Cleveland’s burning river of bloggers

Ted Diadiun is called the “reader representative” at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In his latest exchange with bloggers and the public, that’s a misnomer. He is the paper’s representative, explaining the paper’s way of doing things and trying to impose that system on any who come in contact with the paper. He makes no apparent attempt to understand the bloggers’ worldview. And that’s tragic because if anyone should be trying to grasp and champion new ways to look at journalism from the readers’ eyes, you’d think it would be the reader representative. Not Diadiun. This is why newspapers are having trouble adapting to new realities. They won’t ackowledge other realities.

See the background in this story from my perspective here and here and see also Diadiun’s comments. The long and the short of it: The paper hired four bloggers, two right and two left, to blog together. One liberal blogger contributed to a campaign and was told not to write about his opponent; he refused and left; the other liberal blogger left in protest; the paper stopped the blog. Bloggers accuse the paper of being pressured by a politician. The paper accused the bloggers of being unethical for making contributions.

The problem, in my view, is that Diadiun isn’t listening and learning. That, you’d think, would be the fundamental qualification for his job. Indeed, that is what journalism most needs today — new perspectives, new understanding of the public, a new relationship with that public, and new ways of serving it. But instead, Diadiun just defends the paper against an accusation of buckling to political pressure and lashes out at the bloggers as aliens to the newspaper ways.

I made some of these points before but wanted to examine the Diadiun attitude in more depth because it is so revelatory of the cultural change newspapers are having problems making. Pardon the length, but here are my reactions to Diadiun’s column:

The conflicted relationship between professional and citizen journalists — newspapers and blogs — is at various times a romance and a fistfight.

More and more, newspapers are putting their news and information online and using the Web to expand their reach. While hardly anyone doubts that print will one day give way to the Internet as a news source, how and when we eventually get there is unknown. But we do know that nothing proceeds smoothly along its evolutionary path without an occasional mudslide.

This is a story about how The Plain Dealer got itself spattered by some primordial ooze last week.

Note the victimhood there: The Plain Dealer got splattered. It got splattered by bloggers, denizens of the primordial ooze. Note how self-centered this is: It’s about the newspaper.

Diadiun explains the origins of the blog, saying that “it all began, as many vexations do, with the best of intentions.” This wasn’t a pleasant or a learning experience. It was a vexation. Dealing with the public in a new ways is a vexation. Diadiun continues:

Their mission was to opine daily about the political scene, play off each other and generate response from fellow online politics junkies. They got free rein on what they could write.

Wide Open debuted in September, and [assistant managing editor for online news Jean] Dubail sat back to watch the fun.

For his trouble, he wound up being called a “moron” in his own brainchild the second day out, when one of his bloggers linked to an unflattering story about the paper that had been in one of the city’s alternative weeklies. But in general, the blog did what he wanted it to do. Ultimately, Wide Open would attract 600 to 800 visitors a day.

More victimhood. The blogger dared to link out to the alternative paper, which dared to dislike the P-D. Newspapers are accustomed to controlling the press and thus the conversation. They don’t suffer criticism easily. You’d think an ombudsman would have grown a thick skin to this kind of talk. Apparently not.

Now Diadiun tells the story of the contribution:

Then, on Oct. 16, reporter Sabrina Eaton wrote a story about how much money Ohio’s congressional candidates had raised, and she named some of the more interesting contributors.

Among the names was one of the Wide Open bloggers — Jeff Coryell of Cleveland Heights (known in the blogosphere as “Yellow Dog Sammy”). Coryell, one of the two liberals, had contributed $100 to the campaign of Bill O’Neill, the Democratic opponent of U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette, a Republican.

At first, Coryell didn’t understand why this would be news. Eaton explained that because he was a paid contributor to a Plain Dealer-sponsored blog, failure to include his name in the story would be deceptive. Then he became suspicious: How had she learned about the contribution?

As it happens, she had found out from LaTourette.

After she got the list of contributors but before she had looked it over, she had interviewed the congressman for another story. He had seen Coryell’s name on the list and asked about the ethics of such a donation.

