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 (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?