Saturday, July 05, 2008

Pixels or paper, truth doesn’t care

I'm going to chat through this insightful and honest bit from sportswriter/editor Dwight Jaynes at the Portland Tribune:

There’s something of a war going on right now between the mainstream media – particularly sports writers and columnists – and bloggers.

I have experienced this. Jake Payne over at Page One screams about it from time to time.

I guess bloggers are a threat. In one sense, we rip off legitimate news sources by reprinting their stuff under "fair use" provisions of the copyright act. In another sense, we generate buzz that usually gets picked up in the mainstream media somewhere - and sometimes break big stories the mainstream media misses.

Kentucky School News & Commentary conducted an extensive background search, then working directly with Dick Innes of the Bluegrass Institute, broke the Barbara Erwin story after Mark Hebert mentioned on his blog that the Commissioner's search was being conducted in secret and an anonymous commenter to the Courier-Journal suggested somebody ought to look into resume irregularities.

More recently, Jake broke the Robert Felner investigation story at U of L.

The way the world is going, people toiling for newspapers are feeling pretty threatened. The price of newsprint keeps going up, and the number of readers who appreciate the fine feel of a good paper in their hands is going down.

And newspaper employees are being offered buy-outs in budget reduction moves.

People can find their news on the Internet, television, radio or in free newspapers (shameless plug), and so they wonder why they ought to put a couple of quarters into a slot and pay for something that’s most likely yesterday’s news, anyway.

At the same time, those who write for newspapers have grown resentful that bloggers sitting at home in front of their computers – the well-worn cliché is that they’re in their mother’s basement in their underwear – may have increasing clout with readers.

I resent that. It's MY basement and I'm wearing pajamas.

After all, how can those bloggers – with no inside sources, no background and no journalism training, in many cases – have as much credibility as trained and experienced journalists? Who would even bother listening to those yahoos?
Excellent questions. As far as KSN&C is concerned...I've got more than a few sources, 36 years of background in the classroom, in the district office, in the school office, and at the university - public and private and religious. How many working journalists have that?

I also audited two journalism courses (News Editing and Opinion writing) at UK because I knew I wanted to write and I knew what I didn't know. I'd still like to take a Journalism Ethics course at some point.

Well, I’ll tell you what I think. And I’ll also explain how it’s led me to alter my approach to the way I do my job as a columnist, pushing me away from a
philosophy I held dear for decades in this business. I changed, though, because
the bloggers have taught me a lesson.

Really? Acknowledgement from the mainstream media is rare. I'd better enjoy this.

My guideline for years was that, as a beat reporter or a columnist, I would get to know my sources as best I could. I would be there constantly, in their face. I always felt I was impartial enough to write the truth no matter what. And my core values included being there the day after I wrote something negative about someone I covered – so they’d have their shot at me, their fair chance to confront me.

But along the way, at some point, the whole thing kind of went south. The problem with all that, I’ve come to realize, is that I got too close to the people I covered.

In the case of a beat reporter, you almost have to have a degree of that in order to come up with the constant flood of stories you need if you’re covering a beat like the [Portland] Trail Blazers.

Over time, you realize that in spite of all your attempts to know athletes and public figures, what you usually end up writing about them is the cover story – the half-true piece of semifiction that those people want the public to see. You begin to realize you’re usually getting played. And you sold your soul to get it.

Oh, when you get close to sources, you get access. You get inside information. At least you think you do. You get close enough to players and coaches that it’s a fan’s dream. Sources become something very close to friends, and, I confess, I’ve been down that road.
I'm glad to hear somebody else say this. When I began blogging it never occurred to me that I might be writing critically about people I knew and cared about. Pretty naive on my part - not to think about that - but nonetheless that's part of the deal if one chooses to write on public issues.

But by writing commentary and posting news stories on KSN&C I have "run into" Peggy Petrilli, Stu Silberman, Steve Beshear, Brad Cowgill, Fabio Zuluaga, Jon Draud, Elaine Farris, Ernie Fletcher (for whom one of my daughters worked) and many more unnamed persons. I have done stories on UK and EKU where I work - and given the nature of my employment after retirement, I've got to be the easiest guy to "let go" in either place.

