Within the past few weeks two of America’s leading newspapers have watched staff-written blogs blow up in their faces. First, Ben Domenech left Washingtonpost.com after outside bloggers uncovered numerous examples of plagiarism in his past work. And last week, the Los Angeles Times suspended the blog of Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Hiltzik (interviewed by OJR just before the scandal broke) after he was discovered to have posted comments under false identities on his and other blogs.
Can newspapers do blogs right? I e-mailed that question to several prominent online journalists. All have experience with “traditional” media and either blog or oversee bloggers in their work. Their edited responses follow:
I’m not sure we know yet what “right” is when it comes to blogs. We’re in an R&D phase here, for lack of a better term, when it comes to incorporating blogs into our “traditional” Web content. There are going to be missteps. We know that blogs are a powerful software tool for self-service, instant publishing with a built-in tagging capability that plugs us into the conversation online. We also know that blogs are fostering a new kind of editorial voice in our writing: intimate, off-the-cuff and breezy.
Now, how that powerful new force on the Internet intersects with our mission to provide accurate and credible information to our audience is what we’re figuring out. We don’t have to do what bloggers v.1.0 are doing now to incorporate blogs effectively into what we do, and I think we shouldn’t try.
What makes us journalists is our ability to gather facts, synthesize, and write about the world around us — and those are not necessarily the requirements of blogging. As long as we couple our essential skills as journalists with this new medium, I think we CAN shape blogs into a valuable new asset for newspapers.
Look, the analogy is this: When software became widely available to easily manipulate photos into photo illustrations, the public-at-large found a myriad of uses for it. And news organizations suffered some notable missteps as they began using it too. Now, however, we’ve learned how to incorporate this power into our journalism without giving up the essential things that make what we do journalism.
BoingBoing.net and National Public Radio
Newspapers will get it right when the people responsible for designing and launching blogs for them take the time to understand the culture, the process, the dynamics and the sociology of blogs. It’s important that newspapers not launch blogs for the sake of launching blogs. There had to be a purpose to other than to have the ability to tell the world that you have a blog.
What’s the point of interacting with your audience? Is the point just to leave snippy comments on the blogs of your critics? Or is the point of interacting to provide bits and pieces and nuances of information that traditional newspaper reporting doesn’t lend itself to?
I feel like way too often it is done as a gimmicky thing. Not to name names, but some companies launch blogs because there’s someone at the company who monitors search engine traffic, and one day that person recognizes, “Hey there are a lot of people searching about babies — I think we need to have a baby blog.”
Just because the traffic shows a lot of traffic, and potential for advertising revenue, they lanuch a blog and hire some inexperienced copy writter to fill it with stuff. It’s just an excuse to have something to sell ads against. I don’t think the Los Angeles Times created its blogs as an excuse to sell banner ads against, but too often in situations like this there’s disjointed thinking. There’s this idea that you stick a blog up there, you stick unmoderated comments up there, you don’t give your reporters who are totally unfamiliar with this medium any guidance, and you’re going to expect it to turn out well?
I think the fact that people make such an unnatural distinction between blogging and writing for a newspaper is part of the problem. Behave in your blog as you would in the paper.
Of course they can. Blog, wiki and audio technologies are just like the printing presses used to publish newspapers — tools that a broad spectrum of thinkers are using to get their word out. Period. Just like in traditional newspapering, some of these blogs, wikis and podcasts are superior, others are bird-cage liner.
Newspaper blogs that work are carefully planned, openly executed exercises in public conversation about news and information. These blogs allow comments and turn into 24/7 townhall meetings about everything from the headlines to how well the paper is doing to deliver and discuss the news. Newspapers that blog well embrace the community and use the blogs as an extension of their op-ed pages. There are dozens of examples, from MSNBC’s oft-ignored Bloggermann (one of the national media’s best blogs) to brave local daily sites taking important baby steps such as Madison.com and FresnoBee.com.
Newspaper blogs that don’t work tend to dismss blogs as, in Alex S. Jones’ famous words, the sizzle rather than the steak — as useless chatter rather than as an extension of the newspaper’s journalism that deserves the same care, feeding and standards of accuracy and ethical behavior. How can newspapers expect to survive if they keep mooning their readers like this? Answer: They won’t.
The problems of failing standards of accuracy and ethical behavior among the nation’s leading newspapers are not limited to blogs. As someone who grew up on newspapers and will never give them up, the past five years have been agonizing to behold, from Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg, to Ben Domenech and Michael Hiltzik. America’s newspapers have the opportunity to leverage blogs as credibility-building exercises — but the first thing we need to do is to stop architecting our own demise. To avoid meltdowns like this, newspapers need to do exactly what exceptional blogs do: For God’s sake, assume the position of the reader and behave accordingly. Readers want to know what they’re getting, who they’re getting it from and how, so that they can trust their sources — that’s you. Here are two easy steps:
Step 1: No more rookie maneuvers. Call in a blog expert with a journalism background and have this outside person walk you through community scenarios to test what your newsroom (and management) can tolerate and what you cannot. If nudie pictures on your wiki are a no-no, you have a choice to make: (a) Don’t publish the wiki, and/or (b) Don’t publish the wiki without human and/or technical filters. But you have to have someone advising you who knows how wikis behave. Or, say, if you don’t want a blogger to violate fair use acts on this blog or in previous blogs, (a) Check out their personal records, and (b) Say so and sign them to agreement that says so.
Step 2: Repeat Step 1 in an open conversation with your readers and ask them to behave according to these guidelines too. Publish your community guidelines and ask readers what they want and why. Edit your guidelines accordingly.
