Jeff Coryell, aka “Yellowdog Sammy,”is an Ohio blogger who got caught in the struggle between modern citizen journalism and established journalism. And he lost. More to the point: We all lost.
Coryell was fired last week after complaints from Congressman Steve LaTourette about his role as a donor to the Congressman’s opponent. Coryell had not blogged about LaTourette at the PD’s Wide Open blog.
Wide Open was meant to be a project bridging modern blogging into the newsroom. The idea was to take four Ohio bloggers – two liberal, two conservative – and give them a freelance voice on the Plain Dealer website, cleveland.com.
For readers unfamiliar with the dust-up, after Rep. LaTourette brought to the PD’s attention Coryell’s donations to his opponent and work for LaTourette’s opponent, Editor Susan Goldberg chose to (depending on accounts) dismiss Coryell unless he agreed not to write about LaTourette. Ohio bloggers then pointed out that the other three Wide Open bloggers and some newsroom reporters had made similar donations – and the Wide Open experiment appears to have ended (in capsule form.)
In general, journalism is an imperfect system. Although it is taught, it is really a craft, and many of its safeguards are meant to create a sense of fairness and objectivity that have evolved over the years.
Back in college, I did an honor’s thesis on the short experiment of the National News Council and similar local council’s to field citizen concerns about journalism objectivity – peer review systems of journalists policing themselves. Other forms of review have emerged since then including ombudsmen, alternative press, and in our newer world — the free speech in the online-world.
I was excited for Jeff Coryell, Jill Miller Zimon, Dave Stacy and Tom Blumer when the WideOpen gig first started, but I was also dubious about how the role of essentially “house” blogger would mesh in a newsroom already feeling the pinch of rapid technology changes, management pressures, union issues and the conflicts that may have developed over their craft.
Newspapers now exist in a world where technology delivers news on your phone, your computer and even the downtown buildings around you. They are no longer, in print at least, the source of breaking news – but rather of interpreting or applying context – within their objective standards — to what we already seem to know.
The PD project was trying to apply that “old role” of news origination, “the scoop,” but using the time-honored role of neutrality by employing partisans.
In many ways, that makes blogging somewhat like journalism in the late 17th and early 18th centuries when each political party had its own house paper and it was up to the reader to interpret objectively. But to insert that dynamic into the newsroom requires give and take – much like on the Op/Ed pages where that subjectivity is cultivated.
Applying the unwritten objectivity standards of a journalism craft developed over the past 150 years to modern day blogging simply is a conflict on its face. Yet, with the immediacy of blogging, you have to give the Wide Open project credit for trying to replicate this emerging breaking news forum which does not really fit in the stodgy confines of the newsroom editing process. Especially given the problem that blogs can print unsubstantiated rumor which can also become substantiated rumor. That leeway on blogs, leaves newspapers a day late and a dollar short because of their thoroughness and editing procedures – accuracy over immediacy.
It seems to me that the answer increasingly is for mainstream journalists to
- Continue their role in interpreting and applying context and accuracy in print;
- To aggregate online what is out there in the blog world for subscribers as an online service (somewhat like OPED);
- And possibly to find a voice as an ombudsman in the increasingly changing and largely unsubstantiated world of blogging and bloggers.
As for the LaTourette role in all of this, even with the objective rules of modern journalism, there are embedded biases that will always exist – access to politicians, regional pressures for economic development, familiarity with interview subjects, and personal feelings of a reporter toward a subject. These all existed before this incident with Jeff Coryell and will continue to exist.
These subjective decisions exist in newsroom choices over what stories to cover, what leads are written, how stories are organized and what headlines are written. These subjective decisions are not unique to Wide Open.
Here are a couple of examples from recent weeks:
- Delivering news on low circulation days: If Columbus were a company town, the Board of Trustees of OSU would be the Board of Trustees of the City. The Dispatch clearly felt a duty to report on the costs of E. Gordon Gee’s home renovations – but they held the story for a Labor Day paper. Holiday editions are normally among the least read. Similarly, when former professors complained about the state of OSU’s Veterinary School, the article ran on Columbus Day. Two negative OSU articles on two Monday holidays – coincidence?
