People magazine just got a lesson in the limits of speed in the digital age — from none other than Johnny Depp.
The magazine, long considered one of the most reliable chroniclers of the famous and near-famous, posted a juicy but unsourced bit of gossip on its website several weeks ago: that Depp had stopped working on his latest movie, the forthcoming "Pirates of the Carribean 5," to enter rehab for alcohol abuse. The magazine's digital staff apparently picked the item up from one of the farther-flung corners of the Internet and ran with it.
Hmmm, bad idea.
After a complaint from the star's representatives, the magazine determined that the information could not be verified. Martin Singer, Depp's attorney, denied that Depp had left the movie's set for an alcohol-related issue. "The only rehab he went to was for his hand," which had been injured, Singer said in an interview.
The story wasn't just inaccurate and potentially defamatory, according to people at People. It posed another legal and financial issue as well: Movie producers pay handsomely to insure their productions against disruptions — such as the unexpected illness or departure of a key player — and disclosure of an addiction problem could prompt an insurance company to raise its rates or even refuse to issue a policy for a troubled star.
The magazine responded by quietly taking the item down. Then it used it as a teachable moment.
In the wake of the story, the magazine held a "mandatory" staff conference call in early May. The meeting — headed by Norman Pearlstine, chief content officer for Time Inc., People's parent company — was aimed at reinforcing one of journalism's basic commandments: Thou shalt not pass on unverified information as fact.
News organizations have wrestled for years with the need to post news quickly versus the often time-consuming process of verifying information. The rush to report news first — and thereby attract a large audience — has led to many instances of false or misleading reports in the Internet age.
Mistakes can also happen through "aggregation," the practice of gathering information from other sources without vetting the material independently, and sometimes without even attributing its source.
Yet the episode was a shock for People, which boasts highly placed sources in the celebrity universe, cultivated in part by its reputation for accuracy and caution. Even when rivals like TMZ.com and Us magazine were burning up the Internet with a hot scoop — which other sites, lacking the sources, might eagerly cite just to stay up to speed — People has been known for waiting hours or days until it could confirm the news via its own reporting.
But People has seen a "record-breaking" increase in its online traffic by emphasizing faster and more numerous posts, according to Adweek magazine. The strategy has been driven in part by journalists recently hired from TMZ and the British-based Daily Mail, two sites heavy on celebrity news and aggregation.
"It's literally 'type faster, make the phone calls faster' — it's just a metabolism thing," digital editorial director Will Lee told Adweek. "We're transforming from a weekly cadence to 'seconds count.'"
The need for speed has unsettled some in the magazine's newsroom, who say it puts the publication's reputation at risk. "There's a mad rush for content, content, content," said one of People's journalists, who asked not to be named because she is not authorized to speak for the publication.
She noted that the Depp story was especially unusual because People has long shied away from revealing information that its A-list subjects prefer to keep private, such as their sexual orientation or medical issues. It was cautious, for example, in reporting about Bruce Jenner's transition to Caitlyn Jenner during the months in which rumors about Jenner's intentions were swirling.
Both Pearlstine and People's editor, Jess Cagle, declined to comment.
The magazine's spokeswoman, Marnie Perez, wouldn't comment on the Depp-isode. "We don't discuss editorial process," she said. She added, however, that "we often have meetings about reporting standards because they are important to us."