Aug 172010

This past Friday a story ran that reminded me how massive media layoffs have affected the quality of news coverage. It doesn’t matter sometimes how good the reporter is — he or she is stretched so thin that stories get printed that wouldn’t have just a few years ago.

Background – On Friday USA Today published an interview with Ben Petro, a senior executive at VeriSign. The ostensible focus was the “launch” of a Managed DNS service by VeriSign. A reader without any knowledge of the space would have read the article by Byron Acohido and come away thinking VeriSign just launched something new, in response to the market leader Neustar/UltraDNS (disclosure — my client) being hit with multiple Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.

Here’s what the reader was not told in the article:

  • VeriSign has offered managed DNS for about nine years now — here’s a link to a ComputerWorld story announcing the launchback in 2001!
  • The DDoS attacks referenced were massive and broad, not targeted just at UltraDNS, and were mitigated within an hour
  • Ben Petro is the former CEO of UltraDNS, and now is working for a competitor — kinda relevant for readers to know, I would think

In the business this is known as a single source story, and shouldn’t happen in a publication like USA Today. Or from a writer like Acohido — he’s been covering tech for a decade, and won a Pulitzer prize in the late 90’s for crying out loud. We’re not talking about an English major two years out of college — here’s his bio.

So how did it happen? Obviously there is no way to know for sure.  I know Petro from his days at UltraDNS. He’s passionate and can come off as very believable. But a little fact checking, more disclosure and contacting Neustar for a response were clearly required before the publish button was pushed on this article.

I reached out to a few reporters I’ve dealt with for years and trust for their take. After all, I’m hardly unbiased here — Neustar is a client after all. Each one of them told me they are under incredible pressure to publish more copy in less time than ever before. And they’re covering more beats than ever before, due to cutbacks in staff. They simply don’t have the time and resources to get both sides of a story — and even more troubling, their publications aren’t sure the market still exists for well researched pieces.

This is one reason Strategic increasingly counsels clients to focus on social media tactics. By doing so your message is not at the mercy of a media industry that often can’t invest the reporting resources required, due to a business model that hasn’t adapted to the Internet age. USA Today has been hit particularly hard — here’s a story about layoffs and unpaid furloughs earlier this year.

To my readers who work in communications, how have you dealt with this trend? Has this happened to you lately?

UPDATE, 8/19 — Nancy Blair, technology editor for USA Today, responded to me via email regarding this post. Unfortunately, no concessions on factual inaccuracies or omissions in the story. But nice to to get a response. Pasted in its entirety below:

Chris: We always appreciate direct feedback from our readers and colleagues. It’s for this reason that we have our Standard editor Brent Jones featured every day in our editorial page and online here:

Upon receipt of your email and review of your blog post, we again contacted VeriSign, which again confirmed it has not had a commercially available Managed DNS offering for many years. Also, your client Carla Safigan of Neustar did reach out to Byron and her comment was included in our Technology Live blog post of Friday, August 13th. We at USA Today stand by the blog post written by Byron Acohido.

I hope this response addresses some of your questions and concerns.

Nancy Blair, Technology Editor/USA TODAY

I thanked her for the email, and said I stand by my blog post.

UPDATE 8/27 — This seems relevant — news of further USA Today cutbacks announced today.

  3 Responses to “Media Layoffs Kill Quality, Not Just Jobs”

  1. USA Today has some very good people – one mistake does not make a newspaper bad.

    Factual errors happen all the time and have been happening with more frequency in the past few years. No one fact checks – I cannot believe the amount of information that crosses my desk that quotes data and then it’s different in the next paragraph, or spells the CEO’s name wrong. PR people are supposed to fact check too and a lot of them have no oversight and little experience.

    Blogging has perpetuated the problem – suddenly everyone is a writer and a lot of the editorial is for sale. Fox News pretending that it has real reporters and “no spin” doesn’t help either.

    If you want accurate, well written information read the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, organizations that have a reputation and ethics.


  2. Aimee: I did not read Chris’ blog as a condemnation of USA Today. Rather, I saw it as a comment on the growing sloppiness of reporting today — by many media sources. All one has to do if they doubt that is to watch politicians being interviewed and wait for the host to challenge what they portray as “facts.” Not happening. Perhaps the host is not fully prepared (probably because they are too busy meeting other demands) or they are not listening to the answer because they’re thinking about their next question.(Likely it’s some of both.) That is to say nothing of the fact that the politician didn’t answer — or in many cases address — the first question because they’ve learned that they can get away with it.

    Sad to say that the quality of journalism in this country, even at the highest levels, has deteriorated due to financial pressures. We are the ones who will pay the price for that. But we shouldn’t have to limit our reading to the NY Times, Chicago Tribune, etc. All publications (and broadcasts) have a responsibility to be fair, accurate and balanced. I refuse to read or watch those that don’t seem to consistently make a real effort to do that.

  3. […] After the post was published, I did finally receive a response from Acohido’s editor, saying they “stood by their reporting.” At that point, so did I. You can see that email and the full story here. […]

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