Why, Baby, Why? Shaky link to history at USAToday.com

Don’t let your robot-editor hurt your credibility

End of summer ‘lull’ opens opportunities – USATODAY.com.

George Jones 1885The “End of summer…” in that headline link might hint that I’m not keeping up with the news. But I just stumbled on USA Today founder Al Neuharth’s column about newspaper history anniversaries while searching for something else and decided to add it to my media-history bookmark collection.

In the process, I noticed a forgotten man — the gent on the right.

I had forgotten him myself, but USAToday.com had remembered him with a link — very badly.

Despite what USA Today might have led you to believe, the man in question was never a country singer married to Tammy Wynette, and did not have hits like “Why, Baby, Why?” and “He Just Stopped Lovin’ Her Today.” He was the first  publisher of The New York Times.

When I think of  the founders of The New York Times, I think of Adolph S. Ochs, the one-time-Tennessean who set its “All the news that’s fit to print” agenda when he bought the struggling paper in 1896, and of Henry Raymond, a former star reporter for Horace Greeley‘s Tribune who was the first editor of the Times in 1851.

But until I saw Neuharth’s column, I had forgotten that Raymond had a partner named George Jones, a former banker turned publisher, who carried on long after Raymond’s death. I pulled down my copy of Meyer Berger’s history of the Times to refresh my memory, and popped over to Wikipedia for a picture.

It was nice of former USA Today publisher Neuharth to remember Mr. Jones, and I’m sure he wasn’t the one who placed that hyperlink to the wrong George Jones.

In fact, I don’t think any human did. My guess is that the link was added by something like a Perl or Python computer script in the USAToday.com content management system, programmed to match up a database list of “famous people” archive pages with names in the news. Result: Wrong George. The fact that the mistaken link has been there for six months doesn’t give me great feelings about the paper’s quality control.

My advice to online news publishers:

  • Useful hyperlinks are part of any online story.
  • Don’t leave them to idiots.
  • Computer programs are idiots, unless you spend IBM-style Jeopardy-beating millions of dollars on them.
  • But don’t. It would be better to spend the millions on a new generation of young fact-checkers and editors. You might start the careers of some future Henry Raymonds… or Al Neuharths.

Just in case you think that single computer-generated off-base hyperlink is the only problem, here are the “You might also be interested in…” headlines USAToday.com added to the end of that newspaper-history story for me:

Actually, I’d rather read about George Jones. Either one of them.

Sidebar: Speaking of Horace Greeley… I’ve been running into him a lot recently.

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.

Posted in Future of news, History, hypertext, Journalism, Newspapers, Technology, WebDesign
3 comments on “Why, Baby, Why? Shaky link to history at USAToday.com
  1. leadinglight says:

    I really agree with your fourth point in your advice to online news publishers. They have been enamoured by technology so much. I feel like that I wasted time on my communications degree because it seems young people who can edit are no longer wanted in that industry. I have a better chance of using my degree for a non profit organisation rather than raising the quality of news at present.

  2. bob says:

    I just got a note on twitter from the USA Today social media team saying that yes the link was made by a computer and that now it has been fixed. Cool.

    • bob says:

      The fix was to remove the George Jones link, not to link the name to any additional information about the correct George Jones, since USA Today wasn’t around back when he might have been fodder for the people in the news column.

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