Blogging Between the Lines
The mainstream media have fallen in love with blogs, launching them on everything from politics to life in Las Vegas to bowling. But does the inherent tension between the blogosphere’s anything-goes ethos and the standards of traditional journalism mean this relationship is doomed?
By Dana Hull
The San Antonio Express-News has a bowling blog. The News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington, has a fly-fishing blog. A pet blog is popular at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis. Several newspapers have launched parenting blogs.
Dana Hull (email@example.com) is a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News.
The Fourth Estate has fallen fast and furiously in love with blogs, from news-driven ones about professional sports teams, real estate, crime, Hurricane Katrina, immigration and local and national politics to zanier ones that dive deep into niche subcultures.
Most are written by staffers, particularly sportswriters and columnists. Some reporters at metropolitan dailies have transformed blogging into a full-time beat, and rarely file anymore for the print edition. Other papers have involved entire sections in online group diaries: At the Dallas Morning News, the editorial board's blog gives readers a behind-the-curtains look at how board members wrangle over issues, argue with one another and reach critical decisions.
The appetite for blogs is so great that some newsrooms also are turning to local bloggers, freelancers and special guests, or actively soliciting readers for proposals for new blogs. California's Ventura County Star hosts a blog written by a local soldier who recently returned from Iraq. The Houston Chronicle is asking aspiring bloggers to send an e-mail to the paper describing what they want to share with the world.
The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, links to an eclectic list of Inland Northwest blogs. Among the local characters featured on spokesmanreview.com is Spokane Valley resident Bob Salsbury, who enjoys "carving evil little trolls out of bars of soap" and writes The Unbearable Bobness of Being. The Los Angeles Times has hired a freelancer to blog regularly about life in Las Vegas, while the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire hosts a blog written by Katherine Rogers, a city councilor.
Blogs are supposed to be fun and freewheeling, filled with quick snippets written in a breezy, conversational voice. They tackle subjects both serious and esoteric and encourage an ongoing dialogue. The best newspaper blogs generate an avalanche of posts and comments from captivated readers, get linked to by other blogs and, ideally, drive more traffic to newspaper Web sites.
But newspapers' current passion for blogging is fueling a vigorous, industry-wide debate about everything from staffing to sourcing, standards to liability. There's an inevitable clash of values between a newspaper, which has a journalistic reputation and brand name to protect, and a swiftly changing medium that has grown in power and prestige precisely because it has flouted many of journalism's traditional rules.
Some newsrooms are proceeding quickly but cautiously, calling in lawyers, hammering out guidelines and updating ethics codes to cover the uncharted world of blogging. Others are moving full-speed ahead on the assumption that the blog train left the station long ago and, give or take a few mistakes as the experiment unfolds, it's all going to work out just fine.
"Blogging as it has evolved has been very different from conventional reporting," says Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota and a former AJR columnist, who adds that reporters, trained to be objective, often struggle to adopt the right tone. "Blogs are not intended to be objective. They are supposed to be opinionated, snarky and in your face — and that's not the way the mainstream media usually goes about reporting. The whole genre of blogging is very different. It's not fair for a news organization to say, 'We want you to blog, but by the way don't express your real opinions.'"
Among the numerous thorny issues: Should blogs rise to the same reporting and sourcing standards as content that appears in the print edition? What kind of tone and voice does a blog need to be effective — just how snarky can it be? Where does libel law fit into the picture? Should reader comments or user-generated content like photographs be edited or monitored? Should anonymous or pseudonymous posts be allowed? What's the newsroom's policy about linking to other blogs? How do newsrooms handle staffers who have personal blogs?
In late August, the Poynter Institute sponsored an invitation-only seminar on the topic of online journalism standards, including blogging. About 25 journalists who spearhead their newsroom online and convergence operations flew to St. Petersburg, Florida, for two-and-a-half days of intense discussion. The group cobbled together a working draft of best practices for online journalism that is being shared and revised; Poynter hopes to make them widely available in the next few months.
The spontaneous, rapid-fire pace of blogging has added another layer of complexity to the challenges raised by online journalism. "There's an inherent tension between the value of speed in an online world and journalism's obligation to do thorough, accurate work," says Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader at Poynter, who helped facilitate the seminar. "And there's this strong sense that the capacity of the Internet is limitless, but our resources are limited."
Many newsrooms are struggling to establish blog guidelines or some kind of best practices cheat sheet. The San Francisco Chronicle recently named a blogging and interactive editor to, among other duties, "contribute and edit content appearing on the blogs, making sure the content meets The Chronicle's blogging standards (which this person will help formulate)," as the job posting put it.
