Off with their headlines

The Cleveland Plain Dealer didn’t know what it got when it hired four local political bloggers to collaborate on a group blog at Cleveland.com (which I oversaw when I was at the parent company). They got citizens with opinions. You’d think that would be obvious. In fact, you’d think that was the goal.

But apparently not, for when one liberal bloggers was found to have backed and contributed to a candidate, he was fired. Then the other liberal quit. Then the paper shut the blog. E&P has the story. Here’s the explanation from the paper’s assistant managing editor for online, Jean Dubail:

As most readers are no doubt aware already, Jeff Coryell is no longer blogging on Wide Open. The reason is simple: When we learned that he had contributed to a particular political candidate, we asked that he refrain from writing about that candidate and his opponent on this blog. Our concern was that since Jeff and the other Wide Open bloggers are paid, his views might be taken as those of the paper, which could raise legitimate questions about our fairness. Jeff was uncomfortable with that restriction, so we felt obligated to end our relationship. It goes without saying that Jeff did nothing wrong. His contributions to Wide Open were first-rate. But clearly I should have anticipated this potential difficulty when we set up the blog, and avoided putting him and us in this position. In that sense, the fault is mine.

Well, indeed. The logic of all this is baffling. The paper knew it was hiring opinionated people. But it didn’t want involved people. That is a “difficulty.”

What we’re really seeing is the view of journalism from inside the cloister of the newspaper: Once you take a dollar from the paper, once you take its communion, you are transformed: You take a vow of political celibacy. You have no opinions and if you do, you hold them to yourself, like impure thoughts. You don’t participate in your community but stand apart from it. And you don’t mingle with those outside the walls who speak the vulgate, blog. So the priests of the paper said that the bloggers were sinners. And they were excommunicated.

Perhaps, having heard Luther’s tap-tapping at the door, the paper would have been wiser to reexamine its own assumptions about its world. Perhaps it should have had a discussion about discussion. Wasn’t there value in bringing in the voices of active, opinionated, caring citizens? Wasn’t that why they did it? Wasn’t the transparency and involvement of these people worth examining and perhaps learning from?

Apparently not.

Here’s a telling line from Dubail’s pronouncement on the blogo closing the blog (pinned with Luther’s nail):

We still believe that newspaper and newspaper Web sites need to engage the new media. Our first effort in that direction obviously didn’t fare well, but it would have been a still greater mistake not to make the attempt.

They think this is “new media.” And they think that’s something they need to try. (I would have hoped they’d have come to that conclusion about 12 years ago.) Of course, it’s not just new media. This should be a new relationship. It should be about discovering and joining in a conversation. I saw another sign of this at the BBC the other day when staffers kept fretting about filling a blog, as if it were a show rundown or a blank page. I told them to stop looking it that way and instead to take the advice I’m giving my students: Find the conversation. Join in. Contribute to it — indeed, contribute journalism, answering questions, finding facts, fact-checking the ones that are there. But to do that — beware — you have to talk at a human level with other humans with opinions (who don’t want to talk to a closed door).

So perhaps what the paper should be doing is not trying to impose its definition of “journalist” on any who receive its dollar but instead rethink that definition themselves.

: See also this post from a year ago contemplating this from the other perspective: what’s the line (if any) between activism and media?

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  • http://www.writeslikeshetalks.com Jill

    Thanks for writing about what happened, Jeff. As “the other liberal” who quit, I can tell you it’s been an excrutiating experience. What you write is an example of what it sounds like when people from more traditional journalism backgrounds “get it.” The way Susan Goldberg talks about it is an example of the polar opposite.

  • http://www.graphicsplus.info Greg0658

    Another example of “money is the root of all evil”
    or the battle to stockpile it for ones self preservance.

  • http://ohiodailyblog.com Jeff Coryell

    As the one who got fired, I want to thank you for your thoughtful contribution to the conversation, Jeff. I agree with Jill, you are among the few from deep inside the citadel who grasp what’s going in the big, rapidly rising structure outside the walls. The editor who conceived of Wide Open, Jean Dubail, is another, and I wish that he had had total autonomy over the project, we might well have worked it all out.

