Two embarrassing online slip-ups today are a reminder of how dangerous the Web can be.
The more noteworthy boo-boo occurred when a version of a six-year-old Chicago Tribune story about United Airlines filing for bankruptcy somehow wound up on the Internet as breaking news. That quickly led to a plunge in the airline's stock price (at one point it fell by more than 75 percent). There's still a lot to sort out - United said the old article had been posted on the Florida Sun Sentinel Web site, but Editor Earl Maucker said there was no such story. There also are reports about a posting on the Chicago Tribune site. What seems to have happened is that research firm Income Securities Advisors came across the old Tribune story in a Google search and somehow sent it over to Bloomberg, where traders quickly picked it up. From the NYT:
The outdated article received wide attention when it appeared that it was posted on Bloomberg News by a reporter for Income Securities Advisors, an investment research firm in Miami that tracks information about distressed companies. Richard Lehmann, the founder of Income Securities, said the company’s reporter discovered the article during a routine search on Google for information about bankruptcy filings in 2008. A link to the old Chicago Tribune article appeared as the first search item, bearing a current date, not its original date, Mr. Lehmann said. When the reporter clicked on the link, it navigated to the United Airlines article on the front page of the Sun-Sentinel Web site, next to a radar map showing the location of Hurricane Ike, Mr. Lehmann said. The Income Securities reporter included a link to the article in a summary of bankruptcy items posted to the page at Bloomberg, which sent a news headline referring to the article on the Sun-Sentinel site.
That there’s still confusion about what happened speaks volumes on the speed by which information gets disseminated online – to the point where it’s often difficult figuring out where the information originated. Web speed does have a saving grace - mistakes can get corrected almost as quickly as they're made. After everything was sorted out, United shares began rebounding, and the stock finished the day on the up side.
Also today was the LAT flub about a plea deal involving Broadcom co-founder Henry Samueli. The paper's pre-written story that was posted on the Web had Samueli sentenced to probation. In fact, a federal judge rejected the deal this morning, maintaining that it would erode the public's trust in the judicial system. So what happened? Was the reporter assured by prosecutors that the judge would sign off on the agreement and that there was no need to cover the pro-forma hearing? Whatever the explanation, it would be nice for the paper to go beyond a requisite three-line correction that was posted after the story was revised. I have emailed business editor Sallie Hofmeister and editor Russ Stanton.
*Markets Editor Art Buckler says that the initial Broadcom story was a draft that should have been held until after the hearing. It got posted because of a communication mixup. He adds that the reporter was at the hearing and never intended for the earlier version to be posted. The judge's decision apparently was a big surprise. By the way, the correction noted earlier today has been taken down.