But media lawyers stress that blogs should not be viewed uniformly. Some attorneys are wary of written guidelines because that could make it easier for a plaintiff in a libel suit to charge that the newspaper violated its own rules. There's also a strong sense that the handiwork of the typically plodding task-force process of hammering out ethics codes will be horrendously outdated by the time it emerges.
"One has to be careful about trying to establish hard and fast rules," says Sandra Baron, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York. "I don't think the rules can keep up with the changing technology. That said, it's up to each newsroom to determine what their blogs are going to look and read like, what process they follow and what editorial norms are appropriate."
In July 2003, after becoming convinced that blogging is not only fun but also of special appeal to readers and the wave of the future, the Dallas Morning News launched the nation's first editorial board blog at dallasmorningviews.beloblog.com.
One month earlier, Editorial Page Editor Keven Ann Willey had outlined 10 reasons why the editorial page should take such an unusual step. Reason No. 1: "It's consistent with the newspaper's overall goals regarding increasing readership and profile in the community. Blogging provides a window into the Editorial Board's thinking on issues. The ability of readers to peer through this window will deepen the Dallas Morning News' appeal to heavy readers as well as help convert casual readers to heavy readers."
Willey was anxious to get rolling but mindful of the risks. Tom Leatherbury, a key attorney for the newspaper, was asked to share with her staff anything that made him nervous.
One of the biggest questions facing newsrooms is how libel law applies to blogs. Libel suits are relatively rare — and blogging is so new that little case law exists. Still, many media attorneys stress that if a blog is written by a newspaper staff writer, it is likely to be held to the same standard of liability or malice as if it appeared in newsprint.
"It's a developing landscape," says Leatherbury, a partner in the Dallas office of Vinson & Elkins who has practiced media law for 25 years. "In dealing with mainstream publications that launch blogs, my assumption is that they'll be treated more like mainstream media for good and for bad if a legal issue arises about a blog posting."
Leatherbury also warns that mainstream media blogs are likely to be more visible targets of libel lawsuits. While an independent blogger may exert just as much influence, a newspaper blogger has the potential to reach a wide audience — and works for a large media company that clearly has assets.
"Until the courts adopt different standards, libel laws will translate to mainstream media blogs," says Leatherbury. "That raises interesting issues about editing, prepublication review and the place of comment and opinion. The cautious person should assume the same rules apply."
Michael Rothberg, a media law specialist with the Washington, D.C., firm of Dow Lohnes, says media companies that have bloggers need to do a cost-benefit analysis. "One day we'll have a libel suit based on a newspaper's blog that wasn't edited. It just hasn't happened yet," he says. "To think there's less risk just because it's a blog is not a good strategy."
Morning News editorial staffers met several times to discuss the purpose of their blog. Leatherbury shared his perspective over a brown bag lunch, and the staff then developed and distributed written guidelines. To make sure writers had plenty of time to practice the art of blogging and iron out any kinks, the editorial page blog had a soft internal launch before going public.
Editorial page writers regularly dwell in the realm of opinion and persuasion, and in some ways they — like columnists — make natural bloggers. Willey has asked her dozen staffers to post to the blog about three times a day. Though there was a lot of initial trepidation, it has caught on at the paper and among readers. When former Texas Gov. Ann Richards died in September, a staffer revealed on the blog that an angry reader wanted to know why the editorial board wasn't blogging about Richards more frequently.
Some staffers have taken to the new medium with gusto, blogging so madly that they began to slack on other responsibilities, Willey says. Others have had to be guided into the habit, grumbling that they don't know how to fit blogging into an already heavy workload. But the experiment is considered a success: The blog's traffic is up, and the number of page views doubled from 2004 to 2005. The editorial board now gets far more e-mail from readers. And all of this was accomplished without any promotion or marketing effort.
Willey, the de facto Editorial Blog Boss, steps in when questions of tone or content arise. But most of the guidelines she's crafted (left) largely rely on common sense: Be brief and informal. Vary your topics. Don't write anything you wouldn't want your mother to read in the paper. Incorporate interesting, provocative reader e-mail. Be quick to correct yourself.