It was a fair question. Any reporter knows that giving to a political campaign is prima facie conflict of interest. LaTourette or no LaTourette, Eaton would have used Coryell’s contribution in the story: She knew his name and his connection to The Plain Dealer’s blog, and it was obvious that fairness demanded she tell readers about it.

Here the paper is imposing its worldview and way of working on the public: Coryell gave a contribution and — note the fancy language — that is “prima facie conflict of interest.” Who’s interest? What conflict? The paper hired a liberal blogger. The blogger is involved in the community. How is that a conflict? Ah, it’s a conflict in Diadiun’s formulation because the paper paid him (they never say how much). It’s a conflict inLaTourette’s formulation because Coryell gave to the other guy. But is it a conflict in a citizen’s view? In a blogger’s? I’d say that’s a question that’s worth exploring. But Diadiun doesn’t explore it one inch. He brings his worldview and insists it must be Coryell’s. He’s not representing the reader. He’s representing the paper. More:

LaTourette was unhappy that the newspaper would pay someone who financially supported his opponent to write political opinion. He complained to editorial page director Brent Larkin, who referred him to Editor Susan Goldberg, whom he had never met. LaTourette set up an appointment, then thought better of it and canceled.

Goldberg was also unhappy, but not because LaTourette was unhappy.

“The issue here isn’t blogging, or political pressure,” she said. “The issue is our financial tie to these four bloggers. To allow someone we pay to use our site to, potentially, lobby for a candidate they financially support would put us in a place we can’t go. Had we known that he had contributed to the opponent of a person he might write about, we wouldn’t have put him on the blog in the first place.”

The editor exhibits no more curiosity than the ombudsman. That is equally troubling.

Let’s say that no money changed hands in either direction. Let’s say they had Coryell join a blog for free and he pushed LaTourette’s opponent without having contributed. What’s the difference?

The editor says that had they known he’d dared to exercise his right — and, some would say, his responsibility — to support the political process as a member of his community, they wouldn’t have put him on their blog. Well, did they ask him? Did they discuss their ruleset with him? Or did they just assume that anyone who publishes in any form follows the same rules they made for themselves? It’s as if they can’t imagine a parallel universe where people publish differently. Newspapers define publishing. That’s what this exchange says.

After some deliberation, Dubail told Coryell he would have to agree to refrain from writing about LaTourette if he wanted to continue with the blog. Coryell declined, and they parted ways. The other liberal blogger quit in sympathy, and with two of his gang of four gone, Dubail reluctantly folded the experiment Friday.

The fallout from all this draws a bright line between the way newspaper reporters and bloggers ply their crafts.

In Diadiun’s head, there’s a bright line. But I’ll just bet that if you ask bloggers or readers, the line wouldn’t be nearly so bright. Shouldn’t the newspaper try to understand new ways to do things? When they invited bloggers in, they wanted bloggers’ voice and coolness. But they didn’t want to learn bloggers’ ways.

If they’d asked, they might have heard bloggers suggesting that newspaper people should operate more like them. Perhaps newspaper reporters should declare themselves liberal or conservative as these bloggers did. That itself would be a sin under American newspaper rules. But that transparency would be welcome. Not revealing your opinions and acting as if you don’t have them is a lie of omission. And making contributions and revealing them? Well, I hear journalists complain that bloggers shouldn’t be called citizen journalists because journalists are citizens, too. But do journalists act like citizens? Are they involved in their communities? Do they support the political process? Their employers take money from politicians buying ads but they think that to give money makes a journalist unethical. Can’t that be discussed? Apparently not, not here.

But the real reason the Diadiun got his back up defending the paper, representing it, is because Coryell et al were accusing the paper of crumbling to political pressure:

Coryell concluded that he was “fired” because of political pressure from LaTourette. Both Eaton and Dubail explained to him that the ethical concerns of the situation had nothing to do with LaTourette’s objections, but he was unpersuaded.

So Coryell is unethical for his relationship to a candidate but they are not unethical for their relationshiop to a candidate. They can’t see it any other way. And worse, Coryell dared publish what happened:

And he spread that view throughout the blogosphere. On his own blog, on local blogs and on the big national forums such as the Daily Kos and the Huffington Post, you can find posts from Coryell that The Plain Dealer bowed to political pressure. Others picked up the cry, spreading his interpretation as if it were the truth and adding their own spin that still others picked up and embellished.

