By Arthur S. Brisbane, The Public Editor column
THE NEW YORK TIMES is the closest thing we have in this country to a “newspaper of record.” A year ago I suggested that the paper should do a better job, therefore, of maintaining a record of the articles it publishes. Because of the swift changes wrought by the Internet, I observed, Times articles drift out into digital space in multiple versions. Some articles disappear altogether.
At the time, the newsroom’s management told me that establishing a stronger historical record by tracking changes in articles and keeping them in a comprehensive archive was not a priority. So much for the newspaper of record, I thought.
A year later, someone else has seized the initiative from The Times.
A Web site called NewsDiffs automatically “scrapes” the front page of NYTimes.com and then publishes a log of articles that appeared in multiple versions. A reader can compare the versions side by side to see changes in text and headline, complete with the markings showing the edits that have been made.
It’s as if The Times is being turned inside out, its inner workings exposed for all to see — a kind of forced transparency.
Performing this technological feat, which for The Times was not a priority, required all of 38 hours’ work, including sleep, by two software programmers and a journalist bent on showing it could be done. This was accomplished at aKnight-Mozilla-M.I.T. hackathon at the M.I.T. Media Lab on June 16 and 17.
Jennifer 8. Lee, a former reporter for The Times and one of the three creators of NewsDiffs, said the project was a “Scotch tape and fun thing” she did with two programmers, Eric Price, an M.I.T. graduate student in computer science, andGreg Price, who works for the tech start-up Tddium.
She told me that she had been ruminating on the problem of multiple versions last fall. She saw a widely disseminated graphic that illustrated changes in an NYTimes.comaccount of a stormy Occupy Wall Street confrontation with police officers on the Brooklyn Bridge.
In an early version, the police were characterized by The Times as “allowing” protesters onto the bridge, but then cutting them off and arresting them. In an account 20 minutes later, there was no mention of the police allowing protesters onto the bridge; instead, the protesters were portrayed as moving on their own initiative to occupy the bridge. The change seemed to shift blame, and there was much angry comment on The Times’s handling of this.
Ms. Lee, who is also an organizer for a global journalism and technology group calledHacks/Hackers, said: “Obviously, I could see as I wrote stories for the paper how they would get updated for the late edition and all that. And then when I moved to the City Room blog, I was curious. I was always puzzled about what is the right way to maintain a historical record of the different versions that an article goes through, for just historical purposes.” The killing of Osama bin Laden, she said, was a good example of a story that would benefit from an archive designed to capture multiple versions. From the first mention on the Web site to the final version many iterations later, she said, “It would be very interesting to watch it change over time.” On the positive side, yes, it would be very interesting. On the negative side, it’s becoming evident that The Times’s failure to provide an accounting for its changing versions gives critics plenty to fulminate about. The changes to the Brooklyn Bridge article are but one example. …
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