The official criteria used to determine who will be admitted to the press galleries overlooking the U.S. House and Senate chambers include one requirement that -- a decade into the Internet age -- feels downright quaint.
According to the rules set by the Standing Committee of Correspondents, a journalist applying for a credential must demonstrate that "his or her principal income is obtained from news correspondence intended for publication in newspapers entitled to second-class mailing privileges."
James Kuhnhenn, a reporter in Knight Ridder's Washington bureau who recently served as one of the five elected members of the committee, acknowledges that the mail rule is an "absurd" artifact that makes it seem as if the press galleries are stuck "back in the Dark Ages."
But he said the official rules haven't been strictly applied to Web publications since the mid-1990s, when online news reporters who were denied congressional press credentials began retaining lawyers and fighting back.
Several dozen online writers have been admitted since then, ranging from correspondents for the Web sites of mainstream publications -- such as WashingtonPost.com -- to reporters for Web-only ventures such as CancerPage.com, AllAfrica.com and WorldNetDaily.com.
But the old rules are still on the books. The standing committee intended to update them last year, says Kuhnhenn, who started working on a rewrite before his two-year term ended in 2002. But then came the war in Iraq. And now that the presidential campaign is in full swing, the correspondents committee has put the task off to another day.
The proliferation of Internet-based journalism -- and pseudo-journalism -- has placed press offices for all sorts of organizations in a similar quandary: Who should get a press pass and access to press events?
The cost of distributing printed matter to a broad audience used to weed out the wannabes. But now that just about anyone can look to all the world like a journalist by posting their words on a professional-looking Web site, deciding who should be treated as a journalist has gotten much harder.
At least most press offices now recognize that the Internet is a legitimate news medium. Just a few years ago, that wasn't the case.
"There were so many Web sites, nobody knew which were the mom and pop sites and which were the really big ones. Everybody still has to draw a line, but I frankly don't know where it's being drawn." --Craig Stanke, deputy managing editor of Sportsline.com
When Austin, Texas-based movie buff Harry Knowles launched his movie review Web site AintItCool.com in 1996, his requests for passes must have been good for a laugh in the press offices in Hollywood. "By no means would the studios give me passes," he recalls.
In the early days, writer friends at the alternative weekly in Austin slipped him extra press passes. Within a couple of years that began to change, as it became apparent that reviews on AintItCool.com were generating global buzz about movies.
"The studios all began sending me passes," Knowles says. "Now, they don't see me as a regional journalist. They know my readership is all over the country and the world.
"So they tend to want me to see movies as soon as they are released, wherever that happens to be. There are a lot of times where screenings are set up locally for me well before the local newspaper, television or radio critics see it."
"Back in the really early days, nobody knew what online was," adds Craig Stanke, deputy managing editor of Sportsline.com, one of the leading sports news Web sites. Even though Sportsline.com is partly owned by CBS, "sports information directors at some colleges didn't have a clue what we were about," Stanke recalls.
As recently as two years ago at the Winter Olympics in Utah, Sportsline.com's reporters still had to jump through extra hoops to prove their legitimacy. "But the Olympics was one of the last problem areas we had," he says. "We pretty much have zero problems now with credentials."
Stanke empathizes with press offices, even the ones that used to give him grief.
"There were so many Web sites, nobody knew which were the mom-and-pop sites and which were the really big ones. Everybody still has to draw a line, but I frankly don't know where it's being drawn." All he knows is that Sportsline.com, with millions of readers a month, is "way past the point where we have to explain ourselves."
"We invite any and all journalists to any public events that they want to come to. We love Internet journalists. We've worked with many of them who are excellent." -- David Swanson, press secretary to Dennis Kucinich
Brenda Benton, press-pass coordinator for the Los Angeles Police Department, says that more than 1,000 journalists carry credentials issued by her department, and none of them writes exclusively for a Web-based publication.
Benton says she wouldn't automatically turn down a Web-based journalist, but unless their online publication was affiliated with a well-established news organization, she would review their request with some skepticism.
"If they're covering hard news and their job involves coming to crime scenes on a regular basis and I see that on their Web site, then they could be issued a press pass," Benton says. "But we're not here to get someone established.
"Some people are trying to get started and they want a credential, but that's not why I give credentials. They have to be already established. They have to be at crime scenes because their job requires it, not just because they don't have anything else to do."
