‘New York Times’ tells staff not to ‘unpublish’ stories

The “paper of record” has established a policy on removing content from the New York Times website, a leaked memo published by Gawker indicates.

New York Times Standards Editor Phil Corbett (who you may remember as dissuading NYT writers from using the word “tweet” outside of “ornithological contexts”) authored the memo, date of distribution unavailable, explaining the pitfalls associated with “unpublishing content, as well as the credibility hit news organizations take when enacting such measures without properly annotating the original piece.

While the stance of the Times in and of itself is not notable, perhaps leaking of the (rather unscandalous, while we’re making up “un” words) memo will drive home to less-prolific organizations that the practice known as “scrubbing” not only breaks links, but also doesn’t trick anyone, doesn’t halt the dissemination of information relating or linking back to the piece, and makes you look like a massive tool in front of the whole internet. It also makes bloggers really, really mad.

Below, the memo in its entirety:

Subject: [NYT Newsroom] From Phil Corbett: Reminder on “Unpublishing”
To: [NYT newsroom]


This is a reminder that we have a general policy against “unpublishing” Web articles and blog posts.

There are a number of reasons: pulling down an article causes a broken link that gives readers a frustrating error message; it can create the appearance that we are covering up errors; and it leaves a trail for the conspiracy-minded to follow in RSS feeds and search caches.

If a problem is spotted after publication, the best practice is to quickly fix any mistake and to publish the new version with a correction or an explanatory note. In rare cases, if we can’t sort out the problem immediately, an interim note on top of an article may alert readers that something has been challenged and that we are still seeking clarification. There may also be cases – such as a duplicated article – where we can simply redirect traffic automatically to a single version.

Short of unpublishing, it is acceptable to reduce the visibility of a story on the site until the problem can be fixed.

In any of these situations, editors and producers should consult with the news desk, the day news editor or the standards editor.