But that’s the way things work in the blog world: “Yellow Dog Sammy” rejects the ingrained ethics of the newspaper world, preferring to read editors’ minds and create his own reality.

What a slimy slap that is. Diadiun doesn’t give Coryell the respect to use his name but puts his handle in quotes to degrade him and then says he rejects the ingrained ethics of the newspaper world. Diadiun calls him unethical. Diadiun presumes that Coryell should know what the newspaper thinks are universal ethics. He dismisses Coryell’s account as creating “his own reality.” He as good as calls him a liar. And he keeps going:

Other bloggers pick that up and repeat it as gospel, and suddenly we begin getting questions from all over the country about why we’re letting Steve LaTourette run the newspaper.

Here’s the reality:

You can’t contribute to a political candidate and then write about his or her campaign, either as an employee or as a paid free-lancer for The Plain Dealer, on paper or online. Period.

Steve LaTourette has got nothing to do with that, now or ever.

Now this got more interesting in the comments on my post. Coryell asked the very good question in response to Diadiun’s last pronouncement: Do they ask op-ed contributors and syndicated columnists about their contributions?

Diadiun finally acknowledged that the newspaper rules were more unspoken than spoken. He commented:

That separation is so well established in the newspaper world that it usually goes without saying. But with this arrangement, those ground rules should have been discussed up front. Quite simply, it occurred to no one — not the editors and I will take on faith not the bloggers — that it would be a problem.

That is, they assume that no one contributes to campaigns and if they do they forever cut off their right to speak about those campaigns. That’s absurd on its face, but not to Diadiun. He continues:

Everyone feels bad about this. I think that reasonable people can disagree, as you and I do, about whether the newspaper should have established different ethical guidelines for the Web site that would have acknowledged the bloggers “involvement and transparency,” as you put it.

That is a discussion worth having. I think it’s too bad that the discussion degenerated instead into conspiracy theories about political pressure and why The Plain Dealer “really” took the steps it did.

So the paper is above reproach and above questioning, even via the reader representative, who called the bloggers unethical rather than trying to discuss this from their perspective. I called that crap and Diadiun then played victim again: “Et tu, eh?” Spare me, I said.

Coryell called Diadiun’s column “grossly insulting and deliberately intended to smear me.”

So much for the conversation. So much for the P-D’s attempt to get bloggy and cool.

(Repeated full disclosure: I used to work with the Plain Dealer at Advance Internet, where I oversaw its affiliate website, Cleveland.com.)

  • http://www.writeslikeshetalks.com Jill

    Wow, Jeff – really – thanks.

    The only other piece of information that really goes to how picked off we were, is that I made donations also – I gave money to US Senator (then candidate) Sherrod Brown and to Ohio AG (then candidate) Marc Dann.

    So, if the PD is claiming some high ground once they discovered Jeff’s donation, they lost it when they selectively went only to him with the ultimatum that he stop writing about the race and candidates, or he couldn’t do the gig anymore.

    Because they didn’t come to me and say the same. And they didn’t go to the other two, and tell them what was going on. They only went to Jeff, and not any of the other three. At all, to my knowledge.

    Susan Goldberg continues to suggest that if, after they went to Jeff, I’d come to them about my donations, they would have told me the same thing, or something similar (it’s not really very clear – sometimes she’s suggested that disclosure might have been okay).

    That’s just absurd. If they were the ones pushing this ironclad standard, then it’s reasonable to expect that once they “discovered” this info about Jeff, they’d want to research all of us and approach all of us.

    But they didn’t do it that way and their failure to treat us with the respect they now say we don’t have for their work is an additional cloud (after the just not getting the other realities in the world piece) over everything they’ve done. It’s the basis for the fact that the PD was pressured to act as it did by the congressman, Steve LaTourette, who gave the PD its “discovery” about Jeff.

    Again – thanks for taking the time to write so clearly about this.

    You’re prescient pretty often – where do we go from here? All of us?

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  • http://www.graphicsplus.info Greg0658

    Just read the below story and it relates indirectly to this thread. Not wish’g to hijack the thread, so on returning, continue explaining how bloggers have to hold the line in this horse and buggy to automobile evolve’g www world.

