Paresh Jha debacle is a teachable moment for editors

There are probably three hard-and-fast rules when reporting the news: Keep your personal opinion out of it, don’t steal another person’s work and don’t make things up.

Paresh Jha, a reporter for the New Canaan News, in Connecticut, apparently didn’t adhere to that third rule and paid for it with his job. Craig Silverman, who writes the “Regret the Error” blog for Poynter, has done a great job with following the story as it develops. As of today, Silverman says at least 25 stories of Jha’s have been scrubbed from the paper’s website and there may be more to come.

Many of Jha’s stories feature people with odd names who are unlisted on Facebook and the white pages, teenagers who are just a little too eloquent and sources who are just a little too convenient for the nature of the story. Eventually, when Jha’s stories were put under the microscope — as they should have been before they even ran — they failed to pass muster. Cue sacking.

Much of the focus is on the reporting craft, with this episode used as a morality tale to scare cub reporters away from cutting corners. But I’d say that it actually offers more of a lesson to editors and fact-checkers. Namely, check everything. Ask questions. Verify sources’ identities. Based on the falsehoods that have been pointed out, most of these stories would have been undone by a 5-second Facebook, Google or phonebook check. Benefit of the doubt goes only so far. If something looks too pithy to be true — a driving instructor with the surname Retrede, really? — look into it. Hell, look into it anyway.

This incident isn’t just a reporting breakdown; it’s a failure of the entire editorial process. It shows why papers and news outlets should invest in quality fact-checkers and copy desks (there’s some rumbling that the staff was simply too undermanned), and it exposes the weakness in just taking someone’s word for it.

I’m moving up and moving to Washington, D.C.

It’s been a rough few weeks. I’ve had some personal setbacks and found out that my work permit program in the UK had been closed. But I am thrilled to announce that, as of August 6, I will be a copy editor for POLITICO Pro in Washington, D.C.

If you follow politics at all, you’re probably familiar with POLITICO. The political news site, which also produces a print edition during the week when Congress is in session, launched in early 2007 and quickly became a major media presence in the Beltway. In February 2011, POLITICO launched its Pro platform, a paid subscription service catering to policy professionals — lobbyists, congressional workers, agency officials and whatnot. What began as a three-vertical system (health care, technology and energy) branched into four (transportation launched in April) and will soon be six (defense and finance were just announced).

The “side project” has grown extremely fast and is doing very well; Pro is adding a large number of new journalists, including yours truly. It’s growing and adding staff and subscribers when many outfits are shrinking.

I’ll be joining a relatively young production staff of production editors, copy editors and Web producers. We’re encouraged to try our own side projects. Having met just about everyone in the office last week, I have to say that I am extremely excited to start work.

And of course it will be amazing to move to the capital during an election year. I know so many people there already (including a few who were kind enough to put me up and have meals with me during the interview process), and the city is just a truly awesome place to be.

I’m going back for a few days in July to find a place to live, and probably moving out for good in early August, before I start work. It seems crazy that it’s happening, but I’m glad that my patience and hard work has paid off. I’m ready to go!

Gawker, what did you DO?

I love Gawker. I’ve read it for a few years, since my finals years at KU. It has a wonderful combination of snark and basic content curation. Two things made it stand out: its writers and its comment section. The latter, though, has been dropped on its head.

Gawker’s old-old comment section involved first-time posters replying to posts and/or adding comments to “try out.” Veteran commenters could approve those comments, giving new posters their feet through the door. Such veteran commenters would earn stars, and those stars gave them certain privileges, namely approving new commenters and promoting quality comments. As a poster, you could follow your favorite commenters and be followed in turn.

A few months ago, the old-old system was canned and replaced with a free-for-all. Commenters lost their stars and approval privileges. Spam could be dismissed in the comments section, and “featured” discussions with several replies were pulled out of the larger pile. A definite change of pace from the older system, but not bad.

Cue last week’s announcement by tech writer Adrian Chen, explaining the new commenting system, which involves a crazy, not-intuitive-at-all, carpal tunnel-inducing labyrinth. Instead of getting a clear view of all original threads in one vertical swoop, such threads are now available on a single-click basis, with their replies underneath them. Describing it only makes it sound more confusing, which is the point — it’s nearly incomprehensible and it’s only been in the past day or two that I finally figured it out. The response has been near-universally negative, with many veterans swearing that they’re leaving.

The question now is, what’s next? Is Gawker going to blink and go back to one of the older, more likeable commenting systems? Will it simply ride out the criticism until people get used to it? Will it admit that the change was an error? I really don’t know. I can’t see this new system working; major-traffic threads can easily accrue hundreds of comments, each one necessitating its own click. It’s a chore, it takes the fun out of posting, it’s hard to follow and it takes a four-step article to explain it.

Gawker has a talented stable of writers — I like reading Chen, Hamilton Nolan and Caity Weaver, and was sad to see Richard Lawson, Maureen O’Connor and Brian Moylan go — but its comments have always been a huge, huge draw for the site. I will definitely be paying attention in the next few months to see how the commenting system changes, if it does. It may prove to be a valuable lesson in terms of Web design, development and user relations.