  • http://www.workingwithwords.blogspot.com John Ettorre

    It’s pretty unfortunate that even some professional journalists have lazily repeated the line that Jeff got “fired” (E&P, to its credit, did not use that word, instead calling it a resignation, which is what it was). While it’s perhaps understandable that Mr. Coryell interprets it that way, I’ve heard or read no factual proof to support that. He was presented with a condition that he didn’t accept–that he not write about a particular officeholder–which you or I or anyone might argue is an unacceptable condition for a writer. And for perfectly good reasons he chose not to accept that condition, and thus declined to continue to write for that outlet. I’m afraid that falls a bit short of being fired. Jeff C., as a former prosecutor, and Jill as a trained lawyer, I would expect you both to pay exquisite attention to obvious details such as this, and to stop using words so loosely. In fact, because you generally have paid such close attention to facts, I have thus paid far closer attention to your writing than to the run of the mill bloggers. Please don’t change now, however rightfully aggrieved you might both feel by the recent turn of events.

  • http://www.hooversbiz.com Tim Walker

    Good post, Jeff. Maybe this is another facet of the same issue that arose when the John Edwards campaign parted ways with the (secretely opinionated!) bloggers it had hired, because these bloggers (in their oh-so-super-secret online pasts) had used dirty words and expressed strong, even nasty-strong, opinions on certain political issues.

    Episodes like these reveal the gulf between normalcy in the blogosphere and normalcy in the heads of traditional media executives. Many of the execs just can’t seem to get their heads around the fact that the blogosphere doesn’t operate like a traditional 20th-century U.S. newsroom, while most of the blogosphere can’t even understand what’s so hard for the execs to understand.

    Of course, it’s the blogosphere that’s growing and the traditional 20th-century U.S. newsroom that’s shrinking. My money’s on the blogosphere.

  • chico haas

    I’ll see your Catholic metaphor and raise you a tennis one: a nsp blog can just as well fulfill your goal of community conversation by being an impartial tennis ball, tossed into the air and swatted back and forth by opposing sides.

  • http://www.writeslikeshetalks.com Jill

    From Merriam Webster, fire:

    2 a: to drive out or away by or as if by fire b: to dismiss from a position

    From Merriam Webster, resign:

    2: to give up deliberately; especially : to renounce (as a right or position) by a formal actintransitive verb1: to give up one’s office or position : quit2: to accept something as inevitable : submit

    They all work for me, John.

  • http://www.workingwithwords.blogspot.com John Ettorre

    Jill, I’m not getting your meaning. Are you saying there’s no difference between the two words? Firing meant it was at the behest of the paper, resigning meant it was at the behest of the writer. Those are not the same things.

  • http://www.writeslikeshetalks.com Jill

    I wrote what I meant, John – all those words and meanings work for me. I’m satisfied with Jeff knowing which word he wants to use to describe his experience. I’m also satisfied with my choice of words to describe my experience. There’s no loose use whatsoever. We experienced and we’ve used words that describe that experience. When you go through what we went through, you can use the words you like best.

  • http://www.workingwithwords.blogspot.com John Ettorre

    Good enough. Anyway, I suppose my real argument is with the two Jeffs, and others who have used the word “fired.” I’m not at all sure you have. At least I couldn’t find it in a quick scan just now.

  • http://www.thewayoftheweb.blogspot.com/ Badger Gravling

    The simple answer is one that has been around since the first blogs.

    Disclosure.

    A line of text stating the link between a blogger and something they blog about is all that’s needed for clarity, honesty and transparency.

    I do think someone employed in a professional capacity in a capacity as a journalist should strive towards the impossibility of political neutrality in their reporting of news and events.

    But I also believe that columns and blogs are the perfect place for any informed individual, as long as they are transparent about their involvements.

    Personally I still believe there is a big difference between journalism and self-published work, mainly due to the time, training and resources more commonly available to the average journalist which is not available to the average blogger, leading to far more variety in authority, trust and writing quality in self-publishing.