    TV Tech Page 41 of this online magazine platform is a story on Net Neutrality politics and big business. Its a call to action. Sorry there is not a direct link.

    http://mag1.olivesoftware.com/ActiveMagazine/getBook.asp?Path=TVT/2007/11/07&BookCollection=TVT_AM&ReaderStyle=Normal&browserWindowWidth=1014&browserWindowHeight=718

  • http://www.graphicsplus.info Greg0658

    http://mag1.olivesoftware.com/ActiveMagazine/getBook.asp?Path=TVT/2007/11/07&BookCollection=TVT_AM&ReaderStyle=
    Normal&browserWindowWidth=1014&browserWindowHeight=718

    I should have tinyurl’d it
    and did

    http://tinyurl.com/2afc4e

  • Anne

    I’d like to know whether the PD publishes op-ed pieces from outside contributors (in the paper or on the Web site), and whether it pays them, and whether they are also proscribed from donating to candidates. Or even if it runs syndicated national opinion columnists (paying for the syndicate) without researching whether they make political donations. If so, then it seems to me the blogger got discriminatory treatment.

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  • Eric Gauvin

    What a mess. Sounds like they should have had a clearer working arrangement up front unless you really think blogging = renegade journalists with no rules. This was a loss for citizen journalism (lots of complaining in the blogosphere won’t help at this point).

    I think bloggers are becoming perceived as the “reality TV” of the internet, with the audience watching and hoping unauthorized, uncensored information might leak through the filters. However, like “reality TV.” eventually everyone will be in on the game.

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

    The fact that the Plain Dealer site requires a zip code to get to the second page of an article shows what a limited understanding they have about ease of use and usability, let alone blogging.

    Thee have been enough cases of bloggers failing to disclose business interests in the past that you’d think everyone would just make an explicit rule of disclosing anything that may directly contribute to your article.

    If you’re blogging about politics, and you disclose a $100 contribution, then you credit readers with the intelligence to be able to decide what they might believe or give weighting to…

  • rpuck

    I do not know how the PD stays in business….people may not have gotten there yet but the days of killing trees to throw ads in my front yard are ending.

    All opionions have a agenga…period.

  • http://www.writeslikeshetalks.com Jill

    Not sure why the comment didn’t stick but just to answer these questions:

    “I’d like to know whether the PD publishes op-ed pieces from outside contributors (in the paper or on the Web site), and whether it pays them, and whether they are also proscribed from donating to candidates.”

    I wrote and had published four op-eds I believe over the years (through 2005) with the PD and was never asked about donations and was paid. I do not know the policy, per se, however, just my experience. The PD has not, to my knowledge, publicized its oped conflicts/bias/ethics policies.

    “Or even if it runs syndicated national opinion columnists (paying for the syndicate) without researching whether they make political donations. If so, then it seems to me the blogger got discriminatory treatment.”

    I don’t know if they research the political donation history of the syndicated writers, or explore the syndicate’s policies for those writers that they syndicate.

    Interesting questions though.

  • http://www.recoveringjournalist.com Mark

    What a fiasco! Great work, Jeff-you’ve got it 100% right. Until newspapers accept that they don’t control the agenda anymore and learn to respect their readers–you know, the customers–their well-documented decline will continue and accelerate. The Cleveland situation mirrors so many other newspaper problems in dealing with the new media world order–including fear of what readers will say in comments, half-assed reporter blogs that aren’t really blogs, failure to tap into user-generated content that would greatly enhance the professional content. Newspaper editors (and “reader representatives,” apparently() need to get their heads out of the sand and get with the 21st century. The alternative is far, far, far worse than what they think they fear about the new forms of media they’re trying so hard to control or avoid.

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  • Ydobon

    Newspapers would rather die on their knees than live on their feet.

  • chico haas

    Jeff: you include full disclosures on this blog all the time. You must find it fair and appropriate policy.

  • Fnarr

    Spellcheck?

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  • http://onlinejournalismblog.com Paul Bradshaw

    Great analysis. Particularly like the line about citizen journalism and citizenship – although I’m hoping that debate doesn’t rear its ugly head again…

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