They should be careful about relationships with partners.
Readers and publishers and journalists should be mistrustful of theories of the importance of ‘first-move advantage’, ‘real-time business’ or, heaven forbid, ‘business at the speed of thought’.
We might all slow down and we should all think more.