Bloggin’ in the Newsroom  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2004

Bloggin’ in the Newsroom   

Despite a few early pitfalls, newspapers are catching on--slowly--to the spontaneous and opinionated world of blogging.

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


For Daniel Weintraub, it was a case of excellent timing. In April, the Sacramento Bee public affairs columnist decided to try his hand at blogging. Weintraub started a constantly updated online column on the Bee's Web site, tossing out tidbits of news and opinion in the hope that plugged-in readers would occasionally check in.

Then, the California recall election was launched and a candidate named Schwarzenegger burst on the scene. Within weeks, Weintraub's California Insider blog was required reading not only in California, but around the nation.

A few weeks before the election, however, Latino politicians complained about things Weintraub wrote about candidate Cruz Bustamante, while people in the newsroom complained about double standards for editing. Editorial Page Editor David Holwerk decided blog entries would be cleared by an editor, just like print columns.

California Insider fans were appalled. Weintraub understands why he has to do this, but is less than thrilled to take time to filter his blog copy through an editor.

"It changes it logistically. It is not as easy to do it around the clock," Weintraub says. "It's probably not as spontaneous and spunky as it was over the summer."

Holwerk says the spontaneity of blogging conflicts with newspapers' obligations to credibility and accuracy. "A blog run by a newspaper...as opposed to a blog run by somebody named Earl in a basement somewhere" is different, he says.

Chalk it up to another newspaper feeling its way into the new--and sometimes dangerous-- world of Weblogging. As more and more newspapers allow reporters and columnists to blog, more and more newsrooms find themselves engaging in debates over everything from the role of an editor to how opinionated a reporter is allowed to be online.

For veteran Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, blogging is the purest form of journalism. He carries his notebook everywhere, chasing down even the smallest leads and sharing everything instantly with readers in his Breaking Views blog on chicagotribune.com. "You start thinking about life in this whole new way," says Zorn, whose column gets as many as 10,000 page views a day. "Your brain is turned on all the time."

Though newspapers are just catching on, quirky, real-time Web diaries have been around almost since the birth of the World Wide Web. In the last few years, free, user-friendly software has made it easy for anyone to blog. During the war in Iraq, online filings from the war zone and freewheeling political pundit blogs attracted readers and media attention.

Former New Republic Editor Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish (andrewsullivan.com), Slate writer Mickey Kaus' kausfiles (slate.msn.com) and lawyer Glenn Reynolds' instapundit (www.instapundit.com) are among the best read, though exact readership numbers are hard to find. Even humorist Dave Barry (davebarry.blogspot.com) has been known to check in hourly on his blog.

Though many journalists blog on personal sites, newspapers have only just started real-time blogs, says Andrew Nachison, director of the American Press Institute's Media Center. "After all these years, they are finally willing to take a small gamble," he says.

In addition to the Chicago Tribune and the Sacramento Bee, the Albuquerque Journal, San Jose Mercury News, Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal and Dallas Morning News are experimenting with blogs.

API's Jonathan Dube tracks journalists' blogs, or j-blogs, at CyberJournalist.net. He lists nearly 100 on mainstream media sites and another 100 independent ones. API credits the Charlotte Observer as the first newspaper to debut a breaking news blog with its 1998 Web coverage of Hurricane Bonnie.

Still, many newspapers are reluctant to experiment with an anti-establishment format that defines itself by undiluted immediacy. "Every time I mention blogs with newspaper editors, the first question is, 'Who's editing it?' " Nachison says.

That was an initial question for Spokane, Washington's Spokesman-Review when Ken Sands, managing editor of online and new media, proposed the paper do a blog from the 2002 statewide high-school basketball tournament. Sands wanted to write an online column from the sidelines for fans who could not get there.

The paper downloaded free software from blogger.com and sent Sands to the tournament. While sportswriters focused on the games, Sands wrote vignettes about everything else, cheerleaders' hairstyles and face-painting by rabid fans. The column was a hit and encouraged the Spokesman-Review to expand its blogging efforts. This year the paper launched blogs on politics, health, college football and auto racing.

Reporters blog from home and the road, day and night, and on weekends. Sands says editors regularly log on to keep an eye on the blogs and catch mistakes, but reporters mostly publish unedited. "We're not worried about our reporters libeling someone on the Web," Sands says. "We haven't had to kill a single post."

The New Republic was not so lucky. Gregg Easterbrook, a senior editor at the magazine, used his unedited blog on the New Republic Web site to criticize Hollywood executives after the release of Quentin Tarantino's violent film "Kill Bill Vol. 1." Easterbrook wrote that Disney head Michael Eisner and Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein were "Jewish executives" who "worship money above all else."

Easterbrook later used his blog to apologize for the seemingly anti-Semitic remark. "Maybe this is an object lesson in the new blog reality," he wrote. "I worked on this alone and posted the piece.... Twenty minutes after I pressed 'send,' the entire world had read it. When I reread my own words and beheld how I'd written things that could be misunderstood, I felt awful."

At the Sacramento Bee, Weintraub says it is exactly that immediacy and danger that make unedited blogs so interesting.

"Blogs are more like radio and television commentary than newspapers when they are at their best," Weintraub says. "You just take your chances, and if you screw up, the writer takes the consequences."

Perhaps because they are used to the unedited live broadcast format, a few local television stations have also launched blogs. At NBC's affiliate in Oklahoma City, KFOR-TV reporter Sarah Stewart blogged hourly in September from the courtroom during the high-profile trial of Jim Pavatt, a man accused of killing an Oklahoma City advertising executive.

"It's a good way to have live, or as live as possible, updates from a courtroom where cameras are not allowed," says Chris Way, director of new media for the New York Times Broadcast Group, the station's owner.

Back in Chicago, every time Zorn posts, the entry is immediately e-mailed to about 10 Tribune editors who virtually read over his shoulder. They point out dropped words or punctuation mistakes, but the content of the blog is Zorn's decision. He also handles the time-consuming coding that gets his blog online. "There are still a whole lot of technical problems," says Zorn. "Our editing system is not set up for classic Weblogging."

It's unclear whether blogging will take root in newsrooms. Sands envisions a day when every journalist blogs. "I don't think it's a fad," Sands says. "The immediacy of it gives us something that we haven't had--the ability to compete with other media again in a timely manner."

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