The Polecat Writes Back

Norman Tebbit may not be the most obvious of web journalism innovators. Soon to be celebrating his 79th birthday, Tebbit – until 1992 a Conservative Party MP, and now a Peer in the House of Lords – has been renowned for being one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest allies – even a potential successor at one point, a small ‘c’ as well as a capital ‘C’ conservative, and certainly a provocative figure.

For example, his retort in the early 1980s that unemployed rioters should ‘get on their bikes’ as his father did and look for work made him a hate figure on the Left. (Admittedly this did not take much effort, given the poisonous atmosphere of UK politics at the time.) He has spoken out against the European Union and even suggested that traditional Conservative voters should instead support the Euro-sceptic UK Independence Party, infuriating many in his own party.

In addition, some of his comments on race and multiculturalism have been equally controversial, though he has also denounced the neo-fascist British National Party. This abrasive, uninhibited approach earned him the nickname of ‘semi-house-trained polecat’ via the late Michael Foot, but also cemented his reputation as a hardman of the British mainstream right.

Despite this, he is also doing something very interesting on his blog, hosted by the web site of the London-based Daily Telegraph newspaper. Namely, he replies to comments made by reader in the main body of his blog posts, structuring them as if taking part in an informal discussion:

I think “dirlada” was right. Any one in any walk of life may make honest mistakes, even sensible mistakes, but in that recent incest case it was over 100 people from 28 different agencies, all making some pretty obvious mistakes which was the worry. And right again, “Bionic Raspberry”. What about the offenders and the extended family too?

Oh, “crownarmourer”, what a temptation! Me as Lord Protector. No, I do not think so. I sussed out how power corrupted him when I was a 15-year-old history student.

Again, I must tell “incensed” that I simply am not Mr Tebbit. I lost that title. I don’t mind Tebbit, Norman or, as cabbies usually address me, “Norm” but I am not “Mr”. And I hope that you still might see the difference between the EU and the USSR. Millions of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and others who have experienced both can do so. Oh, and just a thought: were not the progenitors of the BNP ready to sell out to Hitler?

Whereas other columnists may occasionally reply to comments as commenters themselves, Tebbit seems unwilling to maintain such a barrier between blog and response. Instead he selects what he believes are either the most interesting posts made, or the ones that he believes require the most refutation. This is curiously inventive, cementing as it does, a direct connection between him and his readers. If we consider that online journalism’s strength is that it allows such a two-way conversation, even in a textual medium, then Tebbit is unusual in that he treats this as an essential part of the process, but also leaves aside the traditional aloofness of the journalist in doing so. He blogs, they read, they comment, he reads in turn and comments in turn. It is both cyclical and personable, but also an acceptance that what the reader says and thinks is at least as worthy of consideration as what the author writes, within some parameters – Tebbit still chooses what to reply to, whereas the reader still chooses what to comment on.

Tebbit also refers to each commentator by name, or at least, screen name. Again, this implies a greater intimacy between reader and author, but also a shared subjectivity – Tebbit picks comments, not all of which he agrees with, but answers them in a personalised and informal fashion:

As for “john the bear” I am just sorry that he has so little faith in his country. He fears that if the UK left the EU our former partners would set out to destroy us. They are not that stupid. They export more to us than we to them. They would be the bigger losers. And they would be in breach of the GATT…

…I should apologise to “blustering colonel” for ignoring his kind invitation to visit Singapore. I have been there many times, the first of them in 1954, so I am not unaware of the immense achievements of Lee Kwan Yu and the people of Singapore. Indeed I only wish that we had had more leaders like him here.

We might have been as successful as Singapore, but we only had one, and she was not leader for long enough.

Whilst Tebbit’s politics may not be seen as always desirable by either this author or many OJR readers, to dismiss them or how Tebbit articulates them is to ignore how he has developed a currently unique relationship with his readers. The closest equivalent may be the ‘ombudsman’ employed by some US news organisations, who uses his or her column to respond to reader/viewer queries and complaints. The main difference between these however is that the ombudsman still retains his or her distance from the reader – he is an emissary of the ‘writer’, embodied in this case by the hierarchy of the newsroom – and responds to missives from otherwise passive readers, but only on his or her terms and in an official – or even officious – capacity.

Tebbit meanwhile does choose what to reply to, but beyond that is an openness to a variety of comments. Tebbit may not necessarily agree with some commenters but still lists some of their more notable comments and responds to them accordingly:

I noticed amongst those posting comments on this site a number of contributors, john the bear cub, Matthew Gris, mark999, frederik and others telling me the EU is a done deal, a good thing, and that I should shut up and learn to love it. Oddly enough, as mickeypee and rapscallion pointed out, none of them explain why we should put up with a government we did not elect and cannot change compelling us to do things which are clearly not in our interest.

Oliver was not convinced by my explanation of why the main parties are pro EU and asked me why Cameron is so, too. Well, I simply do not know. He has not told me.