The issue of credentialing Web writers hasn't yet come up in the presidential campaign, according to the press offices of several of the Democratic candidates.
"We invite any and all journalists to any public events that they want to come to," said David Swanson, press secretary for Dennis Kucinich, who has languished at the bottom of the field of presidential hopefuls. "We love Internet journalists. We've worked with many of them who are excellent."
Kucinich has posted messages on blogs, done live online chats and given interviews to "progressive" Web sites, such as BuzzFlash.com, which was snubbed by all other candidates, Swanson explains.
At the party conventions during the summer and in the campaign's home stretch in the fall, credentialing issues could emerge as the pool of reporters clamoring for access grows. But it remains to be seen how many online reporters will be vying for spots on the convention floors and campaign buses.
"Four years ago we expected to have a huge influx of Web-based publications at the conventions," says Jerry Gallegos, superintendent of the House Press Gallery. "But shortly before the conventions began, a lot of those publications fell by the boards. There has been a significant dieback in the last several years. Most of the Web-based publications are presently part of established news organizations."
Perhaps no press office has grappled with requests for credentials from online writers more often than the ones that control access to the press galleries in Congress.
There are three separate galleries in each house: one for the daily press; a periodical gallery for magazine and newsletter reporters; and a third for the broadcast media. The daily press section alone accredits between 2,000 and 2,500 journalists from around the world for each session of Congress.
Membership in the galleries is a hot ticket in Washington, particularly in presidential election years. Those who pass muster gain access to the press balconies overlooking the House and the Senate, a document room and other facilities set up to assist journalists in covering the legislature, and -- the most coveted perk of all -- the party conventions.
Elected committees of journalists assisted by staff administrators set the rules and adjudicate disputes over who gets credentials. The biggest concern that they have traditionally faced is how to keep out lobbyists and stockbrokers, who might be on the lookout for inside information.
"The conventions are a big attraction to a lot of lobbyists, as you can imagine," explains Joan McKinney, deputy director of the Senate Press Gallery. "Trying to get a press pass is one way to con your way in. That's why in the past we've taken a very close and very skeptical view of organizations that appear to us to be tied to special interests or trade organizations or that sort of thing."
The rules, therefore, require applicants to demonstrate that their income is principally derived from disseminating news. They must promise that while holding a congressional press pass, they will not engage in any "lobbying, promotion, advertising or publicity activity" intended to influence any branch of government, nor will they furnish anyone with "insider information" that might influence stock prices.
To ensure that publications seeking credentials aren't mouthpieces for lobbying organizations or brokerages, the publications must be published either by an independent nonprofit group, or a for-profit group with most of their revenue coming from advertising and subscriptions.
The emergence of the Internet as a news medium has poked the rules full of potential loopholes, as McKinney explains: "Any mom-and-pop retired couple that has a beef with the local Social Security office could get the local ice-cream parlor to buy an ad and sponsor them as a publication. Then they could call themselves a news organization -- and technically, they might be able to fit under the rules of membership."
That example illustrates that "this gallery can't use a strict definition of what a newspaper looks like" in assessing Web sites, McKinney observes. "That's the reason why the committee needs to come up with a better sense of what constitutes a valid online news organization."
Gallegos adds that in the past, newsletters published by trade groups have been easy to exclude from the press galleries because they are distributed to a narrow constituency and are bankrolled entirely by the association.
But publishing online is so much cheaper that "it would be easier for them to disseminate the information to the general public since anyone can pick up an online publication. And it would be easier for an online publication to get ads," says Gallegos. "That gives you an idea what the committee is facing when they try to make rules for online publications."
None of the three galleries has yet adopted official rules specifically addressing Web publications. But each has developed informal guidelines that attempt to adapt the rules governing traditional media to the online context.
Some of the existing rules have been easier to apply to Internet publications than others.
Web publications are expected to strictly adhere to the requirement of financial separation from anything that's a special interest group, says McKinney. "Some special-interest organizations have closely related online publications. But they have to set up a totally separate financial arrangement and governing board and have an independent news reporting operation if they want to get credentialed," she says.
The rule requiring publications to derive most of their revenue from ads and subscriptions has been harder to translate. "We are attempting to apply that as best we can," McKinney says. "But we recognize that an online product may make money in a different way than a newspaper would. So we're continuing to take a look at that issue."
The ease with which Web publishers can recycle the work of others has given rise to a special rule for Web sites seeking accreditation. "You're supposed to do a significant amount of your own independent reporting, not just links to other people's pages."
