Web first fears are not about journalism

The Editors Weblog has an interview with Foreign Editor for the Guardian, Harriet Sherwood, about its web first publishing policy.

The Guardian began its experiment with its foreign and business desks, each for different reasons: the foreign desk “because the world’s time zones make a nonsense of once-a-day publication once you have the means of a 24-hour news service,” and the business desk because a “lot of business news is released early in the morning” and it doesn’t seem logical to wait until the following morning’s paper to publish the news.”

It’s an interesting interview which raises one of the key concerns that the policy has raised in the industry: Accuracy in the face of speed.

The main difficulty with online-first publishing is getting the balance right between speed and quality. Speed is of huge importance for any news website, but quality and accuracy are at the heart of the Guardian’s journalism and I think it would be wrong to sacrifice or compromise on those.

Harrison’s describes a process of using wire copy first then letting foreign correspondents file a more considered piece as protection from that compromise.

“I am at pains to stress the importance of accuracy – and the importance of giving the correspondent enough time to do some proper reporting.”

I find it surprising that this is still a point if issue for many journalists.

That process doesn’t strike me as any different from the traditional journalistic process. The web first policy has forced a split in the publication of the story. The shorter reactive stuff, normally associated with the front of the paper (and often wire copy rewrite), goes up first. The more reflective, informed opinion, normally reserved for the comment/analysis pages, goes up later.

In the newspaper they are published in the same place. On the web they are published at separate times.

It seems that this is another of those zero-sum arguments. The accusation? You cannot have speed and accuracy on the web.

I think journalists are selling themselves short if they align themselves with this view. It’s obvious from The Guardian’s approach that journalists are not expected to behave any differently in the way they report on stories. In fact the emphasis seems to be on making sure they have the space and time to do things properly.

The truth may be that many who use the speed vs accuracy accusation, particularly in newspapers, are protecting the output medium not journalistic integrity. They are actually talking about protecting the way newspapers are put together not the journalism that appears in them.

Harrison’s views on the development of news online might be useful advice for them.

We have to recognise that the web has changed people’s expectations of how news is delivered and respond to that. Yes, it will change things completely in terms of delivery – but I think the issue of trusted sources of news become ever-more important when the sources are so many and varied.

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