- A very loud silence: Like many of our friends in the blogosphere, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on Ohio’s Presidential Candidate and his lack of attention to his District. When Rep. Kucinich chose not to speak to the Plain Dealer’s Washington bureau after some of this coverage, there were stories about his silence.
Of note in all of this, is that in a Buckeye State Blog post this week Plain Dealer Openers editor Jean Dubail defended the PD’s actions over pressure from Rep. LaTourette to fire Coryell by indicating in an interview with Jerid Kurtz that Rep. LaTourette is treating the PD Washington bureau in a similar manner to the way Rep. Kucinich is treating them – with silence over a personal investment story. If that is the case, the public knew about Rep. Kucinich’s refusal to speak with the PD through an Opener’s blogpost. Was there or will there be a similar post about Rep. LaTourette silent act – again if this is true?
Two very similar actions with two very different outcomes. Which was the right course?
- The case of blog paranoia: Ever the conspiracy theorist, our good friend young Matt Naugle must have slugged a few too many energy bars leading to his sleuthing of the Dispatch’s supposed bias against “ ‘ol whathisname” running against Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman. Apparently, a reporter had called to get a quote from the Todd campaign about the Mayor’s campaign expenditures (he had some, surprise, surprise) a
nd the article hadn’t been in print yet earlier this week.
Well, first of all, articles don’t get printed many times for a multitude of reasons, but second of all, the article actually did run on Thursday. True to form, there was lots of blog crowing about forcing the article into print. But does anyone see the farce of young Mr. Naugle only knowing about the article in the first place because the Dispatch reporter contacted the campaign generating the story? Or, is he arguing that the campaign gave the research to the paper and expected it to be printed verbatim, which smacks of the same LaTourette issue (which he himself derided)?
And heavens what a scandal. The article actually said the Mayor raised a lot of campaign money and used it for non-re-election, city business travel for things like the National League of Cities. (Earth to Matt. When the Legislature goes to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ events, taxpayers, not campaign coffers foot the bill.)
So what? If anything ‘ol whatshisname should be happy Mayor Coleman spent campaign money on business trips and dinners instead of commercials against him. But maybe young Mr. Naugle’s just confused about the difference between campaign money, and ohh, say state coffers like his old boss Ken Blackwell used at the end of his term to give his out-going staff bonuses on his way out the Secretary of State’s office doors.
Each of these examples proves the point, that there aren’t easy answers, nor is there foolproof objectivity in journalism bureaus or online blogging.
The subtle placement or day of publication of a story; the decision on what to cover and the actual relationship between reporter and interview subject; and even among bloggers the way we use our increased access to the journalism process to leak stories or make chest-thumping vitriol over inside information of a mainstream media article, creates not just competitive tension, but a certain gamesmanship between journalists and bloggers.
The one good thing that did come of this Wide Open experiment, is the reminder to both those in the newsroom and those in the on-line world, that the only defense against our own fairness pressures and influences, are a strong check and balance – either an editor or an online friend to keep us in check when a LaTourette-type incident arises and the balance of fair play seems to be at perilous play. (Ironically Rep. LaTourette’s view of fairness, which brought this on, is to many of us very unfair influence.)
If anything, perhaps the best answer is for the Plain Dealer is to carry Jeff, Jill, Dave and Tom and other Ohio blog posts as an aggregate link more prominently on their Openers page – maybe not as free-lance employees but as links to important Ohio voices much like an Op/Ed page. That would eliminate both the pressures on the PD over content and the independence of a bloggers keypad. (Sidenote for Jean Dubail at Openers, we noticed that PO is not linked on the PDs hard to find blogroll.)
When it comes to pressures on the integrity of the printed word, neither side emerged from this with an upper-hand and both have more in common than either would like to admit.
As for Jeff Coryell, he came to Wide Open as a partisan, he’d already donated as a partisan, he never wrote about LaTourette on Wide Open. It seems to me the person they hired is the same person they fired and that has more to do with the conflict over how to deal with new media at the Plain Dealer than it does with Jeff Coryell. For that reason, with hindsight in view, Wide Open was doomed from the start.