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Internet, austerity no excuse for going lax

I lost sleep this week over a comma.

Because of coronavirus-related cutbacks, I am now the only person working in the newsroom on Friday nights. James Andersen, our sports editor/page designer, works solo Sunday nights.

Last Friday, I edited 11 stories, laid out 15 pages, and uploaded 41 stories to the Web.

So my brain was a bit frazzled by the time I got around to proofing the front page somewhere close to midnight after 12 hours on the job.

I missed an errant comma in the deck head — the smaller, unbolded headline beneath the main head — on Julie Riddle’s excellent Father’s Day story about a stay-at-home dad. The comma was a leftover, I’m guessing, from an earlier version of the headline that I decided against.

I was able to fix the headline in the online version of Riddle’s story, but I know that doesn’t help her clippings. When I was a reporter, I hated when I worked my tail off on a story and somebody else’s mistake spoiled it, an error forever memorialized on the front page.

There’s an increasing risk of that sort of thing happening in newsrooms across America.

The economic shutdowns meant to prevent the virus’ spread have drained newspapers of advertising revenue, forcing layoffs and furloughs. That means fewer people trying to do the same amount of or more work. And that means those fewer people are all stressed out, and, therefore, more mistake-prone.

But the risk preceded the pandemic. The internet era pressures reporters to do more more quickly. You have to turn around more stories and shoot and edit video, tweet and post to Facebook, compile interactive graphics, and more. The internet and corporate’s ability to track page views to determine the most popular stories also means some reporters are pressured to chase stories they might not otherwise have pursued.

Combine all that, the cuts and internet pressure, and you get some lax reporting.

Example: The Detroit Free Press wrote a story last week about internet rumors that former Red Wing Pavel Datsyuk had participated in the takeover of a Russian monastery (read the “story” here: https://tinyurl.com/ybdp6w9w).

High in the piece was this gem: “We’re not saying this story is true. We’re not saying that it’s not true. But it’s out there on social media, so we can’t ignore it.” Chad Livengood, of Crain’s Detroit Business, called that “a nut graf that should live in journalistic infamy.”

Example: The Nashville Tennessean published an ad from a biblical prophecy group that claimed “Islam” planned to bomb the city. The New York Times says the ad wasn’t reviewed before publication and the paper’s ad manager was fired (https://tinyurl.com/y9xh2avr).

I get it. I’ve got the bags under my eyes to prove it.

But our mission is greater than ourselves, and the times are no excuse to report on internet rumors without being able to prove or disprove them or to skip corners so hate speech appears in our publications.

We must remain the types of people who lose sleep over errant commas.

Here at The News, we are down to three news reporters, one sports editor/page designer, one Lifestyles editor, and me. We won’t be able to do everything we used to do.

So we’ve changed our approach to make sure we’re using our time most effectively to report on the things you most care about.

The biggest change is that reporters no longer cover agencies or bureaucracies.

Instead, they cover issues.

We will cover fewer meetings, turning to them only as a vehicle for reporting on the issues that matter to Northeast Michigan or when news breaks that greatly impacts our readers.

Steve Schulwitz now covers issues of personal freedom and economic development, such as taxes, government effectiveness, and new businesses.

Julie Riddle covers criminal justice and natural resources, focusing on crime and courts, the Great Lakes, and our Up North woods.

Crystal Nelson covers families and health care, focusing on education, the job market, youth programs, and other issues that affect family life, and access to care in Northeast Michigan.

There will be more stories that we miss.

It’s just math.

But that doesn’t mean we won’t try to make subtraction equal addition. The hope is that the new arrangement will ensure the things we can cover are the things that most affect you and that you most care about.

And we will make sure we continue to lose sleep over errant commas.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.

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