The Post’s post-Mitt mess

Mitt Romney shakes hands with dad as he graduates from Cranbrook.

The digital era prompts increasingly difficult questions about when to post enterprise stories, or non-breaking news stories, on newspaper websites.

Consider the Mitt Romney mini-fiasco for the Washington Post.

On Wednesday, President Obama endorsed gay marriage. Post editors therefore decided to delay running the exhaustive  profile documenting Romney’s pranks at Cranbrook School, which includes the revelation that he forcibly cut the hair of a boy who later came out as gay.

Perhaps the Post’s addition of an editorial praising Obama’s decision played a role. Might’ve looked like piling on, considering that the Post’s left-leaning editorial page leads conservatives to suggest the newspaper has a liberal bias.

Editors often delay publishing a story when it feels like it would create a bad mix with the breaking news on the front page. Often, they wait a full news cycle and publish in the next print edition.

Editors at the Post, however, took a tack that protected them competitively, but did little to change perceptions from the right: They posted the Romney story at 8 a.m. the next day, while print readers were still paging through their morning Post.

News watchdogs sought answers. Why not give the story to print readers, too? Poynter asked. Likewise, the Huffington Post  sought answers from a laudably transparent and mostly unified  Post.

“We thought it was better not to have it in today’s paper,” Post Political Editor Steven Ginsburg told Michael Calderone. “The stories aren’t really about the same thing,” Ginsberg added, “but the perception among some might have been that putting them together would have created an impression we didn’t want to create.”

Fair enough. But unfortunately for the Post, the story didn’t stop there.

The Romney story it ran in print was slightly *different* than the one it ran online, drawing new scrutiny.

The change altered a sentence that first indicated that a Romney classmate had long been disturbed by the bullying incident. The change made it clear that the classmate only recently learned of the incident and it’s bothered him since. The Post later added an editor’s note drawing attention to, but not formally correcting, the change.

That hubbub prompted this note from the Washington Post’s ombudsman Friday evening.

So where does it leave us?

The Post held a Romney story to avoid a bad impression. It withheld it a day from paying print readers. And watchdogs thought the story’s change from online to print should’ve been documented.

Was it the right decision to hold the story a day in print?


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