At Washington Post, some draft-sharing will continue

After Washington Post reporter Daniel de Vise drew national attention for sharing drafts of a story with a source, the newspaper tightened its policy on the practice.

"Some reporters share sections of stories with sources before publication, to ensure accuracy on technical points or to catch errors," a memo from Post honchos to staffers read. People working on complex stories, such as science writers, can still go over "much of a story" to ensure accuracy. "But it is against our policy to share drafts of entire stories with outside sources prior to publication, except with the permission -- which will be granted extremely rarely -- of the Executive Editor or Managing Editor."

Post education columnist Jay Mathews has enthusiastically defended sharing drafts for a long time. Mathews told my coworker Mallary Tenore that draft-sharing's “benefits so outweigh the disadvantages that it's still remarkable to me that more people don't do it.”

Mathews will be able to continue with his working methods, he told Poynter in an email. Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli says Mathews "is a contract columnist who received dispensation some time ago from [former Post Executive Editor] Len Downie for a practice he has disclosed and publicly defended."

We have extended that dispensation and will continue to do so for him, but will require disclosure and explanation in any column where changes result that are anything but factual. We have not granted permission to anyone else to share drafts.

Post media blogger Erik Wemple, who wrote a defense of draft-sharing, said in an email he didn't ask for such dispensation and he is "not sure what" Mathews' status says about the new policy.

It's a big newsroom, a place filled with people who want to get it right. When you have 600 of them, clearly there are going to be different approaches to getting to that end. There's a lot of disagreement about draft sharing, both inside the Post and outside of the Post. The directive from above sends a message that this technique -- the sharing of full drafts, that is -- should be used sparingly and that editors should know about it. That seems like a sensible way to manage things.

One of the "different approaches" Wemple alludes to belongs to Gene Weingarten, who strongly disagreed with Wemple and also voiced his views in a Poynter chat: "Why on Earth would we put ourselves in such an untenable position, placing our stories 'up for negotiation' with a highly biased person? Are you that unsure of your ability to get it right?"

Wemple is a friend of mine as well as a former boss. He said in his email he's occasionally read partial or complete drafts over the phone and more rarely "sent whole drafts via e-mail. I agree with critics that the last approach is one that requires extreme caution."

Related: Post Ombudsman says "Hell, no," reporters shouldn't share drafts with sources (The Washington Post) | Tom Ricks defends draft-sharing (The Washington Post) | Exception for science writers reflects common newsroom view that "science is too difficult for most reporters to understand" (Knight Science Journalism Program) | Collaborative journalism undermines its value when it's "introduced furtively to a public that would be shocked to learn that’s how the game is being played" (Edward Wasserman)

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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