The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

January 10, 2009

Amid errors, committing to credibility

Sometimes, we screw up. Sure, everybody does, but not as obviously as a newspaper.

What makes me proud, despite our indisputable imperfection, is that I don’t know any other industry that so publicly acknowledges its foibles and tries to correct its mistakes.

The press is the only profession expressly protected in the Constitution. But with that comes a tremendous responsibility. It has become my custom to devote one of my first columns each year to acknowledging the miscues of the previous 12 months.

And a fine custom it is, too.

In 2008, The Daily Star ran 174 corrections, an eerily similar number to the 176 we published in 2007. To give a bit of perspective, we ran 202 in 2006, and 155 the previous year.

Most by far have been our fault, with the rest caused by inaccurate information in interviews or media releases.

And, as I acknowledge each year, these are only the mistakes we know about. There is no question that we made many more that weren’t brought to our attention.

In comparison with some past years in which some of our errors were painfully embarrassing, humorous or almost inexplicable, 2008’s corrections were fairly mundane.

Primarily, we misspelled some names, got some dates for events wrong, left out some relevant information and did some faulty math when dealing with statistics. While these are all things that can drive editors to drink, they were all honest mistakes and not the result of any preconceived prejudice or animus.

I know there are folks who will never believe that, and they are privileged to believe what they want.

But here’s the most compelling argument I can employ to make my point.

There’s a plethora of 24-hour cable networks offering news, sports, weather, business and all sorts of other things previous generations received from newspapers and in half-hour telecasts from CBS, NBC and ABC.

The Internet offers virtually unlimited information about everything, including what’s in every major newspaper in the country.

What’s left for newspapers?

Well, actually lots of things, not the least of which is the material to wrap fish and train puppies. But our most precious asset _ along with our primacy in covering local news _ is our credibility.

In an era in which anyone with a computer and an opinion can be his own Internet media outlet, newspapers are still rightfully looked upon as having the best-trained journalists and those most guided by ethics.

If we lose that honor, we lose everything. We may lose almost everything, anyway. While the big-city metros would seem to be more vulnerable than community papers such as the one you’re reading now, it’s no secret that newspapers, as a whole, are in deep trouble.

If you’re looking at this column on a computer, you didn’t pay to read it, and that’s part of why times are so tough. A whole generation has grown up unwilling to pay for news. Combine that with the Internet’s ability to specialize and target individual needs of consumers, and it’s easy to see why many newspapers have lost advertisers.

Because this is a column about errors, it bears noting that newspapers’ biggest mistakes are being conducted in corporate offices all over America.

Like many other businesses taken over by those whose vision of the future is obscured by quarterly spreadsheets, a lot of newspaper companies have fallen into the trap of thinking that laying off employees can clear the path to success.

Some of the most skilled fiction writing I’ve ever read are recent memos and columns by editors I respect who have had to wince and tell their employees and readers that staff reductions will actually allow their newsrooms to be more efficient. Newspaper people tend to be a bit emotional about all this turmoil. Along with the hand-wringing and self-flagellation so cherished by those in my profession, is this worry.

One day, we’re going to get this all worked out. We’re going to find ways to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the Internet, including video, podcasts and forms of communication we don’t even know about yet, and make it all extremely profitable.

The worry is that if the cuts keep coming, there might not be anything worthwhile left to salvage.

And that would be the worst newspaper error of all time.


Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at spollak@thedailystar. com or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208.