Shadows on High Worlds Collide: Plain Dealer Blog Experiment Blows Up

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:

    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.

Comments

  1. Jeff Coryell says:

    Thanks for this post – one important correction

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I regret that Wide Open came to an end, I was a big believer in the experiment. My anger is not toward Jean Dubail or his vision, and I hope that he (and perhaps similarly capable visionaries at other newspapers) can come up with a sustainable version.

    You say that the other three bloggers had made political contributions and that is not correct. Jill Miller Zimon, who was not fired but resigned the next day, has done so. I contributed to the confusion about the others by announcing that Dave of Nixguy.com had also done made contributions, but it was an error based on name confusion. He has not, although he has helped out one campaign in a different way. Tom Blumer has not made political contributions, and in fact has adopted a blogger’s code for himself that does not allow it.

    By the way, I have a high regard for Tom Blumer and Dave and regret that I did not think to consult them immediately when I got sacked, which they would have appreciated (to say the least). I was getting fired and didn’t think clearly.

    You are correct that aside from the issue of LaTourette’s complaint and whether that caused my firing (I believe it certainly did, the PD denies it), the episode raises fundamental questions about blogging and traditional journalism, and attempts to bridge the two, that need to be carefully examined.

  2. Jill Zimon says:

    Comments

    Hi Brian -

    Thanks for this interesting take on what happened at Wide Open.

    First, Jeff can speak for himself, but I don’t see Jeff as having lost or anyone else as having lost. You’d have to know what we expected in order to judge whether we lost anything.

    The expectations of others seem to range from “great but scary new platform” to “never going to work.”

    On the never going to work end, they feel vindicated.

    On the great but scary, we four bloggers tried very hard. As did Jean and Chris Jindra. No one but Jeff, myself and the others know all the emails, phone calls and conversations that occurred as those several weeks went on. To say that any of us lost anything really isn’t accurate (but you know what I quibbler I can be!).

    Second, I’m not sure how much the “scoop” thing played in. If rumors are to be believed, the PD newsroom hated that we could in fact scoop since we bloggers use RSS etc and are more or less on whenever we are available to be on, and therefore could report before them on someething. But that’s not a function of blogging as much as it is a function of technology that allows the info to be available 24/7. Its up to news providers to decide whether they want to make their staff glean news 24/7 and how they want to produce it.

    The problem with your suggestion about carrying all of us as aggregate links, maybe the way Newser is doing with traditional news sources, is that what the PD wanted was an “in” to a new or not as familiar with the PD audience – the younger folks whom they believe read blogs and are political junkies. I don’t even know how big that demographic is, but that was part of what the PD was looking for. To just aggregate would allow PD online readers to read other sources – but it would improve our blogs’ traffic etc. more than the PD’s.

    I don’t know how much of a role this plays – Jean Dubail hoped for it all – to get the PD traffic, to increase revenue and to have a bold experiment.

    We definitely had an experiment. It was unique and the only of its kind in all of journalism from what we know. That’s something he should be proud of and I know I am.

    Now what? I don’t know. But as I wrote at my own blog, if political bloggers can’t be political, then there’s no point in calling it an experiment. The paper might as well stick with its newsroom political reporters.

    Thanks.

  3. Brian Rothenberg says:

    Re: Thanks for this post – one important correction

    I stand corrected in the case of each of these bloggers.

  4. catherine summers says:

    on Jeff Coryell

    Great–another reason to call Painesville and ask if the Congressman has a working brain–or is he just hiding something?

  5. DJ Hamrick says:

    Re: blog experiment blows up

    To Jeff & Jill: sorry to hear about your problems at the P.D with Wide Open. You both are more than welcome to blog here at ProgressOhio.

  6. Liz Putnam says:

    hey, North Coast

    Good to hear from Jill & others from up north. I used to live among you, so I appreciate the PD and your experiment.

    For what it’s worth I have a master’s degree from the School of Journalism at Ohio U. I have never worked in a daily newsroom — too intense & demanding for me. But when I did work in the automotive trade magazine biz in Akron, I did learn some realities of journalism: you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Insulting advertisers is a no-no. You keep bad news under wraps or minimize its impact. Subtle censorship happens all the time.

    I’ve been reading The Dispatch daily for a decade now & I have to rate it very highly considering the cutbacks all dailies have had to make. Yes, they probably are soft on OSU, Les Wexner & a lot of other people, companies & instituitions…but they have to be careful in order to survive.

    We bloggers are just fake journalists. Without editors, we’re just ranters….personally, I think that’s the beauty of the blogosphere — Rant on!

  7. Jill Zimon says:

    Re: hey, North Coast

    Hi Jane – Thanks a lot for sharing that. Maybe you are someone who can give me perspective on this: I did a search and found that associate publisher and former senior political editor and reporter for the Dispatch, Michael Curtin, gave $25,000 to Vote No Casinos. On its face, that seems appalling to me and in huge conflict with what we Wide Open bloggers are being told about why they can’t have us be partisan in contributions.

    So – some folks have told me that it’s because he’s on the business side. But I just don’t buy it.

    What’s your opinion? Am I really off here?

  8. DJ Hamrick says:

    Re: hey, North Coast

    I would go check each papers’ policies on political donation…one may be allowed to do it while the other is probably not (Dispatch and Plain Dealer, respectively).

  9. Liz Putnam says:

    It makes me tingly…

    That you care about my opinion! Ah, the blogosphere!

    Thank God you’re not asking me to report the facts. Newspaper reporters and editors do a good job of that. TV news in Columbus does an adequate job, but they rarely correct their frequent reporting errors. The broadcasters do have the immediacy advantage.

    “Scooping” in the blog world seems fairly irrelevant to me. Our job is to rearrange the news to fit our personal political agendas (kind of like Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”). Also, sites like ProgressOhio serve the public health by allowing people to vent. This free anger therapy is no small thing.

    Regarding your situation and Curtin’s donation history: I dunno. He’s not an elected official. It’s none of my business who he gives money to. Whatever he wrote for The Dispatch had to go through layers of scrutiny before it was published.

    Hundreds of legislators (and editorial board members) who have never been pregnant have made decisions about the medical treatment of American women. This is extremely partisan and biased. No one complains about that.

    As I understand your situation, you and fellow bloggers were held to different standards than reporters were, and that’s not right. Well, screw em, Jill. You have your own successful blog platform.

    A bigger issue in Columbus is media ownership. If I’m not mistaken (and that certainly is a possibility), the low-key Wolfe family owns The Dispatch, Alive!, WBNS-TV, WBNS Radio (Wolfe, Banks, News & Shoes), and This Week newspapers — quite a conglomerate. Until recently, Max and Lenore Brown owned The Other Paper, Suburban News Papers and Columbus Monthly. I can’t recall reading anything about our media dynasties here. Undoubtedly, media monopolies are a restriction on our constitutional right to a free press. I’m much too lazy to research this myself…Get on it, Jimmy Olsen!