The recent furore surrounding the publication of a hoax blog post at Huffington Post SA has had me thinking – about hate speech (which I wrote about here), and about the process by which decisions are made about publication or non-publication of a particular piece of writing.
In years of experience at IOL, I had more unsolicited pieces of writing cross my email inbox than I care to think about now. Over time, I learned how to make fast choices about whether I wanted to use the content or not.
I thought it might be useful to write down that mental process, for the benefit of younger people wondering how this is done. I’ll take you through my own personal checklist (note – this was never a formalised policy at IOL, and I no longer work there and can’t comment on how things might now be done at that website).
The steps below relate to online publishing, rather than print. And there are factors in the process that would probably shock print journalists of the old school (especially the focus on “hits”). But I want to paint the picture as it happens in the real world.
THE VERY FIRST CONSIDERATION:
Am I paying for this content because I have commissioned a writer? If so, proceed to Step 2, point 3. Does it come from writers in the stable of publications for which I work? Assuming I think it of interest to readers, go to Step 2, point 3.
If this is free content (that is content which has been sent in by a writer who is willing for us to use it without payment), then this is how the process goes:
STEP ONE: DO I WANT TO PUBLISH THIS?
There’s no point in wasting time on checking out the writer or editing the piece if I don’t intend to use it, so first a triage decision has to be made: do I want this press release/opinion piece/travel feature/recipe/investigative journalism article or not? To make that decision, these are the questions to answer, in descending order of importance:
1. Is the article of interest to my readers, based on my own understanding of my publication and on all the analytics and observations done over the months and years? Will it get hits? If no,then go to point 3 below. If yes, then the next thing to think about it is…
2. How much work is required? Is a lot of editing needed? Am I going to have to check facts (if this is a known and trusted source then probably not)? Am I going to have to spend hours looking for pictures? Does the amount of time required relate favourably to the hits I expect to get? If I think this is a really heavy contender for publication, I might be prepared to put in the work. If it is too much work for too little return, out it goes. The hard realities of online publishing are that no one has time to waste on marginal content.
3. However, even if it won’t get hits and/or will take a lot of work, might there be reasons to publish it anyway? It might cover an issue that I as an editor think is important even if it is not popular. It might be background to a contentious issue, or I might have a feeling it is an issue that will gain traction with time. It might be worth publishing because I want to build a relationship with the writer. It might be badly written but would go well with a video I want to use. And so on. If considerations like these are at play, publication is on the cards.
STEP TWO: I HAVE DECIDED TO THINK ABOUT PUBLISHING THIS, RATHER THAN REJECTING IT OUTRIGHT. NOW WHAT?
1. Take the first sentence. Paste it into the Google search field. If a match turns up, this is plagiarism. Out it goes. Do a reverse image check on any pictures submitted (if need be – you might know that you have the rights to use them). If they have been stolen from someone else, out it goes.
2. If I don’t know who the author is, do a quick Google search and see what turns up. Good signs are substantial Twitter or LinkedIn profiles, or an active Facebook page, as are signs of other published work. If nothing turns up, ask other people in the office if they have heard of this person. Look again at the email address it was sent from – does it look legit? If all else fails, see if there is a phone number and phone the person to find out who they are. The basis for all this checking is to see if the person has just the tiniest bit of authority to write what they have submitted. Do they deserve the airtime or not?
3. Read it properly (the decisions in Step One will have been made on the basis of a quick skim read).
4. As I read, look first for legal issues (defamation, hate speech), obviously incorrect facts and ethical issues (even if is not defamatory, there might be reasons of good taste or judgement not to publish). At this point, after all this thinking, I might spot something dodgy and decide not to go ahead with publication. If there are legal issues but I still want to publish (perhaps the piece is in the public interest) then refer to a higher authority: my editor, a media lawyer, perhaps both. If there is no higher authority, discuss the matter with colleagues at the same level. The decision to publish may rest with me, but thinking things through, aloud, with someone else is always helpful.
5. If all the indications are good and the decision to publish has been made, the article can go into production for editing and publication.
This sounds like a lot of work, I know, but with practice you can get through all the steps before you start reading it properly in about five to 10 minutes. And it, or a process like it, should be followed every time you publish.