The effort to develop rules for online publications seeking congressional press credentials has sparked a number of controversies over the years. Writer Vigdor Schreibman was the first Internet publisher to take the press galleries to court.
Schreibman wrote a newsletter about "the emerging philosophy of the Information Age." He called his operation the Federal Information News Syndicate and distributed his reports by e-mail to subscribers who ponied up $2.95 a year. In 1996, the committee turned down his application on grounds that his publication was not published for profit and did not pay Schreibman a salary.
In his appeal, Schreibman noted that by rejecting his application on that basis, the committee was punishing him for one of the most revolutionary characteristics of publishing on the Internet, the fact that an individual is able to disseminate news at little or no cost.
Some big names in journalism backed him up.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, weighed in with a lengthy memo noting that while Schreibman's newsletter "currently does not receive significant subscription fees from its Internet subscribers," neither did the CNN or The New York Times Web sites.
James Fallows, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, wrote a letter to the chairmen of the House and Senate Rules committees, explaining that the "strange funding of Mr. Schreibman's news service says more about the rapidly evolving nature of online technology than it does about his sincerity as a journalist."
Those pleas were to no avail. The periodical gallery's committee rejected Schreibman's application, falling back on the argument that even if he was a journalist, he did not work full time in the business, as required in the rules. Schreibman's suit seeking to overturn that decision was dismissed by a U.S. district judge in Washington D.C. in 1998.
But Schreibman's futile bid for recognition did force the committee for the first time to face up to its failure to develop standards for assessing Internet journalists.
In the midst of the litigation over Schreibman's application for admission, the committee adopted informal guidelines recognizing the "emergence of electronic publications as a legitimate extension of the print tradition," and said it would issue credentials to reporters from online publications that met the same criteria as reporters from print publications. Over the next several months, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, four electronic publications were accepted into the periodical galleries.
The guidelines for Web publications face constant challenges. The most recent involved WorldNetDaily.com, which applied for access to the press gallery in 2001.
WorldNetDaily has a full-time staff, including its editor, Joseph Farah -- who was previously editor of the now-defunct Sacramento Union -- and Washington bureau chief Paul Sperry, who spent 12 years at Investors Business Daily before joining WorldNetDaily. The site claims to have millions of regular readers (Nielsen/Netratings says it had 788,000 unique visitors in July, 2003) and to be self-supporting.
The site's application for access to the daily press gallery was unanimously denied by the daily correspondents' committee.
In a Feb. 8, 2002, letter to Sperry, the chairman explained that the committee "recognizes the emergence of electronic publications as a legitimate extension of the print tradition." But to pass muster, "online publications 'must provide daily news with significant original reporting content.' We do not believe WorldNetDaily meets this threshold." Moreover, the Web publication remained too closely entwined with the advocacy group that had launched it, the committee said.
WorldNetDaily responded by issuing a call to arms to its readers, which was echoed on the conservative talk radio circuit. Members of the committee and their employers were barraged with irate phone calls, letter and e-mails. The Web site's supporters also confronted members of Congress, who in turn demanded an explanation for the rejection.
The committee ultimately relented, granting credentials to Farah and Sperry on a 3-2 vote. "They established to our satisfaction that they have firewalls between their editorial content and the funding" contributed by the advocacy group, says Kuhnhenn, who was sitting on the committee at the time. On closer inspection, the site also was found to have a sufficient amount of original news content.
The committee was somewhat less convinced about the propriety of the merchandising that was mixed in with the reporting in the form of links to books for sale. "In the end, that was one issue on which we decided to punt. We left it to the drafting of a new policy," says Kuhnhenn. "We didn't let that influence our decision on WDN."
Kuhnhenn voted no on other grounds. "As soon as we started raising questions about their funding stream, they starting making all sorts of accusations about what our motives were," he recalls. "Our motives were that we had legitimate questions. But they started this whole e-mail campaign against us. In my opinion, that really crossed the line."
The experience convinced Kuhnhenn that the press gallery needs to get on with the job of drafting new rules for credentialing online journalists. He also thinks print journalists should be relieved of that sticky task.
"You could make a very good argument that online publications should have their own gallery, set up their own standards and do their own accreditation," Kuhnhenn says. "In the end, that may be where it goes. But first they need to have a critical mass of online journalists willing to run their own gallery."