I thought basset was a bit grumpy. He forgets that I stood down from the Cabinet and refused invitations to go back. And to suggest that I have more influence over voters than David Cameron is a bit unrealistic. If it were true, then perhaps Camp Cameron would ask themselves why.

The views exhibited are in fact varied, despite the political bias one might assume of a blogger who as a rule tends to delete or ignore posts that are not in line with his own views. Steven Duncombe’s fears in 1997 that the World Wide Web would simply facilitate a myriad of ‘virtual ghettos’ or echo chambers* have often been realised many times, yet Tebbit’s blog has become an unlikely alternative – there may be no agreement, but nor is disagreement dismissed out of hand or shouted down. Tebbit allows commenters to disagree with him, and simply disagrees in turn.

How best to contextualise this? Conservative media figures, primarily in the United States, have always demonstrated a strong rapport with their audiences, as demonstrated by the success of right-wing ‘shock jocks’ such as Rush Limbaugh and latterly Glen Beck. Yet this does not take into account, for example, the considerable differences that exist between American and British schools of conservatism.

Equally, it does not acknowledge that right wing broadcast media is precisely that: a powerful figure speaks to a mute but appreciative audience – and it is this authoritativeness as opposed to Tebbit’s openness with his audience that defines this sub-genre. Of course, many ‘shock jocks’ reply to e-mails and letters on their shows, but again this is more akin to the traditional ‘postbag’ section in both print and broadcast media, whereas – as said – Tebbit is much more willing to interact with his readers, without prompting. It is obvious from the tone and the ease that he undertakes this that it is through choice. The writer has become the listener.

It is what Nicholas Carr refers to as ‘Conservative Innovation’, wherein the innovative is combined with the old and established in order to create something genuinely new and promising. Carr did of course refer to this in the context of industrial production, but given its technological nature, it can also be applied to Tebbit’s blog. He combines the conservative with the electronic, the journalistic with the informal, and in doing so, creates a new kind of conversation between him and his audience.

* Stephen Duncombe, Notes From Underground ‘Zines And The Politics Of Alternative Culture (New York: Verso, 1997), p.72

Sunlight Foundation offers reporting tools to cover U.S. politics online

The Sunlight Foundation ought to be in the bookmarks list of any journalist covering U.S. national politics. OJR talked with Sunlight’s Ellen Miller two years ago about the organization’s efforts to enlist readers to help keep a watchful eye on Congress. Last week at the NewsTools 2008 conference in Sunnyvale, Calif. Bill Allison, senior fellow at the foundation’s Sunlight Labs, described some of the new online reporting tools on which the foundation is working.

Sunlight Labs has been digitizing a variety of federal disclosure data and making that available online via application programming interfaces [APIs]. Current projects include a widget that pop-ups a hyperlinked profile of a member of Congress when someone mouses over his or her name on your webpage and a Google Map mash-up pinpointing the geographic location of almost all earmarks from last year’s Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations bill.

But it was the Labs’ newest project that Allison demonstrated in an early-morning break-out session at the conference. “Influence Explorer,” still under development and not yet released to the public, will allow readers “one-click disclosure” of a lawmaker’s earmarks, contributions, expenses and trips.

All the data that Influence Explorer will access is available now to the public, through a variety of services, including many of those listed on the foundation’s Insanely Useful Web Sites page. But tracking a lawmaker’s disclosures through multiple sites and databases can consume hours. What Sunlight Labs wants to do, Allison said, is to consolidate search requests and return multiple results from a single click.

“Why should you have to go to 15 different places to see what your congressperson is doing,” Allison asked.

Allison demonstrated how Influence Explorer’s “data chewer” could help a reporter use a press release to get useful background about a Congressional earmark, for example.

[A lesson in Government 101, for those not familiar with the term: An “earmark” is money that Congress assigns to a specific projects, outside the executive branch departments’ normal allocation procedures. It’s how members of Congress funnel money to their districts. Here is the Office of Management and Budget’s definition.]

Allison pasted a snippet of text from a press release about a Congressional appropriation for a new project. Influence Explorer used text analysis of the snippet to find common phrases and names with other releases and entries in its associated databases. It then returned a wealth of context for a journalist reporting the story.

Other earmarks from the same representative. Top contributors to the representative. Campaign contributions from employees of the company receiving the earmark. Expenses filed. Trips taken.

All the juicy details that helped take a ho-hum story about a grant and turn it into a far more interesting tale about a firm that suddenly started giving thousands of dollars to a member of Congress, then received millions on federal funding soon after.

Allison said that the core technology behind Influence Explorer is not new, and that corporate lawyers have been using “data chewers” like this to perform textual analysis to cross-reference documents for some time. Putting this technology in journalists’, and the public’s, hands would help level the field, Allison said.

The downside? It ain’t ready yet. Allison wouldn’t give an ETA for the project’s public release. Still, the foundation does have many other tools available. Allison invited conference attendees to work with the Sunlight Foundation to find access to data and data analysis tools that could help improve and inform their coverage of Washington politics. Allison and others at the foundation can be contacted through the foundation’s website, at

For notes from other sessions at NewsTools 2008, please visit the NewsTools website.

