Free to Blog?
Three journalists are told by their employers to cease their Web musings.
By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.
For a journalist blogger, fame comes more easily through controversy than content. Three journalists and their employers learned this the hard way.
On March 21, CNN correspondent Kevin Sites pulled the plug on KevinSites.net, a journal of his experiences reporting on the war in Iraq. A CNN spokesman told Online Journalism Review that "Covering a war for CNN...is a full-time job," and that Sites had been asked to "concentrate on that for the time being."
Four days later Joshua Kucera, a freelance journalist covering the war for Time magazine, stopped updating his Weblog, The Other Side (serendipit-e.com/otherside), at the behest of his editors.
On April 17 the Hartford Courant's Denis Horgan posted a farewell notice on DenisHorgan.com, rebutting his editor's position that the Weblog was a conflict of interest and promising to "explore my rights and options." About a month before the Weblog launched in March, the Courant had cancelled his newspaper column, which had run for 21 years, and named him travel editor.
All three sites remain online for anyone interested in seeing what the fuss was about. Meanwhile, their premature deaths have whipped up a debate in which both sides seem to want an absolute answer to a complex question: Are journalists free to blog?
After the Horgan story surfaced, Cyberjournalist.net published a pair of essays by blogger and online journalism commentator J.D. Lasica and University of Illinois journalism professor Eric Meyer. Lasica, a former AJR new-media columnist, called the Courant's decision "an abuse of power" intended to suppress a journalist's right to express opinions on his personal time and dime. Meyer, AJR's onetime Web site partner, argued that Horgan had no right to parlay his former Courant column into an "overgrown, overly opinionated diary/hobby that unfairly treads on his association with his employer and has the potential to damage his employer's reputation."
While Lasica and Meyer did a good job of addressing the specifics of the case as well as the underlying issues, much of the talk on Weblogs and discussion lists has portrayed all managers who have concerns about Weblogs as unenlightened corporate ogres, and journalists who defend their right to self-publish as petulant children. Neither is true.
Weblogs can't be banned categorically because they're defined by form, not content. They can consist of family photos, collections of links, random musings, cultural commentary or combinations thereof. Journalists blog for various reasons and audiences. Some journalists blog as a writing exercise or to organize their mental notes; others simply do it for fun.
Just as private Weblogs can be more or less controversial, editors' concerns about them can be more or less rational.
One is that the journalist's private blog might compete with his employer's Web site. Most of the time, that's like the New York Times fretting about competition from a church bulletin.
Another concern is that the Weblog will siphon the journalist's creativity. While that's possible--any hobby can become an obsession--bloggers say the activity stimulates them and brings new ideas to the mainstream press.
It's harder to refute the claim that a journalist's private blog derives its currency from his or her professional profile, particularly when the Weblog covers the same issues the newsroom does. That's the argument made by Horgan's editor. In Sites' case, he may have blogged in his free time, but he was in Iraq at CNN's expense. The cable network says reporting for CNN is a full-time job. These are not prima facie reasons to forbid a reporter from blogging, but they provide leverage when content becomes a concern.
That brings us to the greatest anxiety of blog-squashing editors: that one of their staffers will say something that compromises the newsroom's veil of objectivity.
In that vein, asking reporters to use discretion in personal expression is in line with historical precedent. Many news organizations have long-standing codes of conduct that caution journalists against displaying yard signs or participating in demonstrations. On the other hand, those who support journalists' right to blog find it troubling that an institution rooted in the First Amendment would muzzle its own members.
While that debate rolls on, dozens of journalists manage to blog in peace--some with the nod of their managers, others by keeping below the radar. As this powerful and controversial tool grows more appealing to journalists, news managers had better consider where they stand and find out whether their views are shared by their staffs--or risk another ugly scene. ###