Editor's Fear: More Net News Mistakes Ahead

There were two stories recently that sent shivers down my spine.

One, the Chicago Tribune accidently published a six-year old story about United Airlines going bankrupt, causing the airline's stock to go into a nosedive. The other was a pre-written obit about Apple's Steve Jobs that was accidently published by one of our esteemed competitors.

These are not the first accidents in Web news. They happen periodically. They are usually unintended. Sometimes not. Back in the Internet Bubble years, some pump-and-dumpers played games with fake press releases and Internet based wire services, remember? But more often, it's completely accidental. And they happen to everyone, us included.

I'm scared the sector's accidents will become more frequent. Why? Because the Internet is just now getting some years under its belt ... and things are getting more complicated. We have search engines and archives interacting with one another in ways that weren't contemplated when they were originally built. And those search engines are just getting more far-reaching and the archives are just getting bigger.

Take the UAL case. It seems that happened because of some automatic trolling of news archives. That wouldn't be a problem if the archives only went back a year. Now they go back six or more — for a lot of us news Web sites.

And then there is good old human error. News Web sites are having to do more and more things: breaking news, videos, slideshows, tagging, customization, and on. All that takes pretty complicated software. And it's operated by mostly plain and simple journalists. That seems to be the case with the Apple post.

The Internet news biz is little more than a dozen years old. In the early years, frankly, people didn't give Net news much attention or credibility. Now they do. So the consequences of a screw-up are much more serious than the early years.

Yes, the Net news business now has size, complexity and credibility. As a result I have the feeling in terms of goofs, you ain't seen nothing yet. And I lie awake in bed at night ... and pray I don't see it first hand.

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