Gerber : Web's fast pace impacts news reporting

Gerber : Web's fast pace impacts news reporting

December 2nd, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

I have a theory that productivity dropped dramatically in Tennessee workplaces last week.

Why? Because workers were too busy reading news reports about the pursuit of the next University of Tennessee football coach. All week, rumors swirled around ESPN analyst and former NFL coach Jon Gruden.

Vols fans are desperate for some good news after the Lane Kiffin disaster, followed by Derek Dooley's first two lackluster years, then topped by this season's implosion.

Web stats for the Times Free Press offer a glimpse of this - a record number of page views were recorded on Gruden stories during the daytime hours when lots of people are typically at their work computers.

We even joked in the newsroom about putting Gruden's name in the headlines of all Web stories: "City Council approves stop signs, Gruden has no comment," or to really jack up Web hits, simply say: "Powerball reaches record high, Gruden." And we considered offering a reward to anyone who could realistically link Gruden and Kiffin in a headline. That would have melted the Internet.

I know some grown men who spent the last few weeks sending frantic texts, obsessing over comments posted to message boards and analyzing quotes in news stories.

Of the names tossed out as potential coaches, Gruden was clearly the fans' top pick, and their appetite for news on the situation - even snippets of it - was enormous.

The is-he-or-isn't-he frenzy is a reminder of how much the news cycle has changed. It used to be that news stories unfolded in 24-hour cycles. Now, they play out in a matter of hours or sometimes minutes.

And they're not just broken by newspapers or TV stations as was once the case. They're broken on newspaper and TV websites but also on specialty websites and blogs (and there are plenty of those in the sports world).

Every little detail becomes a story, and it's hard to know what to believe because those stories are often contradictory. Here's a sampling of headlines in recent weeks:

• Is Jon Gruden the Answer for the Tennessee Volunteers?

• Tennessee's Pursuit of Jon Gruden Continues

• Report: Jon Gruden may meet with Tennessee Volunteers AD soon

• Jon Gruden is not going to Tennessee

• Jon Gruden, Tennessee Rumors Run Rampant

The last headline, as it turned out, accurately summed up some of the reporting on this story. The fast-paced environment and must-be-first mentality sometimes lead to false news being passed off as legitimate.

For example, a Memphis television station reported last week that Gruden had received an offer to coach the Vols in a deal that would include becoming part owner of the Cleveland Browns. Sounds ludicrous, but it got reported as fact.

The connection is that the Browns are owned by Jimmy Haslam, brother of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.

Within hours both Gruden and the Browns were saying there was no truth to the report, with the NFL team calling it "completely erroneous."

News media not only impacted how the story was reported on news websites, it also allowed fans to steer the narrative. The Wikipedia page on Gruden briefly stated that he was "the current head coach at the University of Tennessee."

No doubt some overzealous fan added that to Wikipedia, which can be directly edited by users.

And for a time, the website redirected people to UT's athletics page. Again, this was probably posted by someone who wanted to influence the story.

Unfortunately, the nature of the Web makes it easy for people to be sloppy with facts. If something is inaccurate, it can be corrected with a few clicks and keyboard strokes.

Not so on the print side.

There's more gravity when you print something. It's there forever, in black and white. It's part of the archive, part of the historic record.

That responsibility, which the Times Free Press accepts every day, hopefully makes all newspaper journalists - who now almost certainly write not just for print but for the Web, too - accept the responsibility of double- and triple-checking facts before putting the information into print.

Just because the news business has drastically changed and now means publishing stories throughout the day doesn't mean that we should forget the axiom: Get it first, but get it right.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfree Send suggestions to readerfeedback@timesfree