Getting it right: Is the internet killing good journalism?

A story appeared on the front page of The Age (Melbourne’s only broadsheet newspaper) last week written by one of Australia’s most respected and well-known journalists, Adele Ferguson.

The story was about the death of the former chairman of a collapsed mortgage lender called Banksia, which has left thousands of small investors (families and pensioners) out of pocket with $660 million owed.

Ferguson reported that the Banksia chairman – Ian Hankin – had died in a head-on collision with a truck just three months before Banksia went bust.

“Ian Hankin, 59, died on August 8 when his BMW and a truck collided on the Western Highway at Burrumbeet, about 25 kilometres west of Ballarat.”

The story then went on to say that three weeks earlier, “on July 18, Hankin drove his Mercedes-Benz into the path of an oncoming truck on the Midland Highway near Scotsburn, 18 kilometres south of Ballarat”.

In the first crash Hanking escaped with minor injuries though the car was written-off.

Clearly, what was being implied was that Hankin had taken his own life after learning that Banksia was heading into financial failure and having failed the first time, he did a better job of it the second time.

Except, as was later pointed out by rival Melbourne newspaper the Herald Sun (owned by Rupert Murdoch) Hankin had stepped down from his role as chairman of Banksia three years ago and had no association with the company, making it highly unlikely his death and the previous collision was in anyway related to the mortgage lender’s sudden collapse on 25 October this year.

The chairman of Banksia is Peter Keating, who is very much alive.

The Age did print an update to the story, but only to add the word “former”  in front Ian Hankin’s title of ‘chairman’. (I have since discovered that The Age apologised to Ian Hankin’s family, but the story remains unchanged except for the addition of the extra word)

The error was reported in the media section of The Australian (another Murdoch-owned paper, but a broadsheet, with more gravitas than the Herald Sun) under the heading “Page one howler”

The Australian pointed out that “The Age ran a correction on Saturday on page two, one strangely lacking any apology to Hankin’s family who are understandably distraught.

“Journalists are not infallible. But the correction does appear buried and insubstantial given the size of the error,” The Australian went on to say.

Hankin’s colleagues at the law firm where he worked until his sudden death have spoken out against the insinuations in the article, though this hasn’t stopped controversial radio DJ Derryn Hinch (famous for naming convicted sex offenders on air against court orders) from labelling Hankin’s death a “coward’s exit” on his own website.

The Age’s error was indeed a bad one  (made worse by the lack of an apology)  and should have been avoided by some simple fact checking, something you would have thought would have been given extra priority, since the story was destined for the front page of the newspaper.

But this should all be put into the context of the challenges facing Fairfax – publisher of The Age and rival newspaper publisher Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited as well as other newspaper groups all round the world.

Fairfax is currently in the process of getting rid of 1,900 employees, many of them journalists, in an effort to cut costs and deal with a loss of print advertising revenue as readers shift to getting their knews online and via mobile devices (where advertising revenues are much smaller).

Fewer journalists mean fewer sub-editors checking articles before they go to print and less time spent by journalists themselves reasearching their articles.

Making things worse is the fact that Fairfax has outsourced most of its sub-editing to an external company called Pagemasters.

A sub-editor is not just a spelling and grammar checker. A good sub-editor understands the subject matter they are reading and the context and history behind the article.

A good sub-editor would have asked the question: Was Ian Hankin the chairman of Banksia at the time of his death?

These sorts of mistakes are likely to become more frequent as publishers scramble to find a way to scrape a profit.

In the online age of the 24 hour news cycle, smaller teams of journalists must produce more content at a faster rate with less time for research and few pairs of eyes to check facts and ask important questions.

Out of curiosity, I took a look at the jobs currently advertised on the New York Times media group website, publisher of the venerated New York Times, International Herald Tribune and Boston Globe.

There are currently 54 jobs advertised.

Not one of them is a journalism role.