Don’t Punish Journalists for Software Problems

Jotham Sederstrom’s public reaction to being fired cold by the New York Daily News for appearing to publish plagiarized content is remarkable in its candor and its acceptance of blame but belies the pressing issue at hand for those of us who build news websites. Jotham would still be toiling away for his teetering employer if not for a harebrained Content Management System (CMS) that didn’t properly handle blockquotes. I argue that this is hardly a moment for great introspection by editors and reporters; rather, it is one for the software developers in the employ of news organizations and the business people who lead them.

The demands on editors’ time cannot ever have been greater. Not only must they cope with more form factors than ever — print, web, mobile, and social — many publishers are cutting staff while attempting to boost output and are thus saddling their remaining editors with the work of their laid-off colleagues. This is certainly true of the Daily News, for which layoffs come as regularly as the seasons change.

At the same time, our culture has evolved a zero tolerance policy for unethical behavior and problematic discourse, especially where lightning-rod issues like race and sexuality are concerned. Suffice to say, the price for cutting a corner has never been higher, because every offense and every retribution is now carried out in public on social media, and the widespread hunger for clicks and likes makes a mountain out of any molehill. And of course, since the business of news is so tenuous, publishers read into every little misstep and prosecute them internally for any reason or no reason.

So editors are cornered by two problems — a hard job that gets harder by the month, and a media/social beast that feeds ravenously on every minor mistake.

No, wait, sorry, some editors are cornered by three problems, because their news organizations can’t get their damn CMS straight. For most publishers, the CMS is the heart of their editorial operation because it’s the one repository for an article before it renders to various forms — print, web, mobile and social. And at the heart of any CMS is a text editor, which must offer writers and editors many different options for presenting an article correctly in every form factor. The text editor in the Daily News’s CMS stripped out formatting that declared blockquotes or hanging indents. Whoops!

Of these three problems — a rough business model causing layoffs and thus more work for the remaining staff, a rabidly social industry blowing a whistle on every mistake, and a CMS that can’t handle basic formatting — only one is actually possible to solve right now. It is absolutely possible to build a CMS that handles inbound formatting neatly.

And this is why Jotham’s firing ought to be a clarion call to developers and product owners across media. We are a protected class, because we are eminently employable by other industries, yet we choose to work in news. Much like the reporters and editors I know, I work in news because I believe in the accessibility of information and the absolute necessity of surveilling and reporting on the quotidian machinations of power. Product staff are not in the line of fire, yet our decisions impact editors and reporters who are in the line of fire every day — and in creating a CMS, we define the basic parameters of their daily life.

Yet product staff recognize no code of ethics, and journalists absolutely do. Earlier in my own career, when I worked to keep the New York Observer’s website afloat during a period of transition, the publisher asked me to quietly remove a number of articles, and I did. What did I know? Nothing, of course, and that’s why he asked me. Honestly, it was probably over Jotham’s own head that some of these requests came to me, because every article I deleted related to real estate, and Jotham was at that time the editor of the Commercial Observer, the Observer’s special weekly edition that meticulously reported every twitch in commercial real estate. Better me than him!

So Jotham deserves a public apology, and us product folks need a code of ethics that protects the integrity of journalism. I don’t mean this as a threat to the businesses that employ us all — in my experience, no one roots harder for novel commercial ventures than those who will be laid off if they fail — I only mean this as a countermeasure to the kind of knee-jerk foolishness that fires an editor over a core organizational defect.

Regardless of how this story will end for Jotham and the Daily News, those of us who define the products that journalists use to publish the news must learn a lesson from this episode, and I dearly hope that the product team at the Daily News are mounting a pitched internal battle to air their own apologies. And in the spirit of the endless battle for truth and transparency in journalism, I hope that they’ll make their embarrassment as public as Jotham made his.

Are you part of an organization that can’t get its CMS straight? See how we can help

Disclosures: I worked as a consultant for The Observer when Jotham Sederstrom worked there, and we interacted on a couple of occasions. The New York Post, a primary competitor of the Daily News, is a client of Alley Interactive, where I am the CEO.