How the Tampa Bay Times made a billion dollar mistake
Tampa Bay was buzzing last Friday about a story that the New York-based Blackstone Group would be investing a whopping $1 billion in the local real estate market, buying up homes and holding them as rental properties.
The headline shouted from the top of the front page of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times, where reporter Drew Harwell had an exclusive. It was the top emailed story on the Times’ website, which quoted the president of what is currently the largest home rental company in Tampa Bay calling it a “a land grab unlike anything we've ever seen.” The local business journal noted the incredible news in a blog post.
By midday Friday, the South Florida Sun Sentinel had a different story. Blackstone would be buying up homes in many markets, but only spending a tiny piece of that billion dollars in Tampa Bay.
Back at the Times, reporters and editors were scrambling to figure out what went wrong. It appears the source for the story, a local Blackstone affiliate, may have been misinformed or was speaking without authorization.
“Several editors in the process scrubbed the story well and asked lots of questions. But the authority by which the local rep spoke created a blind spot,” Times Editor Neil Brown wrote in an email to Poynter. “An unacceptable blind spot. We failed to contact the company directly and that was a serious mistake and not up to our standards.”
It had nothing to do with staff reductions, Brown said. The story received all the attention an A1 story would have received before cutbacks.
Rather than running a correction, the Times updated its reporting, re-interviewed the original source -- who was by then refusing to affirm the $1 billion number and had severed his relationship with Blackstone -- and ran a new story that quoted the Sun-Sentinel.
“Ultimately we were left with something that we didn’t know to be untrue. But we were in the uncomfortable situation of having reported something we hadn’t confirmed with the primary source,” said Managing Editor Mike Wilson in a phone interview. “If we are going to correct something we published I want to be sure the correction is right.”
The Times posted the new story online Friday evening and ran it on the front of the metro section in Saturday’s paper.
What went wrong, what worked
In tracking and fixing the mistake, the Times did some things right and some things wrong.
What it did right:
- Leaving the original story online and appending the new story to the bottom of the online version of the old story, while noting at the top that there was new information below was an honest way to correct the story.
- Publishing the new story separately was also a good idea; readers who came to it fresh would get only the accurate information.
- Admitting that no one had called Blackstone directly was a humble moment for the news staff, but essential to explaining why the facts were so confusing.
What it did wrong:
- The Times waited until Saturday afternoon, almost 24 hours after they learned their story was suspect, to update the online version. The original story, with the bad information (and later with the update), was the top-emailed story through the entire weekend.
- The Times left the headline intact, so it still reads “Blackstone to buy $1 billion worth of Tampa Bay homes for rentals.” More people read a headline in a search engine, on social media or in an index, than read the story. Even Tuesday, people were still tweeting out the original headline with a link to the story. Only people who click the link will realize the headline was wrong.
- Running the story on the metro front is not the same as running it in the same place as the original story, A1. Part of the ethic of corrections is to get as many people who saw the wrong information to see the updated information.
The Times would handle some of these things differently, now.
“In the heat of battle we were just so focused in getting a news story online, we didn’t think through the implication of the original story online,” Wilson said. “I would have loved to do that sooner.”
Like many newspaper companies, The Tampa Bay Times is still focused on the daily print publishing cycle. That creates a weak spot when it comes to letting the digital audience know when you've made a mistake.
A more nimble organization would have posted a note on top of the original story as soon as the original source refused to confirm his previous assertions, noting that he had backed away from his statements, perhaps linking to other reporting and pledging to update the story as soon as solid information was available.
"I feel like we've met our responsibility to give people better information, if they come to our site," Wilson said. Audience, however, includes those who consume your brand and your information in social media or other platforms, but don't always arrive at your site.
They still haven't talked to Blackstone, Wilson said. "They left a pleasant phone message with us, and we've called them back. Phone tag has ensued."