Tuesday, 9 March 2010

This is not a blog post... this is a confession

This was quite a taxing post to write. It took me a while to work through my thoughts and I suspect it might irritate some as, essentially, it advocates allowing the people we interview to see and change copy before it's finished.

So, before I get to the point, here's a story.
As a trainee reporter for a weekly paper I once arrived in newsroom to find a note in my pigeonhole from Fierce News Editor. His handwriting was - still is, I'd bet - too poor to decipher. So I asked him, and braced for impact.
Turned out he'd scrawled me a compliment along the lines of: "Liked your piece on Bird Woman; you're turning into a decent feature writer". I remember his words practically verbatim not because of any warm glow they produced, but because of the guilt.


The 'Bird Woman' of his note was a former personality who had dedicated her twilight years to bipeds of the feathered-variety. She refused requests for interviews from local (or, on occasion) national journalists but, after months of cajoling, she agreed to give me an interview... so long as she got to see the copy first. She said 'see', we both knew that potentially meant 'change things'; I wanted that feature and so I went along with it. Sending my article to her before it was published was a big deal to me; moreover, I think I'd have got absolute carpeting if my news editor had ever found out.

I interviewed her, I wrote it, I posted a draft to her (yes, it's that long ago) and a corrected proof arrived a few days later. The corrections were, to my shame, mostly spelling but I also remember some adjectives (it was for our magazine so the odd random act of prose was permitted) were replaced - 'small, elderly' became 'sprightly' for example, and 'eccentric' became 'a local character' - vanity changes that were important to her, as a septuagenarian dealing with a teenager who couldn’t spell ‘receive’ properly. The feature ran, I had lovely feedback from readers and colleagues, but it was ashes in my mouth.

I've sent my copy out for approval on two other occasions and both subjects were rape victims - one a young girl who recounted her ordeal as her father stood, frozen and grieving, behind my chair watching my shorthand, the other was a woman in her eighties, reunited for the first time with the son she'd conceived during the attack. I broke the rule for a simple reason - I simply couldn't bear the thought of getting their stories wrong. Hence, I broke it for me, not for them.

All journalists get asked the "Can I see the copy" question at some point; most news editors will advise trotting out something along the lines of: "I'm sorry, it's against company policy". I think newspaper-types feel a little wounded by the request - why, anyone would think you don't trust us. But, culturally and professionally, print journalism is undergoing a sea-change, which is sweeping aside long-held tenets.

Letting others see your copy-in-progress in advance of publication is no longer the issue it was, because we're already showing the thought-processes behind articles via blogs, tweets, liveblogging, crowdsourcing, livestreaming and more. The big 'Ta-daa' moment of revealing an exclusive is a lovely thing if you're the reporter writing it but if others are blogging or tweeting or commenting on forums about various angles before you're anywhere near a print deadline what are you gaining?

I'm not saying journalists should just hand over all articles pre-publication, whatever platform that article is intended for so individuals can approve ("Could you just ask the defendant if he's happy with this latest trial update M'Lud?") although John Terry would probably like that a lot. But I do think we need to challenge the 'never let them see your work' attitude.

The rise of collaboration and the opportunities for openly developing a story mean that those involved can be active participants rather than passive subjects, and I also think platforms like Google Wave can allow reporters to develop interviews, ideas and question threads in real time.
For the newspaper industry, especially for print journalists, I think the sooner we grasp the concept that collaboration means showing our hand the better. If someone shares their story a reporter, then asks to collaborate with them by seeing - and most probably amending - the article pre-publication, then an automatic "No" is a difficult position to maintain.
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