Everyone is ‘Friends of Hamas’

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

I think just about every working journalist has heard that bit of wisdom at some point. Today’s dose of political journalism schadenfreude ties into it nicely.

Here’s what happened, as near as I can tell. Dan Friedman of New York Daily News called a Hill worker to look into allegations that Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel had questionable, anti-Israel ties. Friedman, thinking he was quipping, asked his source if Hagel had ever given a speech to “Friends of Hamas” (the “Junior League of Hezbollah, in France” was also name-dropped but it was “Friends” that stuck).

Fast forward to about two weeks ago when Ben Schapiro of Breitbart.com ran an article claiming that White House officials were dodging questions about Hagel’s association with the group.

Friends of Hamas, of course, doesn’t exist. It’s not a real organization. Friedman had been so sure that his questions were easily spotted as hyberbole that it never occurred to him that someone might run with it. And it wasn’t just Breitbart — other conservative publications picked it up, too.

Dave Weigel of Slate saw all this and decided to take 20 minutes (his own estimation) to do what hadn’t occurred to anyone else: actually do some research to see if Friends of Hamas was an actual group.

This all resulted in pretty much everyone in my Twitter feed trading quips about Friends of Hamas and wondering what the hell Schapiro was thinking when he ran with a scoop without verifying it. Schapiro posted a follow-up, but all it really does is blame everyone but Schapiro himself for what happened. He also suggests that the impetus is on Hagel to disprove all of this. Something about when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Knocking Schapiro at this point is superfluous. But this can be a cautionary tale to other journalists. A reminder that “interesting if true” has the word “if” in it. A reminder to always verify what your sources tell you (Schapiro goes from having plural sources in his original article to a single source in his update, so which is it?). A reminder not to go in with a political agenda, looking for things to validate an opinion you already have. And a reminder that if you’re ever caught doing this, have the grace and dignity to admit you screwed up instead of just digging in deeper.

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Lose your copy editors, lose yourselves

I’m a copy editor. It’s been my jam since I passed the Dow Jones editing test way back in 2007. That test led me to my first internship, at The Indianapolis Star. And, barring my master’s work, I’ve never looked back.

I am extremely lucky to be able to make a living as an editor, and lucky to work at a place that still sees the value in keeping a dedicated copy desk. I’ve had crash courses in fracking, the Affordable Care Act, patent law, defense contracting and countless other topics. It makes me better-rounded, and every time someone thanks for me improving a story, finding a better word or correcting a potentially embarrassing error, I feel glad to have come in that day, that what I do matters.

As such I — and many other friends and colleagues in this business — was distressed to see that the number of working copy editors has fallen by about 46 percent in the past decade. By comparison, reporting positions fell by 26 percent, according to Poynter. Apparently, when newsrooms need to bust out the scissors, we’re an easy target.

However, I argue that dismissing the copy desk will in the long run exacerbate problems, not solve them — the same problems that trimming the copy desk were supposed to solve in the first place.

This Steve Myers entry on Poynter last spring sums up exactly what I mean. Myers writes about the dismissal of the Denver Post’s copy desk and the assignment of editing duties to other staffers across the newsroom. Rather than comment on this one way or the other, he simply shares a single headline from the Post: “Downward sprial continues.” Oh yes, yes it did.

What do readers think when they see a newspaper (or website, magazine, whatever) riddled with spelling, grammatical and factual errors? Reasonably, they probably assume that this newspaper is bush league, that it doesn’t care enough to get things right and that it isn’t worth the reader’s subscription dollars. Readership falls, advertising follows and before you know it, the relaxation of financial tensions caused by neglecting the copy desk starts to tighten again.

A quality news organization, no matter the medium, is one in which copy is clean, concise, factual, logical and, yes, spelled correctly. And that requires an investment in copy editors. Take care of them and they’ll take care of your product, and the rest will follow.

(A copy editor, for example, could have told Cindy Adams that Georgetown is actually in Washington, D.C., proper, and that it is no longer 1991.)

Please don’t be That Guy on Yelp

According to my Yelp profile, I am on my second year of being Elite in the Washington, D.C., area. I like Yelp because it combines two of my favorite things: writing and dining out. While I use Yelp mainly for fun and to keep track of where I’ve been, I understand that it carries weight in many places.

I always write my reviews in good faith, and I’ve written them for a number of popular D.C.-area restaurants (including Rasika, Graffiato, Jaleo and Founding Farmers), as well as places in Kansas City, Boston, the UK and Paris. I try to write them as soon as possible after my experience, so the information is fresh and accurate.

Attempting to leverage my so-called Elite status to get additional swag, whether it be perks, better service or freebies, has never crossed my mind. For one thing, I can’t imagine the inflated sense of self-worth necessary to do that. For another, I’m still a journalist who believes, like any good professional critic, that a review is only worthwhile if you’re treated like everyone else. For a third, I’m not a scummy human being.

Jezebel today shared a story about a guy who’s setting up a business plan that revolves around, more or less, extorting businesses based on him being a reviewer for sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. (The original Los Angeles Times stories is behind a paywall, sorry!) He’s distributing the “ReviewerCard,” the idea being that if you flash it and promise to give a good review, businesses will offer discounts, extras and the like. He brags about getting discounted hotel rates by promising to give a good review — the logical conclusion and underlying threat, real or not, being that if he doesn’t get preferential treatment, he’ll write a bad review. The actual quality of the business does not seem to play a role in his reviews; it’s what he can get out of it for himself.

After reading the story, I mostly hoped that Yelp would catch wind of it and disable his account. Professional critics take great pains to avoid being recognized or getting preferential treatment, because they want their experience to mirror that of a regular person’s as much as possible. The idea of New York Times or Washington Post writers telling the hostess that they’re critics, so that fromage plate better be on the house if you know what I mean, is unfathomable. What this guy is selling as “win-win” is really just him being greedy.

Enjoy sites like Yelp for what they are — something that is supposed to be fun, informative and social. Don’t be a tacky egotist who believes that being Elite entitles you to $25 off your bill or whatever.

A two-month anniversary update

Tomorrow, Oct. 6, will be my two-month anniversary at my job. It’s been very rewarding (and busy, as you can tell from my lack of updates). We’ve added three new sections: defense, financial services and tax. Every day I’m editing stories about budget issues, the health-care reform law, infrastructure, cybersecurity, oil and natural gas production, lobbying and all kinds of other topics. I’m learning a LOT.

I’m also enjoying living in D.C., venturing into new neighborhoods and trying new restaurants and meeting some new people (or rediscovering old ones).

I will not be quite as active on here as I was before I started working, but things are going well and I’m pleased so far with my new capital life.

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.