Online Journalism Ethics, or, Down the Memory Hole

The New York Times apparently thought better of the statement by Jill Abramson, announcing her appointment as the new executive editor, that in “my house growing up, The Times substituted for religion.  If The Times said it, it was the absolute truth.”  I would link to the NYT article, but the quote has been deleted from the article and does not appear in my print edition this morning.  It had been extensively noted, and ridiculed, by bloggers and columnists around the web; I first saw it over at Althouse.  At least as of my last check, the quote was simply dropped down the memory hole without a correction or a note indicating the editing.

Here’s my question, however.  What should the ethics be for bloggers, online publications, online editions of a newspaper, for the Volokh Conspirators, on making changes?  My own guidelines – lines guided solely by my judgment – is that minor corrections to grammar and the like, including clarificational things that support the original meaning rather than altering it, don’t require notice, and the notice is much more distracting than what it corrects.  Same thing for obvious errors, visible on the surface of the post, so to speak.  I also take the view that there is an informal editing period even after I post something, see it as it actually appears online, and may make any amendments, corrections, revisions, or frankly take down the whole thing – how long that editing period lasts is entirely my sense of things.  I might take down an entire post, usually with some notice that I decided it was wrong headed, or whatever.  If it appears that I’ve radically changed my view, I’ll try to make note of it, while not making it too distracting in the rewrite.  Does it matter to me if the thing I’m altering has been the topic of debate in the comments or on other blogs?  Yes, within limits.  I regard my posts as revisable statements in a discussion, certainly not my final views on a topic.

But this is a blog of opinion.  I’m not a reporter and though I try not to make obvious mistakes, I make no claim to reporting facts as such, and frankly in a blog post there are strong limits to how much research, scholarly work, or time I will put in.  Nor am I relied upon as a paper of record.  So I’m not persuaded that my pretty loose rules for changing things afterwards without notice are relevant to news stories in the Times or newspapers generally; I Y’am What I Y’am, and for better and worse, that’s not the NYT.

My question is this:  what should the ethical rules for changing things online post hoc be for a newspaper such as the Times, the Post, the WSJ, the Economist, etc.; should they be different for online opinion purveyors such as the Daily Beast or HuffPo; and should they be different still for venues like the VC?

(BTW, when I say “ethics” here, I don’t mean anything very strong by it.  I just mean professional standards of conduct, or best practices for organizations, or what we typically talk about as journalistic ethics – this isn’t about Ethics.)

Update 2:  A knowledgeable person has sent along the following email on policy at Bloomberg re revisions to online stories:

Just an FYI on the ethics of transparency on updates and corrections: Bloomberg’s policy from Day One has been set in stone. ANY update or correction MUST show (in a lead-in parenthetical called a “trashline”) what was changed and why. Whether it be a misspelled name, a transposed figure, or a serious error of fact: no matter. It is a grave — even fireable — offense at Bloomberg News to hide a correction. I am almost certain that the same policy stands at DowJones and the AP.

Update:  Below the fold, I’ve put the text of an email from the Times’ media reporter who wrote the story to Jay Nordlinger at NRO, talking about the Times’ editing process.  Some of our commenters seem to misunderstand my interest here; policies on what the “final” version of a story is can matter in many circumstances – legal, scholarly, etc. – and in an age of easy online editing, those are much more fluid than they used to be.  It matters even on blogs in some circumstances – blog posts from this particular blog have been cited in court opinions, in legal scholarship, etc., and presumably the folks doing the citing would like to know that what they’ve said is on the web page is what they said it was, if only to be able to maintain their own scholarly integrity.  So my question is to ask what the best practices should be, and whether and in what ways they differ as between kinds of publications on the web.

I’m writing to clear something up in your post from yesterday headlined “Scrub-a-dub-dub?” If you had bothered to call or write me to ask why Jill Abramson’s quote was deleted in the second version of my story, I would have told you what I’m about to tell you now. Nothing was scrubbed. And you have encouraged your readers to see some surreptitious plot where there was none.

The first version of my story, which contained the religion quote you referenced, was based on written statements from a Times press release and interviews I had done prior to the announcement of Jill’s appointment. I rewrote the story after Jill, Arthur Sulzberger, Bill Keller and Dean Baquet addressed the newsroom, swapping out nearly all of their old quotes for fresh quotes that came from their speeches. Everyone’s quotes in the second version of the story differed considerably from their quotes in the first version of the story.

On breaking news stories that develop throughout the day, we continuously update with new information, additional interviews, fuller detail and, yes, even new quotes. It should be telling that the first version of my story with the religion quote was up for nearly 12 hours before it was replaced with the version that appeared on A1 of today’s paper. And all the while, we approved and posted readers’ comments on the quote. Note that those comments remain on the site.

Since the story appeared in the paper as well as online, it had to fit our restricted space in print. A1 stories are required to be about 1,100 words, with special exceptions for investigative pieces or in-depth features. This story was already too long at more than 1,200. We needed to keep it tight.

There’s no conspiracy here. Just standard revising and updating and condensing for space.