Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Rumor Mill

A few years back, when The Herald in Rock Hill first started its online blogs and forums, one of the paper's writers posted a rumor on it.
The rumor later turned out to be true. But I thought it was pretty bad at the time. I asked the question, would he have put in the newspaper what he put on the blog.
He responded that the rules were different on the blog.
Some might say, since it turned out to be true, what's the problem?
I think that the published of a rumor by a newspaper, whether it goes on the internet in a blog or in the newspaper just tanks any credibility a newspaper might have.
I'm not the only one.
Here's the initial blog. When it went up, it did not say "Confirmed." It was later edited. You'll find my comments, under the name "reader," in that thread.
A couple of things went wrong here beyond just posting a rumor.
The writer had an impression, carried through on that blog, and also in his reportage in the newspaper, that Baxter was something special, not just a subdivision, big, with an unusual a mount of commercial space.
"A CVS definitely makes sense for that area. A drug store is about the only thing missing from the immediate Baxter area. This wouldn't be the first CVS in Fort Mill, though. There's another one on Tom Hall Street," he wrote at the time.
It made sense for him to have a drug store "in that area."
He may have had it solid from the construction workers, but that's not a source you would use to confirm a story like that for a print publication. But he went ahead and posted the rumor because it made sense, to him, "for that area."
The writer doesn't cover that beat anymore. It was a natural moving on. He certainly didn't get in trouble for posting a rumor before he had it confirmed.
But if he was still in the area, I would love to show him around the area and explain to him why the logic that led him to conclude a CVS made "sense" for the area was flawed.
"A drug store is about the only thing missing from the immediate Baxter area.," he said.
The CVS has now been open for several months. It was built in a shopping center anchored by a Harris Teeter grocery store. That Harris Teeter is as full-featured as a supermarket gets. It has a pharmacy. It had one at the time he posted his rumor.
I don't know how big the immediate area is to him, but across the Interstate, not a mile away from Baxter, was Winn Dixie. It was full-featuered. It has now closed, but reopened as a Bi-Lo. Bi-Lo has and Winn Dixie had pharmacies in their stores. So the immediate area already had two pharmacies.
Well, one might say, "A supermarket pharmacy is not a drug store."
That would be true. But, now and at the time of this blog post, there was a drug store in the area. Fort Mill Pharmacy, a locally owned and operated drug store, sits right in the same shopping center as Winn Dixie/Bi-Lo.
So there were three pharmacies at the time he posted a rumor on the premise that "a drug store is the only thing missing from the immediate Baxter area."
Does the premise hold up, under that scenario? Was it worth it, to post a rumor, cause possible damage to journalistic credibility by doing so, when the premise that bolstered your initial decision does't hold up?
I don't think so.
But I post this now, here, because the other factor that made his posting of a rumor a problem is coming to fruition.
If you come to that particular corner on which the CVS sits, you can look across Pleasant Hill Road and see something interesting.
A Walgreens pharmacy is going up. There used to be a little golf shop on that corner.
Does it make sense? Not so much. But the CVS makes sense, for another reason, when you think about the Walgreens.
The Walgreens was in the planning stages before CVS. The developers had to wait until the family that owned the little pro shop gave it up. I believe it was an estate matter.
If a national chain drug store was the only thing missing for "the Baxter area" at the time the CVS rumor was posted, well, one was already on the way — Walgreens.
The writer knew enough about the area to know that CVS already owned a store in Fort Mill. That was downtown Fort Mill.
Did it make sense for CVS to build a second store in the Township and possibly damage the business that the first store does? Not on its own.
No. But if CVS thought it would lose clients, not just from Baxter but from the western side of the Township to a Walgreens, it makes perfect sense. Not because of a strategic lack of pharmacies to serve Baxter, but because of a tactical decision to serve existing customers with a store closer by.
To its credit, CVS not only got some land, but got its store built and opened first. It moved decisively and fast.
I have long been a CVS customer, but I haven't gone back to the Tom Hall store now that there is one open closer to home. What would be the point of driving the extra miles? Plus, this CVS has better photo reproducing equipment, and I print a lot of digital pics.
When I needed to buy some pre-natal vitamins for my wife, I got them at Winn Dixie, however, then a second batch at Bi-Lo, because CVS didn't have them. I've bought a ton of cold medicine at the pharmacy in Harris Teeter,
When Walgreens opens, I'll go there too. My wife and I usually buy milk at Costco, because it's like $3.99 a gallon at most supermarkets, but $2.39 a gallon at Costco. Walgreens occasionally sells milk close to the Costco price. I'll loo around I'm sure when I do that.
I had problems with The Herald's blog approach. It seems like it's "everybody in the pool."
The journalist who gave me my big break into the business resisted strongly my attempts to have a column.
"You have to earn a column," she said. She was so right.
I have held the people who work for me to that standard ever since.
At The Herald, there seems to be no discrimination over who gets to do a blog, and some, as this writer admitted in reply to my concern, think that the rules are different.
One reporter has not been there a year, and is blogging about a beat she has been on for a couple of weeks.
During the political campaign, the paper put a very young, raw reporter on the political race, in addition to his coverage of Rock Hill City government. He posted personal opinions and jokes in both. His blog/column contained outright opinions about the people and situations he was covering, at times, and there was a lot of subtle opinion thrown in as well.
People will tell me I'm old-fashioned, a bit of a fuddy duddy.
Perhaps. I've embraced the new techology as each bit came along, as the budget of my papers would allow.
What I am old-fashioned about is journalism. Newspapers that are losing subscriptions and ad dollars are doing it because they embraced new things. The ones that are thriving are doing things the old fashioned way. They are telling you things you didn't know before, and making sure they are confirmed before doing it.
So, two years later, I'm wondering.
Was it worth it to print a rumor, now that the full story is out there on why CVS chose that location. It made a smart tactical decision to shore up its clientele on the western end of the Township. I still wonder if it hurt the store in downtown Fort Mill.
But this side of the county had three pharmacies within a half mile and a fourth on the way when this writer said it made sense because of the "lack" of a pharmacy.
(I won't even mention the Eckerds a mile or so down S.C. Highway 160, close to Tega Cay. That one was there before the Harris Teeter.)
Lastly, there were other people who knew about Walgreens at the time. Other journalists. If they had used the standards used in the original rumor blog, Walgreens would have been in print several months before that blog was posted.
But they didn't have a confirmation, so they didn't print it, anywhere. They stuck by the rules. That's the part that bothers me most, even more than a year later.

At the time, I e-mailed the post to a journalism professor who blogs, to see what he thought.
Here's his blog (I hit it infrequently, but I always find something interesting to read on it when I do.)

Rumors vs. RUMORS?