Newsroom Informants Dish the Dirt Online  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   July/August 1998

Newsroom Informants Dish the Dirt Online   

Journalists from around the nation weigh in about their newsrooms at the News Mait.

By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      


Journalists from around the nation weigh in about their newsrooms at the News Mait.

Maurice Tamman says he should be spending his weekends recovering from the grind of being an overworked, underpaid reporter at a midsized Florida daily. But each Saturday morning, Tamman finds himself at his home computer, sifting through e-mail and channeling the frustrations of reporters from around the nation.

The newsroom is loaded with malcontent has-beens who recall glory days that, in reality, were never all that glorious, and fill their time carping endlessly over the coffee urn about the evils of Gannett," writes one former Louisville Courier-Journal staffer.

An e-mail from a reporter at the Wapakoneta Daily News in Ohio says, "Pay is terrible, the area is a cultural wasteland, and reporters are expected to sacrifice personal lives for the job."

Tamman removes the names from dozens of such comments and posts them each Saturday on the Newspaper Intelligence section of his Web site, News Mait Writers' Cooperative (www.newsmait.com) . The site, which receives up to 2,000 hits a day, is making waves in newsrooms around the country by dishing the inside dirt on hundreds of newspapers.

"There are dialogues going on," Tamman says of the comments. "There are pro-management, anti-management people. It's like old-fashioned letter writing."

Tamman, a reporter at Florida Today, began the Newspaper Intelligence page a year ago as a sidebar to a job listing section on News Mait, a site he designed as a resource for fellow journalists. His quirky spelling of "Mait" stands for "my aim is true," words from the Elvis Costello hit "Alison," which Tamman heralds
as the greatest song ever written.

The Web site, which has nothing else to do with Costello, includes journalism links, references and a mailing list. But Newspaper Intelligence has become its most popular feature.

Originally intended as advice for people thinking about applying to particular papers, the section took on a life of its own as reporters and editors weighed in on the state of their newspapers.

ìamman, a self-taught computer geek, wanted to use his site to bring the journalism community together in a virtual cooperative. Intelligence is like the neighborhood bar, where gossip and griping are not only welcome, but encouraged.

The authors are a collection of disgruntled former staffers and current reporters, photographers and editors who offer News Mait's loyal readers juicy tidbits on everything from which papers' editors are allegedly sexually harassing reporters to which newsrooms skimp on overtime, and what staffers hoard pens in their desks.

To elicit as honest a response as possible, Tamman keeps the authors' names secret. "I didn't want it to be a place where people could get brownie points," he says.

But the anonymity, coupled with the unchecked negativity, is causing tension in some newsrooms.

Pennsylvania's Pocono Record, Nashville's Tennessean and both Syracuse dailies have been the subject of heated debates on the site, with the papers' supporters and detractors arguing in front of an
international audience.

"It's troublesome. It's deeply troublesome," says John Howe, veteran executive editor of the Citizen in Laconia, New Hampshire. Howe and his paper were slammed in News Mait postings by current and former employees. ("After I left the Citizen I wanted to audition for a role in 'Roots' because this is the closest I've ever come to being treated as a slave," wrote one former staffer.)

Howe says he was alerted that the comments, about a dozen listings, were both creating a rumor mill in his newsroom and being read across the country. News Mait's mean-spirited forum is unfair, he says.

"It seems like a lot of newspapers are getting trashed in it by either current or anonymous [employees]," Howe says. In the Citizen's case, many of the criticisms seem to be coming from a former employee who attacks Howe specifically.

"It's actually gotten personal... I'd like to be able to confront that person," Howe says.

Meanwhile, the Citizen's editorial staff of 20 is logging onto News Mait and trying to guess who authored which remarks.

"Everybody's reading it. I bet they check it every day," says Susan Richards, the paper's arts and entertainment magazine editor for the Lakes Region.

Richards admits to writing some of the more positive messages about the Citizen. But who wrote the other comments is the subject of some fierce finger-pointing.

"Because it does provide anonymity, it gives people the chance to say and speak their minds," Richards says. "It has made management aware of underlying feelings."

Taken as a whole, the comments on News Mait give a disturbing view of the newspaper industry. At papers coast to coast, the complaints are similar: low pay, long hours, clueless editors, burned-out reporters, shrinking budgets and a waning sense of purpose.

Most of the talk comes from reporters at small and midsized papers because, Tamman says, they have the most to gripe about.

"That constant grind is very difficult... There is no break in sight," says Tamman, a British-born, eight-year veteran of small East Coast dailies. "Reporters at big papers live very different lives than people at small papers."

Randy Dotinga, an education reporter at the North County Times in Escondido, California, says he makes a weekly stop for some shared misery from papers he's never heard of.

"It makes you relieved when someone in Podunk has got it worse and is getting paid less," Dotinga says. "It's a combination of sympathy and inner joy that it could be worse."

Though as many as 40 new messages are coming in each week and his Saturdays are pretty much shot, Tamman says he hopes the complaints keep rolling into his site. He sees them as a sign of hope.

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