Last week, Gawker reported on a text-message conversation in which Condé Nast CFO David Geithner solicited a male sex worker, who then tried to blackmail him. The internet exploded at Gawker, calling the story gay-shaming. In response to criticism, Gawker Media founder Nick Denton apologized and took the story down.
Monday, the gossip site's executive editor, Tommy Craggs, and Gawker.com editor-in-chief Max Read, left the company. Craggs and Read opposed the decision to remove the story, along with the rest of the editorial board. And I agree with them.
While Slant, the news site where I am editorial director, may or may not have chosen to publish a story like the one Gawker staff writer Jordan Sargent wrote about Geithner (I'd seek out and probably follow the guidance of my full editorial team), we wouldn't have subsequently removed it from our page.
There are plenty of reasons Gawker shouldn't have taken the story down. For one, as Michelle Castillo points out on CNBC, it's another example of business interests dictating what happens on the editorial side of a news outlet. That's just terrible form.
Another reason is that Gawker, among other things, is a tabloid, so it makes sense for it to operate according to the rules (and non-rules) of tabloid journalism, even if that means offending people - or taking risks with the line between reporting on public and private figures. In its capacity as a tabloid, Gawker has tried to "out" people before. It has notably tried to prove that James Franco is gay.
Some of those lines of argument are legitimate, but I have a different rationale for thinking Gawker shouldn't have removed the Sargent post from the site.
It's just too easy to "take things down" on news sites.
As the news moves from print to online, we talk about all kinds of shifts, but we don't speak often enough about how we issue corrections.
At many news outlets where reporters have access to the CMS (content management system - the web interface we use to publish content on the internet), it's much easier to log in, quickly fix an error in a published story, save, and log out, than to go through the comparatively onerous process of issuing a correction. It's one thing to fix grammar mistakes and typos; it's another thing entirely to pretend you didn't make a factual error and learn about it later.
That doesn't just go for factual errors. When BuzzFeed was about to launch BuzzFeed News and wanted to be seen as a more high-brow outlet, it deleted a number of stories from its earlier, "buzzier" days. BuzzFeed is one of many publications, including TIME and The Huffington Post, that has been accused of blurring the line, often under pressure from advertisers or friends of executives.
As digital media analyst Rebecca Lieb told CNBC, "The church/state division of editorial and publishing is eroding."
The New York Times still sets the industry standard; it frequently publishes corrections at the bottom of stories and solicits them from readers. When I reported for The Huffington Post, if we realized I'd gotten a fact wrong after a story had been published, the editors were rigorous about issuing corrections.
But even if we think certain outlets are being good about corrections, we can never know for sure. No one is trolling through enough posts taking screenshots for us to find out every time a fact discreetly gets changed post-publication, sans correction.
When the news was circulated only in print, it was impossible for newspapers to retract stories once they were released into the public domain. That means publishers were more careful about what they chose to print ("all the news that's fit to print") because they knew they could never take it back. It means they had to actually publish corrections - publicly. And that isn't a bad thing.
A correction doesn't negate a story. Once a correction is published, it becomes part of the story and a part of the conversation. It's an addition, an enrichment, an enhancement. (Of course, the ideal situation is to get it right in the first place.)
Once the Gawker story went live, Geithner had effectively been "outed." There was no taking that back. Removing the story from the internet didn't help - it only redoubled the outrage and impelled high-profile Gawker staffers to quit.
Corrections aren't only appropriate for factual errors. They also can apply to moral errors. They can convey new editorial considerations. They can help put a story in context. If you're going to make a change to a story after it is published, that change shouldn't be taking the story off the internet.
If Gawker wanted to make a change to the Sargent piece on Geithner (and that's a big "if"; I'm not 100% convinced they should've done anything one way or the other), that change should've been a correction or an extra note from the editor that appears on the same web page as the piece in question.
News sites should be accountable. That means not just taking things down.