Online journalists find it's not easy to get press passes.
By Sinéad OBrien
Sinéad O'Brien is a former AJR editorial assistant.
I T'S NOT EASY getting into the Pentagon, even if you've got a row of medals on your chest. So Military.com reporter Stephen Trimble shouldn't be so surprised at the hearty congratulations he's been getting for being the first online journalist granted a press pass there.
"We definitely had to jump through hoops," says Trimble, who applied for the pass before the military news site had launched on March 27. The Pentagon had had no policy in effect for granting press credentials specifically to dotcoms. Now, like the policy for traditional media, sites must prove they are legitimate gatherers of news that will consistently send a reporter to the military's headquarters.
Trimble is the first pure new-media representative at the Pentagon's traditionally tough-to-access press conferences.
But online media aren't breaking down doors everywhere. In fact, dotcoms that don't have a sister print or broadcast source or are fairly new to the game are getting doors shut in their faces.
This year's NCAA basketball tournament organizers flatly denied online journalists press passes. When San Francisco's new Pacific Bell Park opened in March, Internet journalists were passed over for the chance to attend the baseball park's grand opening. Even SF Gate, the Web site of the San Francisco Chronicle‹one of the park's main sponsors‹wasn't allowed to send a reporter.
Event organizers often claim the decision is based on limited space at events for the media. But Rich Jaroslovsky, managing editor of WSJ.com, the Wall Street Journal's online edition, and president of the Online News Association, challenges that. He wonders why only print and broadcast media are granted access, rather than a sampling of all media.
Whatever the motivation, "it's damaging to the First Amendment if they're restricting journalists' access to news events," he says.
Scott Rosenberg, managing editor of the online magazine Salon, says it's more a problem of readership. "The big issue is that event organizers tend to focus on the print publication's circulation," he says. "If it's high enough, you can get accreditation; but online, there's no universally accepted yardstick" for measuring audience.
And event organizers are being thrown by the sheer number of people asking for accreditation. Figuring out which sites are legitimate news sources in a sea of Web sites is indeed a problem, says Poynter Institute fellow Mike Wendland.
"Every Web newsletter and so-called news site is not necessarily a real form of news media," Wendland says, "and I sympathize with those who must accredit real journalists." He advocates tough scrutiny of requests for press passes unless the Web site is affiliated with a reputable news organization.
That's what the White House now does, employing a staffer who deals solely with online reporters, first checking out the Web site and determining if it's worthy of a spot among the White House press corps.
Even stateline.org, the public policy Web site of the Pew Center on the States, has run into problems. Managing Editor Gene Gibbons, who spent 12 years covering the White House for Reuters, heads a staff that doesn't have accreditation and must apply for press passes to each congressional event it covers.
Name recognition goes a long way in this arena, however. Jaroslovsky admits that WSJ.com reporters don't have problems getting access. Echoes Bernard Gwertzman, editor of the New York Times on the Web, "Our staff is so big, we have no problem getting accreditation."
Salon has managed to find footing and respect, even as a strictly dotcom medium, and its reporters fare well in the press credential department. They get access to presidential primary buses, Congress and the White House, Rosenberg says.
"We're lucky people know who we are," he says, "but we had to fight to get there." Salon has been around since 1995‹practically ancient in the Internet world‹and had 2.1 million unique visitors in March. Rosenberg remembers working hard in the beginning to get public relations people to take the site seriously. Even now Salon reporters occasionally have trouble getting into arts events and movie screenings.
But it didn't matter how well known a Web site was during the NCAA tournament. Rather than wade through a sea of requests from dotcoms, organizers decided that online journalists simply wouldn't get credentials. "The problem is anyone with a computer now thinks they're a journalist," says Jim Marchiony, media coordinator for the men's basketball tournament. "There has to be a litmus test."
But the NCAA doesn't have one. Organizers have had a sweeping ruling: no online credentials. Marchiony says there were indeed online journalists covering the tournament, but they slipped in because they worked for larger media. So, ESPN.com was allowed in because of its affiliation with the cable network and magazine. "We didn't credential anyone from someplace that's just a Web site, though," Marchiony says.
Access for online organizations may come with time. Felix Gutierrez, executive director of the Freedom Forum Pacific Coast Center, remembers a similar problem cropping up in the '50s--with television reporters.
"Basically the same battle was being fought at that point," he says. "Anytime a new media hits the street, people running credentials aren't ready for them."
Nonetheless, Jaroslovsky thinks the current situation is untenable. "The attitude is unsustainable and damaging to journalism in general," he says. "Eventually [the gatekeepers] must deal with online journalists, because it will be ridiculous if your head is in the sand."