Washington Independent and the non-profit news model

We’ve all read ad nauseam about the panic-stricken newspaper corporation spinning its wheels to retrofit its properties for the Web. Some have found ways to do it effectively. Most haven’t. You’re sure to have caught examples of each on this site.

Non-profit news startups are similarly testing the waters, but without all that ink, paper and, er, personnel to worry about. The model evolves with each new project, but the formula for success looks to be a healthy balance of guerilla and traditional; loose and tight. Launched in January, D.C.-based The Washington Independent is the new kid on the block.

With a collective editorial resume that lists The New Republic, Talking Points Memo and Financial Times, The Independent reigns in the ground-up-meets-top-down model that Marc Cooper talked to us about a few months ago with HuffPo’s Off The Bus project.

A Center for Independent Media site, its siblings include non-profit news staples The Iowa Independent, The Minnesota Monitor and The Colorado Confidential. And what The Washington Independent lacks in alliteration it makes up for with a hearty balance of investigative features, well-researched commentary and bloggy news analysis. It’s a versatile news trough for those who take their in-depth clean coal reports with a side of quick-hit caucus commentary.

We swapped emails with Washington Independent Editor Allison Silver to learn more about the new endeavor and its meaning for non-profit journalism.

OJR: So, you just launched a few weeks ago. How is traffic looking so far? Where are the readers coming from and how are you getting your name out there?

Allison Silver: I am delighted to have this opportunity to talk with you about my brand-new site, The Washington Independent. And it is brand new. We had a semi-hard launch on Jan. 28, and we are still in Beta as we work out some of the kinks. For less than two weeks, I think we are doing quite well. We are currently listed on both The Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo. Josh Marshall had a nice post about us on TPM, and now MetaFilter has posted an item about us. We are planning some other things as we go about raising our profile, and the quality of our content should also draw some attention.

OJR: Can you talk a bit about your relationship with the Center for Independent Media?

AS: The Center for Independent is our umbrella organization, our parent. David Bennahum, our president and CEO, had four state sites up and running—in Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa. He hired Jefferson Morley from The Washington Post, as the center’s editorial director and they decided to launch a Washington site, covering national issues. Jeff contacted me, since he felt this was something I would be interested in. He was right.

OJR: If I get one thing from your mission statement, it’s “in-depth, accurate and, most importantly, fast.” What sort of staff does it take to pull that off, and to what extent do you accept freelance submissions?

AS: We have an extremely nimble and saavy young staff, including Spencer Ackerman, covering national security (who was at The New Republic and TPM), Holly Yeager, covering the presidential campaign (who was at Financial Times) and Mike Lillis, covering Congress (who was at Inside Washington).

I am also featuring a robust commentary element. The pieces are written by well-known scholars and experts. For example, we had Robert Dallek, the historian who has examined the lives of Johnson and Kennedy and FDR, write about the role of a former president, pegged to Bill Clinton’s travels on the campaign trail for his wife.

We would be interested in seeing freelance submissions. We are looking for smart reported pieces or strong commentary.

OJR: Your sister sites feel a little more bloggy than yours. How did the professional/citizen journalism balance you hope to achieve factor into your page design?

AS: We are still in the process of working out our page design. But one way of looking at your question is that the Net is about democracy and we want our users to be fully engaged in the writing we post. Already, one informed reader contacted Spencer after his waterboarding piece was posted, and now Spencer is working on a piece involving that comment.

OJR: We talked to The Huffington Post about an election spinoff project that strives for the same balance; ground-up content steeped in the values of traditional journalism. What other similar sites have you seen, and how do you think yours is different?

AS: There are many other strong sites out there like The Huffington Post—including TPM and Slate and Salon. But I think the Net is not about competition, or limitations. It’s indeed like democracy—because it’s about making the pie bigger.

I think our mix of reported longer pieces and reported blog, to tell a longer narrative, and our extremely informed commentary is the next step for the Net. Well, we should say, one next step. The Net is many, many things.

OJR: Can you talk a bit about working for a non-profit versus an advertising-based news publication? How do you compare and contrast the two from an editorial standpoint?

AS: As for working on a non-profit, I am sure you know that part of all informed discussion about the future of journalism involves the non-profit model. This is one reason why so many people are interested in what happens with Poynter and the St. Petersberg paper.

OJR: It must be tough to veer from politics these days, but what other types of reports can we expect to see at the Independent in the near future?

AS: Politics is so exciting right now. This campaign is all those hyphenated words—jaw-dropping, breath-taking.

But there is so much else going on. As I said earlier, Spencer Ackerman is reporting on national security issues, and we have already had commentary on this subject from James Bamford, who wrote two important books on the NSA, and Milt Bearden, the former director of clandestine services at the CIA. We have strong economic and financial coverage. Mary Kane, who was formerly with Newhouse papers, is doing great work about the brick-and-mortar reality of the subprime crisis.

And we have solid environmental coverage—look at our current piece that examines just how green an airline could be—and science reporting.