Step 3: Integrate blogs into the newsroom’s efforts. Starting slow is fine — but the best blogs are a team effort. In a newsroom unused to community conversation, to groaning when readers write and call-in, is to make it part of the journo’s job description — and their editor’s too. That means a conversation with the community via blogging (including Steps 1 and 2) needs to be embraced by the people at the top of the newsroom hierarchy.
I think it’s going to be difficult for newspapers to do blogs right because their DNA continues to be trapped in the “we talk, you listen” mode. Fundamentally, staff-written blogs are nothing different than what newspapers do now — simply spilling more of the same voices onto the public streets.
Sure, staff-written blogs have a fragile patina of interactively because some accept comments. Scuffing off that patina doesn’t take much.
1) Under the best case, newspaper blog comments are enfeebled interactivity. Only fractional percentages of readers comment on staff-written blogs. Maybe the public has simply given up on the idea of newspapers listening or caring. Consider the case of the Guardian’s staff blogs. The Guardian is one of the best online newspapers in the world and its commitment to the staff blog borders on the fanatical. They throw substantial resources at it. And yet, if you look closely at the number of comments per post (realize in many cases comments are more than a week old) and then you consider the total traffic on the site, you must conclude that the supposed interactivity of the Guardian’s blogs has failed utterly. I mean we’re talking less that 1/10 of one percent of all readers who are moved to comment! (FYI, I did a quick study of this last fall because the Guardian folks had a hissy over my post attacking the concept of staff blogs.)
2) Even if you get a few comments, the moment they turn hostile to the newspaper, suddenly the commitment to interactivity wavers. It’s happened a number of times. And indeed, the Hiltzik incident specifically highlights this. Today’s newspapers are sufficiently thin-skinned that the idea that people might use comments to attack the writers doesn’t go down well. So you either stop comments, or you remove the accounts of critics, or — as in the case of Hiltzik — you create deceptive online personas to respond to the attacks. It’s the “we talk, you listen” attitude taken to the extreme: Even if the public talks back, the media requires the last word! It’s a fatal appetite on the part of the modern newspaper. Some sociologists have pointed out that modern America can exert power on the global stage, but it no longer exerts authority (for authority comes from the nexus of wisdom, restraint, morality and cleaving to higher purposes). Newspapers are in a similar boat — they’re still powerful institutions but their authority is in shambles. OK, let’s get this straight: So we let the public speak and when a tiny number do we come rushing in with fake personas to defend the paper against attacks. We never let anyone else get the last word. That’s wrong and it’s stupid and it’s going to kill papers. Instead of stifling criticism, newspapers should embrace it and learn from it and grow wise.
(Incidentally, The fact that the LA Times perceives the Hiltzik’s actions as a violation of ethics is a *very* good thing. One of the dirty little secrets of newspaper blogs is that many, many of the comments come from unidentified staff members. I applaud the LAT for this move. It’s high time to stop this deplorable practice.)
So if newspapers blogs are not *really* about interacting with the community — and I challenge anyone to demonstrate they’ve been successful at that goal — what makes them different? They just offer the same voices you read all the time.
This is *exactly* what my beef with staff blogs is about and why I’ve been trying to get newspapers to change the approach. Jon Stewart put it nicely when he said mainstream media blogs “give voice to the already voiced.”
Look, it’s easy to get this right: don’t have staff members blog and instead bring in the legitimate outside voices. There are many ways that a mainstream media organization can do this — make a blog about *outside* blogs, point some of your traffic to outside voices (even those who, gasp, criticize you!), invite some of the best outside bloggers in your community to post right on your pages. Give selected bloggers early access to your stories — particularly enterprise stories — so that they can have same-day reactions. (Make sure these are bloggers you can trust not to jump the publication, obviously.) In other words, genuinely and sincerely embrace *outside* voices. Allow the community to have a stake in what you are doing once more.
As stand it stands right now, newspapers keep shouting louder in a room that, increasingly, is emptying around us. Maybe, before the last reader departs we can convince people to stay by letting them know we want to talk *with* our community, not *at* them.
This is a pretty big set of issues that really, I think, go to the heart of what’s wrong with newsroom culture these days. Suffice it to say that the contempt that a lot of folks on the floor feel for people working online really has to stop. The problem is that guys like Ben Domenech and Michael Hiltzik aren’t exactly helping to make that argument. I’m not entirely sure that’s anyone’s “fault” as much as it is the result of having the news business open up to its audience at a time when newsrooms are in crisis and readers are better informed than they’ve ever been — thanks to the Internet.
The idea that the Post of the L.A. Times have somehow screwed up royally by hiring folks who cut corners isn’t the end of the world as we know it. It’s a series of mistakes. It’s done. We’ve learned a few things — among them, there should be an intermediate step between running your own website and writing for a big newspaper.
Newsroom editors and writers need to spend a lot more time reading and watching the talent that’s out here on the Web. Lots of folks sitting in newsrooms are going to have to get over the fact that people outside the building really do know what they’re doing much of the time. Just as online folks are going to have to stop cutting corners and claiming that they represent a new form of “media” free of all basic rules and constraints that’s some how superior to what’s being done in the ink-and-paper format. The way you produce your story has nothing to do with what the story says to the reader.
Fundamentally, the rules of the reporting game — be fair, be honest, represent the reader as you do your job, limit the harm you do as you do it, and always be aware that there’s someone on the other side of the story — are not going to change. Part of what’s going on with Domenech and Hiltzik is that those lessons are being meted out in a very public fashion. This, by the way, is how those things used to get taught by foul-mouthed city editors who thought nothing of yelling at new reporters. I knew a few of those guys … didn’t you?
Reporters, trained to put aside opinion, make uninteresting bloggers. And it’s notoriously hard to manage, in parallel, a daily news cycle and regular updates for breaking news.