    Both have value, both will attract audiences and revenue. The only question is how best to manage to evolution of both, without dismissing the value of either and throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  • http://www.workingwithwords.blogspot.com John Ettorre

    All extremely well said, and true enough. Disclosure is generally most of the answer. Here’s a good example of a good blogger’s disclosure statement, which he calls disclaimers (scroll near the bottom):
    http://www.mistersugar.com/about

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  • Andy Freeman

    What a rube – doesn’t he know that professionals do “in kind” contributions, not cash?

  • Anna Haynes

    I’m sorry, maybe I overlooked where this was spelled out but I’m still not clear on this- had Jeff disclosed on the blog that he’d contributed to the candidate?
    Or was he writing about the candidate without having disclosed his contribution? – which is what it sounds like, from the E&P story -
    “one of the two liberal bloggers was asked this week to withhold his comments on a specific congressional race after it was revealed he had contributed to one of the candidates ”

    IMO, to write without disclosing is poor judgment, and is not appropriate for a newspaper-sponsored blog.

  • Anna Haynes

    (…and would lead me to view the author’s future writings with a jaundiced eye)

  • Anna Haynes

    Sorry to hog your comments, Jeff J., but a related question – when do we readers start to get syndicated columnists’ disclosures?
    (I tried, once, but for some reason she stonewalled)

  • http://blog.thesnell.com Nathan Snell

    They made the usual, common mistake. They went through the motion of this “new media stuff” trying to ignore the fact that it’s a mindset, not a motion. It’s the adopting and understanding of an entirely different culture. A new set of views etc.

    Would that company fly to France and try to run the paper the same way there? Of course not. And if they did, it probably wouldn’t work and they’d claim the french are “snobby” (kind of the equivalent of being flamed online).

  • http://t3kbiz.com Mahesh Sharma

    Wow.. some pretty classic ‘holier than thou’ new media views there. The difference was these bloggers were writing for a masthead that has a reputation and responsibility to be fair and unbiased.

    While being opinionated and taking a standpoint may be expected amongst the tiny proportion of people that make up the blogosphere, im rest of us that make up the majority expect news to be unbiased and that they can rely on the word of the writers.

  • Andy Freeman

    > The difference was these bloggers were writing for a masthead that has a reputation and responsibility to be fair and unbiased.

    Want to bet that said reputation doesn’t extend outside the set of folks with a vested interest?

    As to the “responsibility”, talk is cheap.

  • http://www.writeslikeshetalks.com Jill

    Just answering questions, since I’m “the other blogger” who left.

    1. From Anna Haynes: “had Jeff disclosed on the blog that he’d contributed to the candidate?
    Or was he writing about the candidate without having disclosed his contribution? – which is what it sounds like, from the E&P story -
    “one of the two liberal bloggers was asked this week to withhold his comments on a specific congressional race after it was revealed he had contributed to one of the candidates ”

    Anna – Jeff never wrote about the candidate on the blog Wide Open. Period.

    2. Mahesh wrote, “While being opinionated and taking a standpoint may be expected amongst the tiny proportion of people that make up the blogosphere, im rest of us that make up the majority expect news to be unbiased and that they can rely on the word of the writers.”

    Mahesh – Jean Dubail sought out we four bloggers specifically because we were partisans and known partisans at that. Whether the PD/Cleveland.com did enough to make that clear to the readers or people who considered visiting the blog, I can’t say, but what was done was that Jean Dubail had an opening post that explained all that, and the teaser to the Wide Open blog that was placed on the PD’s main political blog, OPEN, included a sentence that, I think, intimated the partisan nature – but it’s gone now and I don’t recall precisely.

    However, there was NEVER any confusion, AT ALL, that we were going to be writing from certain perspectives much of the time. That was an explicit understanding between us and the person from the PD with whom we dealt.

  • Anna Haynes

    Thanks Jill for the clarification. If Jeff Coryell was intending to disclose while opining, then I agree, that should be perfectly OK – and the hidebound newspaper mgmt are the ones who are out of line.

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