Dateline debate at San Jose Mercury News

The San Jose Mercury News has a new dateline policy — it’s posted below — that’s sparked some newsroom debate.

The first note was written by assistant business editor Michael Dorgan, who is a former Knight Ridder foreign correspondent, and sent to managing editor Bert Robinson.

Bert,
I want to express my objections to the new dateline policy. I think it’s a move toward less transparency with readers because it will give them the impression we are physically present at news events where we are not.

Maybe it’s true, as you say, that many readers assume a dateline merely indicates the location of a story. But discerning readers know it means a reporter actually has his or her feet on the ground. I think this move is big step toward deceiving those readers into thinking we are covering stories at the scene rather than remotely.

As someone who has filed news stories from 20 or so countries, I know firsthand there’s a huge difference between slogging through the pigshit in rural China or slinking through the back alleys of Rawalpindi to actually see, smell and hear what’s going on, rather than relying on Tweets or Facebook posts from those who purport to know. Those digital tools can certainly be helpful in providing fuller coverage of an event, but I fear we are quickly approaching a time when they will used as money-saving alternatives to real-life coverage, and that will only further erode our credibility as journalists.

Michael

Editor Dave Butler then weighed in:

Folks: Let me just make sure we are all clear on this. Our intent is not to deceive people. We’re not going to put a dateline on something that suggests we’re in Moscow when we’re not. On the other hand, putting a Cupertino dateline on Apple stories makes sense. Do we physically have to be in Cupertino every time? No. The same is true for San Jose stories.

I think the policy leaves room for discretion. We need to understand that what readers or journalists thought 30 years ago about datelines and what they think — and how the Internet works today — are much different. Our job is to figure out an honest and clear way to handle datelines. We don’t have that now. Datelines are being put on our stories for the web and the wires. So let’s give this change a try and we’ll feel our way. If we find we need to make changes, we certainly will do that.

-Dave

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HERE IS THE DATELINE STYLE MEMO

From: Robinson, James H.
Sent: Tuesday, July 17, 2012 7:30 PM
To: &BANG News All
Subject: A new dateline style

Folks, effective immediately (ok, tomorrow) we’re going to adopt a common style across BANG for the use of datelines on articles, and that style will be to use them wherever possible, even with local cities. Some words of background:

Datelines have been one of the last remaining disagreements between East Bay and San Jose Merc style. The East Bay papers have long had a policy of using datelines on almost every story, in part because there’s no truly dominant city in the East Bay. The Merc has traditionally forgone datelines on “local stories” – which has meant stories from Santa Clara County and San Mateo County. This has forced us to add datelines whenever Merc stories are used in the East Bay. In addition, we add datelines online, since so many of our readers come from elsewhere and datelines are good for SEO (in our Digital First newsrooms, we all know what that means!). The result of these conventions has been mass confusion – frankly, none of our papers or our digital products currently has a consistent dateline style, because sometimes we remember to follow the style and change stories that don’t conform, and sometimes we don’t.

So we’re opting for simplicity and consistency, and the only choice we can reasonably make is more datelines rather than fewer. This brings us to a key question: What does the dateline mean? We’re going to go with what we think the dateline means to readers: the city that is the primary focus of the activity described in the story, not the city where we were when we did the reporting. There will be some gray areas and close calls as we institute this policy, but we’ll work through them.

This new policy is going to lead to some things that will be hard to get used to – I imagine Mercury News staffers and some readers will find that SAN JOSE dateline odd at first. But it beats “which city council is this again?”

Here’s the stylebook entry.

New:
datelines. Datelines should be used on most news stories, whether originating from inside or outside our circulation area. The dateline references the city that is the primary focus of the activity described in the story, not the city where we were when we did the reporting.
Don’t use state designation with California cities or Reno. But Calif. should be used after the community’s name in datelines from places that readers are not likely to recognize as being in the state. Use Calif. also when needed for clarity: Ontario, Calif.; Nevada City, Calif.
Unincorporated areas in the East Bay and South Bay should be identified in datelines according to mailing address. For example, Blackhawk is in Blackhawk, etc. One exception is Ashland — some residents have a San Leandro mailing address, some Hayward, some San Lorenzo. Ashland can be used in the dateline.
Datelines should not be used in Web summaries.

If you’re wondering, here’s what the papers’ styles used to be:

Old EB:
Datelines
Datelines should be used on most news stories. The dateline references the city that is the primary focus of the activity described in the story, not the city where we were when we did the reporting.
Don’t use state designation with California cities. If an obscure California city is named, identify its general location. An exception: When the dateline is out of state, use “Calif.” for clarity.
Use Pittsburgh, Pa., to differentiate from the Pittsburg in our circulation area. See AP.
Stories that begin with drop caps have datelines flush right on the line above.
NOTE: Unincorporated areas of Alameda and Contra Costa counties should be identified in datelines according to mailing address. For example, Blackhawk is in Blackhawk, etc. One local exception is Ashland — some have San Leandro mailing address, some Hayward, some San Lorenzo. Ashland can be used in the dateline.

Old SJ:
datelines. A story originating within Santa Clara and San Mateo counties carries no dateline.
Datelines should be used on wire stories from outside our normal coverage area and stories:

By reporters on assignment outside our normal coverage area.
Without bylines that originate outside the normal coverage area and are worked by telephone from a home office.

Calif. should be used after the community’s name in datelines from places that readers are not likely to recognize as being in the state. Use Calif. also when needed for clarity: Ontario,Calif.; Nevada City, Calif.

If in doubt, lean toward giving the information. One guideline is whether the community sounds as if it could be in another state; another is whether the context makes its location clear.

When a story filed from outside the state refers to a California community, use Calif. after the community’s name unless the reader can be expected to recognize it as being in California.
Some examples in which Calif. is not necessary: San Luis Obispo, Sacramento, Fresno, Walnut Creek.
Some examples in which Calif. is necessary: Creston, Grover City, Arroyo Grande.

Bert Robinson
Managing Editor/Content
Bay Area News Group
408-920-5970

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Your thoughts on datelines?

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