A Reminder That Newsweek Is A Very, Very Bad News Site

Newsweek building in Manhattan / Getty Images
July 30, 2018

Newsweek is a very bad news site. This has sadly been the case for a while now, driven primarily by the dire financial straits and legal problems of its parent company. But just from randomly browsing on Twitter, I've come across three stories with major errors in just the past few days and I feel like readers could use a refresher.

My colleague David Rutz has already drawn attention to this Newsweek story, headlined "Austin Considering Renaming City To Depart From Confederate History." See if you can spot what's wrong in just the first three paragraphs.

The city of Austin, Texas has suggested in a preliminary report, that highlighted historical connections to a former Confederate leader, Stephen F. Austin, otherwise known as the "Father of Texas", that it might consider changing its name.

In addition to identifying several neighborhoods and towns linked to the Confederacy, the report, released by Texas’ Equity Office also suggested name changes for city streets honoring the Confederacy or Confederate leaders, including slave owner William Barton, The Austin American Statesman reported Friday.

Austin, who founded the city in 1839, was notable for his staunch disapproval of an effort to ban slavery in the Tejas province following the Texas Revolution.

This section is riddled with errors. David called attention to two of them, but I also count two others.

  1. Stephen F. Austin was never a Confederate, "leader" or otherwise. He died in 1836, decades before the Civil War.
  2. Austin did not found the city that bears his name. Again, it would have been difficult for him to found the Texas capital in 1839, three years after his death.
  3. William Barton was also not a "Confederate leader." He died in 1840.
  4. Austin did not oppose banning slavery "in the Tejas province following the Texas Revolution," given that Texas ceased to belong to Mexico "following" the revolution. For that matter, his pro-slavery advocacy mostly took place when Tejas was part of a Mexican state, not a province.

You generally don't want more errors than paragraphs in your lede. But the cornucopia of wrongness follows this story from last week.

Wow, six years for having straws? The maximum sentence for second-degree robbery is only five years in California, I guess they're really taking this straw thing seriously.

But then you read the actual story: "According to Reason, the city has made breaking the plastic straw ban as an administrative infraction, meaning those caught disobeying it a second time risk a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to six months in jail." Oh. Months. So the headline was only off by a factor of twelve.

That tweet is still up, although the headline was fixed without a correction. But Newsweek did issue a correction for arguably their most embarrassing error yet.

Yes, some editor at Newsweek thought it sounded plausible that Virgin Galactic built a ship that could fly to the moon and back in about three seconds. They of course meant the speed of sound, or about 900,000 times slower than the speed of light.

What causes these errors? Well, other outlets have reported that writers at the cash-strapped Newsweek are given strict click quotas that they have to reach on a daily basis, and bonuses if stories get a certain amount of clicks. Reporters and editors always want to drive clicks to their stories, but the link between clicks and your financial security is more tangible and less abstract at Newsweek.

A cynic might note that provides strong financial incentive to intentionally botch a headline. Six months in jail for offering customers straws is pretty silly, but six years ... well, I clicked. A plane that goes faster than light! Wouldn't you want to know more? You never see Newsweek making errors in their headline that accidentally downplay how interesting a story is.

But the kinder explanation is that in the haste to put out as many stories as possible in a given day, Newsweek sets up their employees to make mistakes that they would've caught if they moved slower. I subscribe to Hanlon's razor: never attribute to malice that which is more easily explained by incompetence. And boy, if one word sums up Newsweek these days, it's "incompetence."

Published under: Newsweek