Other guidelines have been spelled out in far greater detail. "Exercise special care in blogging about especially sensitive topics. Examples include religion, the Middle East, abortion, etc.," wrote Willey in an October 2003 memo she asked staffers to keep handy near their computers. "Know that these topics can be exceptionally personal and emotional, and that because of this, opinions about them are prone to distortion and misunderstanding. If you believe that a particular string of commentary has gone on long enough as to exhaust its positive benefit to readers, move the blog onto another subject. If you have questions or concerns about a particular thread of commentary, discuss it directly with the colleague involved or consult the editor in charge."
At one point, an editorial board member linked to a Ku Klux Klan Web site to illuminate a discussion. When another board member strongly objected, the person who created the link voluntarily pulled it down.
One of the most active bloggers on the site is Rod Dreher, who previously worked as a senior editor at National Review. The conservative tone of his blog entries is far glibber than what you'd read in the printed version of the newspaper. He recently referred to the president of Iran as "Mr. Death to America" and went on a tirade when the Dallas County sheriff announced she had selected the agency's first liaison officer to the local gay and lesbian community.
"No 72 virgins, or raisins, or anything else for that fuzzy-faced scumbag," wrote Dreher about the June death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. "I say that with all due respect, naturally. Though I don't believe this happy news will have much discernible impact on the ongoing civil war there, it is good to know that sometimes, there is justice in this world."
Fuzzy-faced scumbag? How do the taste police rule on that one?
"Re Rod's post: I've decided not to take it down," Willey wrote in an e-mail to AJR. "The word 'scumbag' probably isn't something we'd likely put in a family newspaper unless the editors felt it necessary in a direct quote. But Rod's usage of it on the blog — while a bit crass — is reflective of the sort of spontaneous syntax that makes blogs so lively and fresh."
Willey says that readers love the blog because it demystifies the editorial board's internal workings and has made it more transparent and accessible. "Launching this blog has stimulated more positive response than anything I've done in 25 years of journalism," says Willey, who has advice for other newsrooms. "Determine up front what the purpose of the blog is. What is the blog trying to achieve? Knowing the purpose will help determine the guidelines. Don't be innovative for innovation's sake. And it's a good idea to have a written set of guidelines — they don't have to be overly legalistic or deflating."
A few newspaper bloggers have run into trouble. One of the more notorious examples involved Ben Domenech, who resigned in March after just 72 hours as a conservative blogger for washingtonpost.com. As soon as his Red America opinion blog launched, the blogosphere kicked into overdrive, proving that Domenech had plagiarized material in various publications long before his washingtonpost.com contract began.
In late January, Matt Donegan, a newspaper reporter at the weekly Dover Post in Delaware, was fired after his bosses found out about his personal blog on MySpace.com, which included controversial comments about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In May, Gina Vivinetto, an arts columnist for the Tampa Bay Times, a free tabloid published by the St. Petersburg Times, was forced to resign after admitting she mocked a Hillsborough County commissioner in a post on MySpace. "Sadly, Gina's actions irreparably compromised her credibility as a journalist for our company," St. Petersburg Times Executive Editor Neil Brown said at the time.
In April, the Los Angeles Times suspended Michael Hiltzik's Golden State blog because he used pseudonyms to post comments.
"Employing pseudonyms constitutes deception and violates a central tenet of The Times' ethics guidelines: Staff members must not misrepresent themselves and must not conceal their affiliation with The Times. This rule applies equally to the newspaper and the Web world," said an April 29 Editor's Note. "Over the past few days, some analysts have used this episode to portray the Web as a new frontier for newspapers, saying that it raises fresh and compelling ethical questions. Times editors don't see it that way. The Web makes it easier to conceal one's identity, and the tone of exchanges is often harsh. But the Web doesn't change the rules for Times journalists."
At the August Poynter session, participants debated questions of credibility and accuracy, transparency and anonymity. Some issues, including the use of pseudonyms, produced easy consensus. "There was a general sense that anonymity is frowned upon," Poynter's McBride says. "Journalists need to rise above the fray of clear, outright deception."
Other issues were less clear-cut. How should papers handle links to other Web sites and blogs? When should editors intervene in blogs? What gets edited? In an era of dwindling resources, shrinking staffs and buyouts, few newsrooms have the time or the bodies to edit the avalanche of online content. It's a constant struggle just to edit and copy edit Web versions of stories and captions of photo slide shows. Editing blogs, with their constant updating and reader comments, adds another two-ton pile of work. As a result, most newspaper blogs are self-edited — a phenomenon that offers writers more freedom but fewer safeguards.
Amy Ginensky, a Philadelphia media lawyer, urges editors to make sure that the person blogging on behalf of the paper has a working understanding of what is permissible and what is not. "They should understand the general contours of defamation," says Ginensky. "And there should be an editor or blog boss to go to when potential issues arise."
