Telling us that (but not what) you updated

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has an editor’s note atop one of its articles today:

Editor’s note: This article was revised and updated at 5 p.m. 2002-11-18

It’s great that the Tribune-Review chose to add that note. If you had seen the article before 5 p.m. and e-mailed me its URL, I could be very confused reading it after 5 p.m., because we wouldn’t be reading the same article. Telling readers that an article has been modified from its original version may seem silly, but it’s the right thing to do. The Tribune-Review further tells readers when the article was modified, which is also the right thing to do.

Even though the Tribune-Review is ahead of most online news sites in showing readers that note, there are still a few improvements I might make:

  • Use a different date format. I do applaud the site for using the ISO 8601 date format rather than the more internationally vague American MM/DD/YY format, but both are designed more for computers than humans. How about the more readable “Monday, November 18, 2002”?
  • Explain what has changed since the previous version. The Associated Press does an excellent job of explaining revisions to editors at its member newspapers. News Web sites usually configure their AP feeds to hide that information from the public, but occasionally it leaks out. For example, an article from 2001 at Belo has this gem of abbreviations: “Eds: SUBS 3rd graf, bgng ‘Maj. Bill...’ to CORRECT that two soldiers walked off plane sted three.” Of course news sites should use plain English rather than editorspeak, but they have a duty to tell readers what has changed — especially when a new version makes corrections.
  • Keep previous versions available. The World Wide Web Consortium’s online publications are a great example of this. The XHTML specification, for example, includes links to the specification’s latest version, previous version, and even a copy with the changes highlighted. News sites don’t do anything like this. Web editors probably believe it would take too much staff time, even though a content management system could easily be programmed to provide this feature automatically. They probably also believe readers would have little interest, and perhaps that’s true. There are always some readers, though, who are fanatics about breaking news or sports or whatever interests them. They want every last drop of information about big stories and sometimes follow as many links as a site can provide. Anyway, regardless of how many readers would actually look at previous versions, I think journalists have a professional duty to make them available. History should not disappear down the memory hole.

I do wonder what the Tribune-Review changed, and whether the previous version of the article had any errors that they fixed. Their printed newspaper tomorrow will probably contain a third and further improved version, and I suppose we’ll never know.

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This page last modified on Wednesday, January 4, 2006 at 2:26 am