A journalist working for a major media company decides to start a personal Weblog in his spare time. His blog becomes popular (or not). His association with the media company is stated, but discreetly. He has the usual disclaimer: This Weblog is the opinion of Joe Journo, and not the company he works for. But what does the company think? If it’s CNN, Time magazine or the Hartford Courant, it doesn’t think — it acts, killing the Weblog for reasons stated (and unstated).
CNN killed correspondent Kevin Sites’ popular Weblog from Iraq. Time killed freelancer Joshua Kucera’s personal Weblog, and most recently, the Hartford Courant killed former-columnist-turned-travel-editor Denis Horgan’s Weblog. A CNN.com spokesperson told OJR previously, “CNN.com prefers to take a more structured approach to presenting the news. We do not blog.” One unnamed CNN’er posted to MetaFilter that “the CNN News Standards and Practices guide essentially says that you can’t do these things without approval.”
Kucera has declined to comment about his blog’s shuttering, though he did post one last thought on his Weblog after his “goodbye” post. “A journalist never likes to become the story himself,” he wrote, “and I feel that I’m being used against my will as an example of the nasty American media monolith.” He said that his site has had more traffic since word got out that he was “silenced.” While Kucera seems non-plussed about the closure, the Courant’s Horgan expressed “profound regret” about his blog’s untimely demise and said he would “explore my rights and options” in a final post.
His boss, Courant editor Brian Toolan, explained the shuttering to E&P Online: “Denis Horgan’s entire professional profile is a result of his attachment to the Hartford Courant, yet he has unilaterally created for himself a parallel journalistic universe where he’ll do commentary on the institutions that the paper has to cover without any editing oversight by the Courant.” Fans of Horgan lamented the blog closing in a comments section on the Weblog itself, with some accusing his editors of suppressing free speech or his antiwar views.
Is there a unifying factor in the actions of these big media companies to keep employees reined in outside of work? Uber-blogger and University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds runs InstaPundit independently while writing a blog-like column for MSNBC.com. “I think it’s dumb of them [the Courant],” he told me. “It’s all about control. It’s a mix of modestly reasonable fears of what might happen with modestly unreasonable fears of what could happen. People think of it as a free speech issue but maybe it’s antitrust: suppressing competition.”
On the subject of Sites’ popular blog, Reynolds, who teaches constitutional law, administrative law and Internet law, thinks CNN wasn’t as worried about the blog competing with CNN as it was about Sites branding himself, gaining popularity on his own, and either demanding more money or being hired away. “It could be a monopoly problem,” Reynolds says. “If correspondents have access to the megaphones, it brings more viewpoints into play. The networks are far more afraid of that. The other alternative is that they’re just idiots.”
The blogosphere, as is its wont, has not been kind to the closing of these weblogs. The news spread quickly about the closures, though no specific action has been taken outside of the virtual wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. Many online commentators have defended the Courant, saying it has the right to police the activities of employees because of potential conflicts of interest.
Howard Owens, who is the Internet operations coordinator for the Ventura County Star (and runs a personal blog), calls the Courant’s move “rather stupid,” though he notes that, generally, there are ethical lines drawn for newspaper employees.
“You don’t blast your employer,” he said. “And you don’t blast sources or criticize sources. I considered posting details about some interesting newsroom discussions — I could have even quoted e-mails — but I decided against it because it would have been unethical. But ideally a news organization doesn’t dictate what people say.”
Living in harmony
Where does this leave the vast majority of journalists who are working inside media companies and haven’t started Weblogs yet? Perhaps it’s a good idea to check with your editor before starting a blog, or at least take a look at your employment contract. Then again, as Reynolds says, “sometimes it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission” — i.e. start the blog first, answer questions later. Most employment contracts likely don’t mention Weblogs and focus on writing for competing publications. Whether a personal Weblog on a different subject is competing or not is a gray area.
Tom Mangan, a copy editor/page designer on the features desk at the San Jose Mercury News, maintains a personal Weblog with opinions on everything from photographing cats to politics. His blog does not mention his connection to the Mercury News. The reason? “Our contract does stipulate that a guild member must seek management permission on any outside activity that uses the name of the paper,” he told me via e-mail. “If, for instance, my blog was about copy editing and stated my employment at the Mercury News, I’d have to seek management approval.”
Instead, Mangan stays under the radar of management, and it’s no wonder. As a copy editor, “I’m invisible to the paper’s readership,” he says. “I have no byline, no face anyone recognizes, and an audience that would double if a busload of schoolkids logged on one day.”
Some recipes for success in journo Weblogging: 1) You’re not a “name” reporter, or you write your Weblog under a pseudonym that isn’t discovered; 2) You write your Weblog for the official media site, with full oversight from the publication; 3) You make your name as a blogger first, then get hired by the media company with the power to write what you want. InstaPundit’s Reynolds notes that he has one card to play that most journalists don’t: it’s not his day job. “I have a real position of power: I don’t need the money.”
from the Online Journalism Review