I would be less than honest if I did not confess feeling a tug at the heart from time-to-time. For example, I initially came out soft on Draud's car looking for different explanations - only to be taught a lesson by a bunch of emails.
But I also know that when that happens, you’re probably not going to do your job as well as you should. Yes, I’m old school, and I think it’s the job of a columnist or a beat reporter to always tell the truth and be critical when merited, even about the revered home team.

But if you’re critical, you risk your access. Forget about the friendships – you often lose your sources if you offend them.

In the past few years, my job as editor of this paper has kept me from having the time to get the sort of access I used to have with a lot of athletes and coaches. Lately, I don’t have time to schmooz them at shootarounds and after practice. I can’t get on the phone and shoot the breeze with them.

Once in a while, it costs me a story. But you know what? As a columnist, I don’t feel I need their information or their admiration. And I certainly don’t need to worry about making them happy. I think I’m very fair to them. Some sources respect that fairness, and others would rather just own a piece of you.
Yes. We have this "thing" in our society about rank. The higher one's rank, the more those of us holding lower rank are expected to defer. That is counterbalanced by free speech in our democracy; but it doesn't make it any easier. Free speech is not free of cost.

I’m still accountable. The coaches and players know where to find me –as one did last season when he had a problem with something I wrote. I met with him for more than an hour and presented my side and listened to his.

He convinced me of a few things, and I didn’t buy into some other things. I stand
ready to be critical again if I think it’s merited.

The point to all this is simple. What I’ve done, I think, is become a blogger in columnist’s clothing. The secret to the blogosphere is that bloggers usually don’t have that proximity to coaches and athletes. They aren’t hindered by a need to get along
or kiss up to the people they write about. That affords them a certain freedom they can use or abuse.
Interesting observation. And, here I am trying to become a better journalist.

Don’t get me wrong – those trained, experienced journalists are still the backbone of this business and they shouldn’t be insecure about their role. The mavericks out there blogging provide a welcome supplement to their work.

Like the mainstream media, bloggers usually search for some version of the truth. Some are good at it. Some are not. On the whole, the best of them serve up fresh, creative, unvarnished, unrestricted and entertaining thoughts about the issues of the day.

I think that’s what columnists are supposed to do, too. If we do it the right way, we’re really not all that different.

A tip of the hat to Alexander Russo.


Anonymous said...

I think bloggers like you are fine. It is the Kentucky Progress blogger who lies and twists the truth that make it bad for all bloggers.

Tom said...


Here's an easy way to think about it: A blogger is a journalist if he or she practices journalism, as opposed to advocacy or entertainment. It's all about the standards used for the work, not the title, formal training or employer of the worker. The point of following journalistic standards is to build credibility and tell people things they don't know, which builds audience. You and several other Kentucky bloggers are doing some fine work. Others, not so good...

As it happens, I'm beginning my third year of teaching the journalism ethics class at UK. It meets Wednesday nights from 6 p.m. until 8 or 8:30. You're welcome to audit it this fall, subject to whatever rules and fees UK imposes.

Good to see you and meet Rita at the parade yesterday.

Tom Eblen

The Principal said...

Thanks for the comments.

Tom it was great to see you as well.

I also appreciate the offer to audit. I would love it. However, I'm teaching two nights this fall and Rita would kill me if I even thought about a third.

...couldn't blame her.

I also appreciate your perspective on journalism; always clear and insightful. When it comes to that ... you, Lisa, Buck and Mike have been my sherpa guides.

Thanks again.


Alexander Russo said...

thanks for the hat tip and the interesting post.

what i found most interesting about the column was its description of how beat reporters end up getting 'played' because of the access they covet, but it's just as interesting to talk about the blogger-journalism relationship, which i also experience especially with my chicago blog, district 299.

thanks again

The Principal said...


It's good to hear from you again. You bring a lot of breadth to the field at This Week in Education.

...and I'll check out your District 299 blog. (We did "a little business" with Chicago District 303 a while back.)

Of course "getting played" is an occupational hazard for columnists and bloggers alike. We both rely on others to inform and give perspective to events. I almost missed my biggest story because I bit on a curveball from a state communications director. Rookie mistake. Another blogger had to talk me back onto the story.

And I hear our current education commissioner won't talk to the C-J's education reporter anymore after she broke the story about his fancy car. All this after he dodged the truth ...and she gets the blame. I hear he's only issuing prepared statements now, but I can't see how that's going to help.

Whatever access reporters have can go away pretty quickly...if they do their jobs well.