Daniel Rubin, a longtime staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, is the paper's only full-time blogger. His primary job is steadily feeding observations about Philly and beyond to blogs.philly.com/blinq, which he launched in May 2005.
"Nobody edits what I write before it goes online, and I don't edit the comments," says Rubin, adding that he is deliberately cautious in his reporting and extremely mindful that the institutional weight of the Inquirer looms over everything he does. "It's fabulous. But you have to completely trust the person who is doing this."
Some newspapers try to edit at least some of their blogs. "We have staff-written blogs and freelance blogs, and the level of editing depends on the blog," says Joel Sappell, executive editor of L.A. Times Interactive and an assistant managing editor for the print edition. "If it's a staff writer, sometimes we'll allow them to post directly if we know what the item is going to be. If it's complex or controversial, we'll edit it. The expectations for online content have soared without the accompanying resources, and we're trying to give everything the right attention."
Other thorny issues debated at the Poynter session involve how to handle community-generated content, which raises ethical questions that are unique to an online environment. Besides the content created specifically for the newspaper's Web site, what are the rules when you hyperlink to blogs that are published elsewhere? Do those blogs have to follow the same ethical standards as the newspaper? Is the newspaper effectively endorsing another blog, or giving it tacit approval or legitimacy, simply by linking to it?
Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association, stresses that the allure of blogs is their willingness to venture where newspapers have hesitated to journey. While most mainstream media blogs steered clear, many other blogs published or linked to high-profile material like the gruesome video of Nick Berg's beheading in Iraq, the infamous Paris Hilton sex video and exit polling data that's widely leaked on Election Day. It's the stuff that people talk about — and there's a good chance that reporters who didn't get the exit data directly are racing to the Drudge Report to see it. Cox notes that the juicy content is readily available on blogs — and that content is what drives traffic.
"If you went to any newsroom Web site, you wouldn't see the actual Nick Berg video," says Cox. "And my question is: Why not? If you're going to stand on your island, you run the risk of having your business cut out from under you. You can retain your high ethical standards but not be in the business anymore. There's not a clear-cut option of doing it or not doing it. If you don't do it, you may not have an audience to have ethical standards for." Cox warns that blogs that simply mirror newspapers in content and tone are missing the point.
Steven A. Smith, editor of the Spokesman-Review, also doesn't believe in the tentative approach, warning that newspapers "can be cautious to our complete demise."
His paper has several staff-written blogs that focus on life in eastern Washington and northern Idaho, including blogs that cover the state legislatures in Olympia, Washington, and Boise, Idaho; prep sports; and the joys of flea markets and secondhand stores. The most popular staff-written blog is Huckleberries Online, written by columnist Dave Oliveria which includes breaking news such as "fishing on Lake Coeur d'Alene was banned today by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in an effort to boost salmon population."
But the paper also links to myriad blogs written by local residents, including the owner of a bed-and-breakfast and an English and Spanish teacher who blogs about northern Idaho's Priest Lake in As the Lake Churns. The paper is careful not to link to blogs that promote hate speech and has passed on linking to blogs written by members of the Aryan Nation and similar organizations.
But it does link to a blog by a young woman named Gemini Wench, and a few years ago, when Gemini was a teenager, she regularly blogged about sex and drugs. That raised some red flags, but the newspaper ultimately decided, hey — this is what blogging is all about. (Recently, Gemini's been blogging about bleaching her hair at geminiwench.livejournal.com.)
"In the end, we decided that it wasn't up to us to be her parents," says Smith, who has teenagers himself. "Her blog speaks to what's happening in the Secret Life of Teenagers."
The Spokesman-Review is updating its newsroom code of ethics and soon will introduce guidelines for staffers who blog. The trickiest topic is how the newsroom should handle staffers who have personal blogs, which could embarrass the newspaper or express opinions about local officials or news developments that present a conflict of interest for reporters. Another big challenge is time management. Smith says his reporters who blog find the instant feedback addictive — so much so that it's tough to find the right balance between blogging and filling the print edition of the paper.
Still, Smith feels that blogging is a medium that newspapers should embrace, not fear. And while ethics discussions are healthy, the industry may be taking it all far too seriously.
"It's easy to overthink all of this stuff," says Smith. "But we can't get off the train and wait for lawyers and ethics to catch up. We'll make mistakes, and we might get sued, but this world is no more perilous than print."