Putting source documents online

By Felix Salmon
November 9, 2009
Gabriel Sherman has a long profile of Andrew Ross Sorkin, which spends a lot of time talking about Sorkin's problematic status within the NYT in general and the Sunday Business section in particular. But all big companies have internal politics. What's interesting is what the story says about the NYT's devotion, or otherwise, to serving its readers by giving them the information they want.

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Gabriel Sherman has a long profile of Andrew Ross Sorkin, which spends a lot of time talking about Sorkin’s problematic status within the NYT in general and the Sunday Business section in particular. But all big companies have internal politics. What’s interesting is what the story says about the NYT’s devotion, or otherwise, to serving its readers by giving them the information they want.

For instance, here’s Sorkin launching DealBook:

It was a radical idea for the Times. The paper had never aggregated outside news under its flag before, and Sorkin had to convince his skeptical bosses that the paper could point its readers to competitors.

And here’s Sorkin asking a NYT colleague, Tim O’Brien, for information a pair of fellow reporters had FOIA’ed:

“I also told him that my reporters on the piece, Don and Gretchen, would probably be uncomfortable simply handing over documents to him that they had spent a lot of time and energy to find, analyze, and report on,” O’Brien told me by e-mail.

As John Cook notes, this is silly at best:

The grand irony of this flap is that much of it would have been rendered moot had the Times simply done what Sorkin did so effortlessly: Put the documents at issue online… That’s another Timesworld disconnect between the youthful web-focused culture and the old-school diggers—after Van Natta and Morgenson spent months working to get access to the documents, they apparently didn’t think to push their editors to share the originals with their readers.

I’m constantly amazed at the number of stories in the NYT which are based on primary sources the paper refuses to put online. In a tiny handful of cases, revealing the document might endanger a source or otherwise be inadvisable. But there’s no good reason not to publish documents received as the result of an FOIA request.

The NYT tends not to publish documents it uncovers as part of its investigations; one NYT reporter told me once that editors, when asked about the policy, mumbled something about copyright. It’s an untenably old-school approach, and serves mainly to promote turf wars and jealousies. The NYT has the best newspaper website in the world; its reporters should be encouraged to make full use of it.

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