Monday, November 19, 2007

Cleveland Plain Dealer, Journalism and Blogging - A Collision

I have to thank Pressthink for bringing the Cleveland Plain Dealer's experiment in melding traditional newspapering with blogging, Wide Open , and its demise to my attention. "Wide Open" was composed of four compensated freelance Ohio bloggers, two liberal and two conservative, recruited from the best of Ohio political blogs. The idea was to bring some of the "wide open" atmosphere of blogs to a traditional newspaper site, something important to newspapers facing declining readership. Such a proposal brought with it some pitfalls that seemed to miss everybody.

One of the liberal bloggers made a contribution to Rep Steve LaTourette's (R-OH 14) opponent and LaTourette didn't think much of the idea. The PD told the offending blogger to not write about either candidate - he resigned, the other half of the liberal team quit in solidarity and that was pretty much the end of it. The Plain Dealer's problem was that they, by virtue of the stipend, could be linked to the blogger and his contribution and that somehow involved them in, lobbying or something partisan. Jay Rosen at Pressthink wrote a detailed analysis, I'm going to be a bit shorter, after all he's the professional and has done the work already - and my opinion isn't quite in line with his, very close, but not quite.

Newspapers have problems dealing with the world of the internet, Jay has some really excellent work on this, and while they're scrambling to address them they are stuck with institutionalized thinking and policies. The "up-front" problem that hit the PD is what strikes me, many bloggers follow the etiquette of linking and disclosures and most aren't paid, or if they are it doesn't amount to much so they tend to be free of institutional pressures. Journalists get paychecks. Newspapers make much of their neutrality, bloggers tend to mix it up.

I getting around to a point...

There is an inherent honesty in blogging as it stands, we just tell you what we think and you're pretty darn sure we have an agenda and if we're disclosing it - you know. Newspapers make great claims to objectivity, you'd darn near expect that if someone asserted that 2+2=4 they'd find someone to make a counter argument, and it is nonsense. The Washington Post and the Washington Times exist in the same city - if not the same reality - and there wouldn't be two papers if objectivity existed. Yes, some are a bit more than others but it only boils down to a degree of bias rather than its existence.

Newspapers have one obvious agenda, their profit, and possibly a corporate owner's profit, which is rather powerful as incentives go. But it goes much deeper than that, the writers have to have researched their articles and that process involves thinking about it and making decisions which inevitably leaves the writer with an opinion on the merits. I have pointedly not posted in detail on the Merkley and Novick campaigns for the Democratic senatorial primary because I don't wish to make a public decision at this point and doing that work would influence me into it. I want to sit back and watch for awhile. I want to be free to just think about it for awhile. A newspaper doesn't have that luxury, they have to report, and take a shot at being even-handed, but it will fail. There is some journalistic blogging out there but you will detect the slant the writer takes, because that is just how it is going to be.

Now something about political bloggers needs to be mentioned, they do this stuff for free - or very nearly - and they do it because they care. Expecting someone who cares enough to spend this kind of time on something and not be politically active doesn't indicate two live brain cells in communication with each other, and telling them they can't write about something they care enough to be active in is a recipe for...well...a resignation or two and the death of what could have been a pretty darn smart move. And over a pretence, because that is exactly all that the public protestations of newspapers are.

If Fox News opened every broadcast with, "Rupert owes his US media empire to the Bush family and we're Republican shills - so here's our version of the news," instead of "Fair and Balanced" nobody would throw rocks at them and call them FauxNews. Keith Olberman gets away with being the way he is because he makes no pretence about it and even as NBC gets whacked by BillO for trending leftward, they won't publicly own up to trying to get back off the right toward the theoretical middle while a safe bet would be that most of their writers would be more comfortable well left of today's middle. The point is that disclosure defuses arguments of bias and lets even handedness be honestly attempted.

So, yes Plain Dealer, you should have had a disclosure policy for the bloggers, but the failures and shortcoming in this issue are yours and the supposed neutrality you require and let the public think exists and whiners like LaTourette to complain about.


Jill said...

Wow, Chuck, thanks. This is an excellent post on the Wide Open project. (I'm "the other blogger" but I didn't quit so much in solidarity as because I also made donations, in 2006, to Marc Dann - the AG, and Sherrod Brown, the US Senator) and felt the ultimatum was unreasonable, not to mention how we were approached (which was, not at all - Jeff was singled out).

Thanks again.

Steve Culley said...

My concern is the death of investagtive reporting. Small town newspapers and most bloggers comment on something that makes it into the "news" which often consists of air head celebrities, athletes or the disappearance of a blue eyed blonde gitl. It takes a big organization to afford the bloodhounds needed to sniff out crime, crud and corruption.
An example I would site is Christain Ananpour's "Beneath the Veil". The Taliban got away with horrendous things for years until a light was shined into their den. Richard Nixon's Watergate wouldn't have been exposed without a strong press. Today bloggers would have a feild day but without good investigation Nixon would have finished his term.

Chuck Butcher said...

I read "Wide Open" before I wrote this piece and probably could have made clear that the four bloggers, Jill Miller Zimon, Tom Blumer, Jeff Coryell and Dave did good writing and that this was a real loss for the PD. I left names out mostly for flow and to make the story more generic - on reflection a mistake.

Chuck Butcher said...

Steve's point is exactly correct, bloggers do not have the resources to do the work papers do. I can't do much about paper's subscriptions, but I regularly encourage folks to follow the links to increase hit numbers for reporter's stories and papers' site totals.

Too bad for the Plain Dealer

Jill said...

Thanks for the thought, Chuck. Names or not, we can tell you thought about what you wrote before you wrote it - can't ask for much more than that (and we know there are examples of people writing without thinking all over the place!).

It's true - bloggers can't do all the work papers do. But as I'm sure you know, there are some great ones doing that hyperlocal thing and it is a real treasure for those communities. If you haven't see Word of Mouth blog ( which is based on Lorain, OH, then you might want to visit it - they do a fantastic job of primary source reporting and community building.

KISS said...

Three great blogger-journalists of this day are: David Sirota, Gregg Palast, and Andriana Huffington. I could mention more such as Rick Perstein.

Jeff said...

Chuck -

Thanks for this post, one of the very best I've read about What Happened at Wide Open.

You're absolutely right about my motivation, and that of all the political bloggers I personally know -- it's not about earning money, although the small amount we were getting was nice, it is because we care about the causes for which we advocate and the candidates we support. To me, that makes my willingness to donate some money to those causes and candidates (not very much, but whatever it amounts to) a credential rather than an impediment or a conflict.

Thanks again for your thoughtful post.