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Weblogs Are Pushing the Newsroom Envelope on Writers' Spontaneity

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The blogosphere gets fired up when Daniel Weintraub's California Insider gets pre-edited after a controversial posting. Should news sites edit their blogs? Here are tips for determining the best practices for online newspaper blogs.

Newspapers represent all that is old and moldy about journalism: printed on dead trees, distributed by underpaid teens, and read by an aging audience. Weblogs represent all that is edgy and hip about journalism: written in a personal voice, encompassing divergent modes of thought, and distributed on a global platform. But is the commingling of newspapers and blogs like chocolate and peanut butter, or chocolate and pine tar?

It's too early to tell, but one spectacularly successful case was in Sacramento, Calif., where the Sacramento Bee got political columnist Daniel Weintraub blogging just in time for recall madness. While his blog, California Insider, became a place for regular scoops on recall news, Weintraub's posts were sent to Mark Paul, deputy editor of the editorial pages, right as they were being posted. After a recent controversial post about Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante -- "If his name had been Charles Bustmont rather than Cruz Bustamante, he would have finished his legislative career as an anonymous back-bencher" -- the Bee decided that all site content would go to an editor first -- a process explained by the Bee's ombudsman.

This in turn set the blogosphere atwitter, with screeds by Slate blogger Mickey Kaus to "Free Weintraub!!!" and others calling for a boycott of links to the new sacbee.com group Weblog run by its editorial board. But Paul doesn't see a sea change in the editorial process for Weintraub's blog. "It's only a slight difference operationally," he said. "The process will be just about as fast as before, and this doesn't represent that much of a change."

Paul read the flames in various blogs about the move, especially those saying Weintraub would be muzzled now. He asked the columnist/blogger jokingly "Where's your muzzle?" when he first saw Weintraub in the office this week. In a statement to me via e-mail, Weintraub echoed his editor's assessment on the brouhaha.

"Obviously I liked it the way we had it, with me posting to the Web and to my editor at the same time," Weintraub said. "But I don't expect a whole lot to change. They never reeled one of my posts back in using the old system. And with about 500 print columns under my belt here, I can count on one hand the number of times my editor has asked me to consider a substantive change. I expect the same to apply to the blog."

Best practices for Weblogs

The Bee and other newspaper sites are experimenting more and more with the Weblog format, and there are no "best practices" yet in this arena. How should editorial oversight work? Does it wreck a blog's spontaneity? What should Weblogs cover? Who should write them? Here's a quick-and-dirty best practices guide for mainstream news sites looking to join the blogging game.

Find Your Topic

Most blogs at news sites are focused on a particular topic, one that usually doesn't get enough coverage in the print edition. If there's a big breaking story in the paper's region -- perhaps a hurricane or blackout -- there might be a need for a temporary blog to get news posted fast on one central page.

Ryan Pitts, online producer for the Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review, likes the idea of topical blogs, and taking on subjects that are undercovered -- or not covered at all in print. He especially liked sports, health, civic "hyperlocal" news, religion and outdoor life.

Though many popular blogs have a free-form tone that includes details on what the person ate that morning, how upset they are with their phone bill, etc., journalist bloggers should try to stay on topic. "We work for the readers," said Sheila Lennon, who has written the Subterranean Homepage News Weblog for Projo.com for the past 18 months. "I ask, 'What are the readers interested in?' They don't want Sheila's opinion on everything."

Find a Trustworthy Blogger

It's important for the newspaper to trust the person who's blogging. Many sites do minimal editing -- if any editing at all -- which means bloggers should understand all the issues at play when posting their basically unvarnished thoughts online. The Spokesman-Review doesn't pre-edit posts, and Projo.com's Lennon sends posts by her editor if she feels they will be controversial.

Many newspaper sites, however, are queasy at the thought of posting unedited copy online by anyone. Editing a blog makes it stronger, in their opinion. Paul, of the Sacramento Bee, says everybody could use an editor. "That's the difference between a professional writer and an amateur," he said. "The professional knows he needs an editor, and the amateur thinks he doesn't need editing."

"Our bloggers are people who have earned trust, and we wouldn't be giving the same rein to weaker writers or people plagued by mistakes," says Pitts. "And if we ended up using a blogger from the community, someone who wasn't one of our own journalists, well, I'm sure we would consider some pre-editing measures."

The Dallas Morning News' editorial board blog has no pre-editing either, though as a group blog, there's a little more self-regulation going on. "We have had about four instances I'm aware of when, after publishing, we've had second thoughts of what went up," said Jim Frisinger, letters editor and blogger at the Morning News. "A lot of it, I think, is learning what the boundaries are in the new journalism. Most often, this has been one staffer making a suggestion to another staffer. These were self-policing within the editorial board -- and not from anyone outside the department or outside the newspaper building."

Get Everyone on the Same Page

Make sure that the print side and executives know what's going on with Weblog launches and editorial processes. Not everyone knows about blogs, how they operate and why they're important. Better to educate them and win them over, rather than have an ugly fight later.

Keven Ann Willey, vice president and editorial page editor of the Morning News, took the open approach with the editorial board blog, which was a novel idea for a major metro paper site. Her advice for others? "Discuss it fully beforehand. Involve everybody from writers who will participate to the editors responsible for it," she said. "Call in the lawyers. Consult with them about possible pitfalls. We did this as a staff meeting over a brown bag lunch with our lawyers. Discuss minefields. Talk about guidelines, expectations. Get everybody on board around a shared vision for the blog. Then have fun with it!"

Don't Be Afraid of Outside Links

I've already covered this area in a recent column, but news sites should not fear that they'll lose tons of traffic by linking to outside sites from their blogs. Keep the readers in mind, and try to be of service to them. That will bring them back on a regular basis.

"Blogs should absolutely link out to other sites," says Pitts. "Partly for the sake of credibility, but also so you don't frustrate your readers. So much of blogging is tied up in the conversational aspect of the Internet, and I can't imagine doing that without off-site links."

These "best practices" are obviously a work in progress. No one has strict answers to everything related to Weblogs, and newsroom cultures vary from newspaper to newspaper. But perhaps the lessons learned by the early adopters can help mainstream news sites that want to hop on the blogging bandwagon.

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Related Links
California Insider Weblog
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DMN Daily Weblog
Fresh Potatoes: Boycott!!! Boycott!!!
Glaser: News Sites Loosen Linking Policies
Kaus Files: The Bee's Freeze II
Sacramento Bee: Are Bee's standards for Web lower than for print?
Subterranean Homepage News Weblog
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