YDR Insider

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The rush to get news online fast and the need to get it online right

Here’s a story, at my expense, about journalism, immediacy, social networking and the balance between being fast and being right.

We were the first news organization to post information about the plane crash last night. We knew one way we could stay ahead of the story was to get the plane’s N number off the tail, because the FAA’s registration records are online, and if you know the plane’s number, you can find out information about it.

I asked our people on the scene to text me the number. Photographer Chris Dunn first texted me the number — N488S — and followed with a photo that showed the number. We began reporting based on that number, which showed a Cessna plane registered in Wilmington, Del. We found a for-sale listing for that plane, and other information online.

The basic info — make and model — made it into the online story that we were continually updating. And reporter Teresa Boeckel made several phone calls trying to find the company that owned that plane.

The for-sale listing had a photo of N488S, and the plane on the ground in Jackson Township looked a lot like it. One thing bothered me — it appeared the one on the ground had one more window than the one in the photo. I thought maybe that was an opening caused by the crash; it troubled me, and I brought it up to Teresa, but didn’t pursue it further. Later that night, I tweeted a link to the registration info.

I should have pursued it further, because the number N488S was wrong. It was actually N48BS. I had typed in a couple of alternate N-numbers on the FAA site, but not that one. I had looked at Chris’ picture and read the same thing: N488S. Looking at that picture now, it’s obvious that the ‘8’ and the ‘B’ are different. I simply didn’t pause long enough for it to register last night.

We discovered the error in time to change it online during the evening and to make it correct for the morning newspaper. But for a period of time, we had incorrect information online. The story now has a note in it that it has been corrected, and is in our list of online corrected stories. I corrected my tweet.

In a situation like last night’s, we’re trying to report the best, most verifiable information as quickly as possible. We know people are hungry for information, and we know they want it right.

But we regularly talk in the newsroom about how much tolerance readers have for changes in continually updated breaking news — whether it’s a mistake like mine last night, or whether officials report that 10 families were left homeless by a fire, we publish that online, and later officials revise that to 2. With breaking news, some information is going to be fluid. It requires on-the-spot decision making about what to put online, whereas we can be more deliberate about what to publish in the next morning’s newspaper.

What do you think?