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How the Target Rumor Revealed the Chronicle's Double-Edged Journalism Problem

A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boots on. That quote is a self-fulfilling prophecy having itself been possibly misattributed to anyone from Mark Twain to Winston Churchill with its true origins unknown.

But here’s what we do know: the Chronicle has a journalism problem and it was on display this week. The problem, though, is two-fold that is contradictory. It is both too tied to journalistic standards to maximize engagement, but to fix the problem would be to diminish its credibility as a newspaper.

Here’s what happened this week that illustrated this conundrum. On Friday morning, former Chronicle reporter turned independent blogger Mike Wright published a post that retail giant Target will be the anchor business in a new plaza that has begun the process of receiving approval on the northwest corner of County Road 486/C.R. 491.

The announcement, as the kids say, broke the internet. As of Saturday afternoon, his post had received 385 shares and a subsequent post by entertainment social outlet Citrus County Live had over a thousand shares on Facebook. Even the Concurrent sent a push notification to people who have our mobile app shortly after the rumor was announced and we experienced far higher than usual website traffic. This was a huge, shareable story that proved to drive incredible audience engagement.

And then, a day later, the Chronicle’s Mike Bates wrote his story about the news titled, “Developer submits plan for retail center in Lecanto” with no mention of Target. Mr. Bates had several on-the-record sources from the county and private business people with knowledge of the process.

He concluded in his story that, “he [one of the businessmen with knowledge of the development] has heard various occupants for retailers at the proposed Beverly Hills Crossing but there have been no firm commitments.”

In contrast, Mr. Wright’s story had a sole source that spoke under the condition of anonymity. This anonymous source, “confirmed for me not once, but twice that the anchor is a Target store” the post said.

Journalism professors cringe at this. This would fail any journalism 101 course and certainly not pass approval on any news editor’s desk. Not only would a professor or editor tell the reporter to get an on-the-record source but the minimum standard of publication is double confirmation.

This means you’ve received the same information from two reliable but independent sources - not the same source twice. The Just Wright Citrus post is borderline humorous in how shoddy it is if it is viewed solely in a professional journalism context.

In Mr. Wright’s defense, he has fully embraced the title of blogger rather than reporter since transitioning to his new role. He’s certainly not bound by the same professional standards that dictate the limitations of Mr. Bates’ story, though the argument could be made for moral or ethical obligations when monetizing the responsibility of informing the public.

Let’s get back to the Chronicle. Mr. Bates is an undeniably principled reporter and a fantastic journalist as evident by his detailed sourcing and disciplined adherence to the facts even as rumor ran wild on Facebook. That’s going to lose to lower standards, including the Concurrent’s own, almost every time.

What is meant by lose? In truth, it’s the wrong word to use. Everything about Mr. Bates’ story rather than Mr. Wright’s Facebook post is a win for the profession of journalism. The only loss is in the ability to engage, the Chronicle story garnered a mere 23 shares. But audience shouldn’t drive content in a journalism outlet - content should drive an audience.

This means size of the audience shouldn’t be the main motivation behind information delivery, but rather the quality of the information (in this case: sticking to the facts over a single sourced, anonymous rumor) should be the goal and the audience follows.

The Chronicle was at its peak engagement when it loosened these standards. Several stories following the retirement of former publisher Gerry Mulligan recounted his advocacy role rather than that of providing information. Advocacy is appropriate if limited to the correct sections, but shouldn’t be what a newspaper is known for.

Are we taking this all a little too seriously? What’s it going to hurt if we guess that Target is coming to Citrus and we’re wrong? Probably nothing. But we don’t want to tempt the Chronicle through potential growth or out of business necessity to change its approach to how it reports the news.


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