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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: This press isn't the university's, and this accuracy policy isn't 'quote approval'

By Tom Warhover
July 27, 2012 | 3:52 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

Consider this letter as correcting the record – actually, correcting the rumor mill:

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The University of Missouri Press

It’s in the news, but it doesn’t print this newspaper.

In May, UM System President Tim Wolfe decided to shutter the operation. The announcement produced a stir locally and across the nation. A new plan for a more digital-based and student-involved press was met with as much approval among critics as cola lovers left with a bad taste when New Coke was introduced in the ‘80s.

Did Wolfe’s decision mean the Missourian would stop printing? I heard the question a time or two in June. I heard it from extended family members during vacation. I was asked about it this week.

The Jefferson City News Tribune prints the Missourian and has done so for about five years. Before that, the Missourian had its own press; I spent many post-midnights there as pressmen worked life-saving miracles on antique equipment.

By 12:30 a.m. on press nights, Missourian pages are transmitted to the News Tribune, where metal plates are made. The plates go on cylinders. When the press rolls, ink and newsprint meet cylinders to produce your morning reading.

The newsprint comes in giant rolls. The whole process is known as web offset printing.*

Quote approval vs. accuracy check

A not-so-nice term – quote approval – entered the national discussion nearly two weeks ago when The New York Times reported on the practice on the presidential campaign trail.

According to the article, top officials in the Obama and Romney campaigns are demanding — and receiving — veto power over direct quotes in exchange for access to interviews. They can strip the quotes or reword them. That way, the campaigns can strip out anything not "on message."

Quote approval cedes power to the politicians. That’s not right.

One of the core values you should expect from journalists is independence from faction. Sure, reporters negotiate all the time. Give me this nugget before anyone else, and I’ll sit on it for an hour or a day. Talk to me off the record, and then we can do a more formal, quotable interview.

This isn’t the slippery slope; it’s the bottom of the cliff.

You expect reporters and editors, not political strategists, to make decisions about what’s in an article. You might not like a journalist’s choices, but at least you know who should receive the complaints. (The Missourian even runs the name of the supervising editor at the bottom of stories.)

For decades, the Missourian has had a policy of pre-publication review. Sources are regularly contacted after an article has been written, and quotes or other facts are read back. The question behind every quote: Is this correct?

"It is NOT an invitation for sources to become editors," the policy reads. "It IS primarily for our benefit and the benefit of our readers. Research shows that both readers and sources appreciate our efforts to get things right."

Sometimes a source might say, "Well, yes, but I wish I hadn’t said it." The supervising editor can hear out the reasons and decide whether to publish. Oftentimes, that call to a source can provide deeper context around the quotes.

Accuracy matters. So does independence. Paying for access to politicians through quote approval does neither.

Fortunately, the response nationally has been negative. Several news chains said they either never accepted the practice or were revising their standards to discourage it. 

Tom