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Is Your Publication's Quality Up to Snuff?

Posted on Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 2:13 PM

A recent headline-grabbing false news story highlights the need for publication quality assurance.

By William Dunkerley

How long would your publication survive if it had no credibility with readers? You might get much of your revenue from advertisers, but where would you be without a reliable editorial product? A quality editorial product creates value and lends credibility to the advertisements the publication carries. That enables the ads to produce results, and that in turn keeps the advertisers advertising.

The Manti Te'o Scandal

The question of quality has arisen in connection with the Manti Te'o scandal. Te'o is the Notre Dame football star who played up the death of his girlfriend -- and then it came out that the girlfriend never existed.

Advertising Age magazine's publishing director, David S. Klein, called the fiasco "a massive failure of reporting." He was astonished that "not one editor at any of these major national sports-news outlets insisted on even the most basic fact checking."

Fact checking is certainly important in assuring quality. Indeed, the reliability of content is one of the most essential elements of a publication's quality.

Defining Publication Quality

In some industries, product quality can be defined quite objectively. A cell phone, for example, has an advertised set of specifications. The success of a manufacturer's quality control can be measured in terms of how well the units meet those specifications.

The quality of a publication can not be objectively defined as easily. The process is much more subjective. Quality is in the eyes of the beholder, the reader. Often, editorial departments measure reader satisfaction with individual articles, categories of content, and even gauge reaction to an issue as a whole. It is less common to measure how believable and reliable a publication is generally perceived to be by readers. Yet that is a very important indicator of product quality.

Pressing Deadlines vs. Fact Checking

Sometimes deadline pressure can compete with a publisher's responsibility to assure quality. In 2011, when there was a shooting in a supermarket parking lot near Tucson, many reports claimed that Congresswoman Gabby Giffords had been killed. Happily, she wasn't. But some outlets didn't take care to check their facts before reporting her dead.

Fact checking may seem easy to dispense with in the heat of a moment, when deadlines are looming. It's a tough call. Not getting a timely story can hurt your quality, too. But missing an occasional scoop may not be as damaging to your perceived quality as getting the facts wrong.

Impartial Reporting

Last December, the Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper, compromised its quality standing for another reason: It covered the facts of a story the way the paper apparently wanted them to be, rather than the way they actually were.

The item was an official hearing in London on the 2006 poisoning death of reputed spy Alexander Litvinenko. Journalist Nikolas von Twickel reported that "an initial assessment of evidence showed that the Russian state is to blame for the mysterious poisoning." But the lead attorney for the inquest had said the court "has made no factual findings whatsoever so far." Von Twickel backed up his false claim by quoting an expert. But the expert was speaking outside his area of expertise, and official reports contradicted him. To top it off, the story claimed that the hearing would continue on the following day. But it had been clearly announced that it wouldn't.

Perhaps there is a market segment that wants to see fictionalized versions of events presented in place of actual accounts. But it's hard to imagine what Sanoma, the Finnish publishing group that owns the paper, had in mind when it sacrificed its general product integrity to appeal to a small market segment.

The Importance of Staff Expertise

Sometimes a publication has inadequate staff expertise to know whether its reported facts are really factual. A recent email colloquy under the auspices of Association Media & Publishing (formerly the Society of National Association Publications) took up that issue. The question was whether to employ a staff expert to scrutinize content that requires special expertise to validate or to seek outside help.

One publisher reported she maintains an advisory board that reviews scheduled feature articles. Another manager said his publication has always relied on a staff review. But when his publication hired a regular, credentialed expert, it made a big difference. Survey results indicate that the addition "made us more credible in the eyes of readers." But another publications manager bemoaned the difficulty of finding a replacement for his staff expert, who was about to retire.

Prioritizing Accuracy

Regardless of the challenges involved in assuring content quality, I think those publishers are on to something with their focus on accuracy.

In the last recession, a lot of publishers were forced to reduce staffing and content creation expenditures. Certainly at a time when everyone was scrambling to avoid losing even more revenue to the weak economy, it seemed easier to make do with one less editor than one less ad salesperson.

But because cutting into content creation expenditures may have contributed to compromises in product quality, that move was not a long-term remedy.

Today we are faced with readers fleeing to free or more casually-available online information sources. Our ace in the hole for retaining readers is our product quality and the trust and loyalty it can instill in readers.

A slip-up in fact checking, cutting corners in the rush toward deadline, or even allowing an author's mischaracterization of facts in pandering to a small market segment may or may not land your publication in national headlines. But it will probably, in the long run, erode readers' confidence in your publication and negatively affect their perception of its quality. And that's not going to do anyone any good -- except perhaps your competitors!

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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