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Making the reporting transparent after an agency demands retraction

For the past several months, we at inewsource have been reporting on San Diego's North County Transit District, a public transportation agency that is going through a bit of turmoil -- to put it politely.

The district has been aggressive in its response to our stories. It’s sent out dozens of tweets calling us "just plain wrong," published "fact" sheets and sent us retraction demands. We take these seriously, and as we all know, they take substantial time and money (read: lawyers) to address.

The taxing experience got me thinking.

When we were set to publish a new story on the transit district last week, I thought, ‘why not publish two stories -- one, a regular story with links, and the other fully-loaded with every possible hyperlink. Just about every sentence would link to hard evidence on DocumentCloud. We made it very clear (in the regular version) that if people wanted to "read this story backed-up throughout with primary documents," they had that option. We headlined the story with a blockquote saying just that, and linking to the souped-up version.

This, I thought, would thwart yet another retraction demand from the district and save us thousands of dollars in legal fees we'd inevitably accrue from being forced to respond.

As of Friday afternoon, June 14, at 4 p.m. Pacific, it's worked. We hadn’t heard from NCTD, and in fact, the super-hyperlinked story actually had more reads than the regular version. I've had many people email me about it, saying they thoroughly enjoyed seeing the precision that goes into an investigative story.

We tracked the analytics over the first two days of publication, and this is what we found:

The regular story, without hyperlinks, had 317 pageviews. Readers spent an average of 4:32 on the page, and it had a 71 percent bounce rate and a 52 percent exit rate.

The story loaded with hyperlinks had 330 pageviews. Readers spent an average of 6:04 on the page, and it had a 56 percent bounce rate and a 46 percent exit rate.

We did not promote the super-hyperlinked story through social media, which means, most likely, that almost every reader who saw the regular version clicked through to the hyperlinked version, and then shared that link with friends.

Those readers spent more than a minute and a half longer on the hyperlinked story site AND engaged with other stories on our site more frequently.

And it saved us from having to call our lawyer. Again.

The story gained a lot of traction. It was the 17th story we’re written about the transit district’s problems, and we just received word from the Federal Transit Administration in DC that they are now looking into the agency.

For the record: We answered all the allegations about our reporting in the two demand letters and published the letters and our responses on our website. We’ve heard nothing more from the district.

Brad Racino is an investigative reporter for inewsource.

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