News & Record: How an aversion to innovation devolved into incompetence

What does it say about the News & Record that, 24 years after it first put up a website, it still cannot make working hyperlinks or format a paragraph online?

The News & Record once held sway over its fate

About 13 years ago, there was lively discussion across the nation about the future of journalism. New technologies were seen as both threats and opportunities and it was far from certain that local newspapers would make the fatal mistakes that have now consigned most of them to their current comas. At the time, there was an air of excitement about the prospects of emerging technologies enabling better journalism and better audience engagement.

For a few years starting in 2006, Greensboro was in the thick of it. With a lively corps of serious bloggers, we had some inspiring conferences, some big ideas and the local News & Record was, for about a minute, involved and forward-looking, seemingly ready to be a part of a revolution. It even created a new initiative to promote citizen journalism and put the very smart and experienced Lex Alexander in charge of it.

That lasted about six months, as I recall. Although the News & Record was still a robust organization then, especially compared to the shell it has become, it was bleeding print subscribers. Its response to that decline of print circulation is where the News & Record made a fateful turn away from possibilities and towards the comfort of a familiar but lethal past.

The News & Record played it safe

Under the guidance of then-publisher Robin Saul, instead of remaking the newspaper into a technologically robust enterprise of the future, the News & Record chose to turn away from the future and circle the wagons around its legacy business.

It offered Lex and other employees severance packages and cut staff. That could have still worked if the News & Record deployed its remaining resources to making itself into something new but, instead, it shuttered the citizen journalism effort, outsourced its website, began a capitulation to Craig’s List and Facebook and chose to try to survive as a smaller and perpetually shrinking version of its old self.

These actions were not unique to the News & Record, local papers across the nation chose that route, some after trying to innovate and failing. The News & Record could have had an advantage though: the local resources and support the News & Record had at its fingertips that could have given it a leg up on a new direction. It turned away from those local resources and from innovation itself. Now, with a skeleton crew and its building having been sold out from under it, we see the consequences of that stubbornness.

The die was cast and the News & Record has become moribund

Instead of becoming a source of innovation and a technology provider, the News & Record is a moribund technology consumer, and an incompetent one at that.

The News & Record shows no interest in initiating anything creative or original online. The main page of its website is just as likely to feature headlines linking to some click bait about a far-away nothing as it is to anything of local interest. Its local reporting is down to two or three original stories a day and most of those are stenography — having let go the gutsy Margaret Moffett and gutsy Susan Ladd to retain dispassionate writers who specialize in the grand equivocation of regurgitating he said/she said — but that’s another story.

Here is how we know that the News & Record really has completely capitulated to a destiny of digital incompetence. There is a little thing that shows the extent to which the News & Record accepts its obsolescence — a little thing that, precisely because it is such a little thing, speaks volumes:

Hyperlinks have been around since the dawn of the World Wide Web. They are old, basic technology — not complicated and not mysterious. Most content interfaces have a button that inserts them, although even the most novice of writers on the web know you can make one by typing a simple “href” tag, like this:

<a href="">Link text here</a>

Yet despite having an editorial page editor with decades of experience, despite an editor in charge of digital with decades of experience and despite a publisher with decades of experience, the News & Record published three opinion pieces in the past three days with broken hyperlinks: “Our Opinion: Let’s do right by our kids“, with a broken link that was supposed to be to a report on the status of children’s health in North Carolina; “There is a bipartisan answer to climate change“, with a broken link that was supposed to be to information about climate change legislation; and “Greensboro needs to become greener,” with a broken link that was supposed to be to an online petition.

These weren’t the fault of external forces, they weren’t originally working links to pages that once were good and have now moved or vanished, they are links that were so malformed to begin with that they never worked. And they weren’t three broken links among a plethora of working links, they were the only links in opinion pieces in the past three days. Yet, there they are (two of them still uncorrected), the single simplest bit of website interactivity beyond the capabilities of the News & Record. More than once. More than a typo. Each time, broken.

The News & Record does not even link to its own content. It consistently refers to its own articles in plain text, without links, like this:

“Regarding Mark Gibb Sunday article (‘Why no respect for teachers?’ March 3)…”

Are we supposed to head to the garage and rifle through our old “papers” to find this article? Maybe we are to head to the library and read it on microfiche.

Rest in peace, News & Record. I wish we could say you tried.


Bonus incompetence

How does something this obviously wrongly formatted stay online for 10 hours today? More importantly, how does it get published in the first place? Who clicks the publish button then walks away from this satisfied it is okay to leave it that way?

(Click to enlarge)