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Recommended by PressThink:

Town square for press critics, industry observers, and participants in the news machine: Romenesko, published by the Poynter Institute.

Town square for weblogs: InstaPundit from Glenn Reynolds, who is an original. Very busy. Very good. To the Right, but not in all things. A good place to find voices in diaolgue with each other and the news.

Town square for the online Left. The Daily Kos. Huge traffic. The comments section can be highly informative. One of the most successful communities on the Net.

Rants, links, blog news, and breaking wisdom from Jeff Jarvis, former editor, magazine launcher, TV critic, now a J-professor at CUNY. Always on top of new media things. Prolific, fast, frequently dead on, and a pal of mine.

Eschaton by Atrios (pen name of Duncan B;ack) is one of the most well established political weblogs, with big traffic and very active comment threads. Left-liberal.

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Ed Cone writes one of the most useful weblogs by a journalist. He keeps track of the Internet's influence on politics, as well developments in his native North Carolina. Always on top of things.

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The Editor's Log, by John Robinson, is the only real life honest-to-goodness weblog by a newspaper's top editor. Robinson is the blogging boss of the Greensboro News-Record and he knows what he's doing.

Fishbowl DC is about the world of Washington journalism. Gossip, controversies, rituals, personalities-- and criticism. Good way to keep track of the press tribe in DC

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Novelist, columnist, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, with a PhD in literature. How many bloggers are there like that? One: Austin Bay.

Betsy Newmark's weblog she describes as "comments and Links from a history and civics teacher in Raleigh, NC." An intelligent and newsy guide to blogs on the Right side of the sphere. I go there to get links and comment, like the teacher said.

Rhetoric is language working to persuade. Professor Andrew Cline's Rhetorica shows what a good lens this is on politics and the press.

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Susan Crawford, a law professor, writes about democracy, technology, intellectual property and the law. She has an elegant weblog about those themes.

Kevin Roderick's LA Observed is everything a weblog about the local scene should be. And there's a lot to observe in Los Angeles.

Joe Gandelman's The Moderate Voice is by a political independent with an irrevant style and great journalistic instincts. A link-filled and consistently interesting group blog.

Ryan Sholin's Invisible Inkling is about the future of newspapers, online news and journalism education. He's the founder of and a self-taught Web developer and designer.

H20town by Lisa Williams is about the life and times of Watertown, Massachusetts, and it covers that town better than any local newspaper. Williams is funny, she has style, and she loves her town.

Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former correspondent for CNN, has immersed herself in the world of new media and she's seen the light (great linker too.)

Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

Susan Mernit's blog is "writing and news about digital media, ecommerce, social networks, blogs, search, online classifieds, publishing and pop culture from a consultant, writer, and sometime entrepeneur." Connected.

Group Blogs

CJR Daily is Columbia Journalism Review's weblog about the press and its problems, edited by Steve Lovelady, formerly of the Philadelpia Inquirer.

Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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November 23, 2005

Guest Writer Steve Smith: Fortress Journalism Failed. The Transparent Newsroom Works.

He's the editor in Spokane: "The users of news aren’t hesitating. They are going to insist on an interactive, two-way flow of information, ideas and opinion— whether we like it or not. And if we don’t develop the user-as-producer model ourselves, others will do it for us or to us."

Special to PressThink

Fortress Journalism Failed. The Transparent Newsroom Works.
by Steven A. Smith
Editor, Spokane Spokesman-Review

“Transparent newsroom.” Just another buzz term? I don’t think so. Consider these examples from Spokane:

  • All of our daily news meetings are open to the public and we promote that opportunity on Page One several times each week. Those participating in morning critiques often remain afterward to talk with editors about issues that concern them. Invariably, we learn something worth knowing or get a tip on a story worth pursuing.
  • Eight citizen bloggers representing a cross-section of political and social views critique the paper daily in an online feature called “News is a Conversation.” Staffers can respond to the citizen posts; so can other readers. This generates an ongoing discussion of our news coverage, including our priorities, core beliefs and daily decisions.
  • Perhaps the most interesting experiment will come later this year when we begin Webcasting our morning and afternoon news meetings, inviting observers to participate through real-time chat-style interaction.

Transparency has been on my mind lately as I watch what’s happening in the national press. As a reader of the New York Times, I remain thoroughly confused about the Judith Miller fiasco. Most of what I know has come from industry watchers, cable pundits, Romenesko — and from executive editor Bill Keller’s internal communications, which are routinely leaked to the world. I wonder: How might the Times’ reputation, now taking another Blair-sized hit, have fared if Keller and his team had gone fully and transparently public with the details of their dilemma?

I am less confused about Bob Woodward’s role in the Plame case, and it’s partly because of Editor Len Downie’s decision to go public— and explain his judgment. Among other interviews, he went on CNN’s Reliable Sources to be questioned by Howard Kurtz, and he did an online Q and A with readers about his star reporter’s withholding of critical information. His answers were cautious, and he repeated himself a lot. But just by taking questions Downie established that the editor of the Washington Post is answerable to readers—and fellow journalists—when something happens to thrust the newspaper into the news. (See Rem Rieder, editor of AJR: Taking Their Questions, and Vaughn Ververs, editor of Public Eye, Sore Throat.)

In the days following Miller’s release from jail, Keller, whose editorship has never been easy, seemed uncertain of how best to represent The Times’ interests. I’m not sure he’s figured it out yet.

Downie, on the other hand, seems to have taken a step toward newsroom transparency, and away from “fortress newsroom,” even revealing some of the confusion, anger and frustration among Post staffers after Woodward’s revelations. What Downie now will discover is that transparency can lift the fog surrounding a newsroom controversy. Transparency—which includes being open about mistakes—can kill rumors and conspiracy theories that breed distrust. It can soften criticism, or at least direct it to the appropriate targets. (Where the mistake was made.) It can enhance credibility, but only if consistently followed.

That last is really the point. It’s a little counter-intuitive. But raising the window, fessing up, speaking directly to readers with a genuine openness actually enhances credibility. We’re learning that lesson in Spokane where we’re three years into our transparent newsroom initiative.

It didn’t seem like any initiative when we began it. The newspaper had taken a hit to its reputation over unaggressive coverage of its owners’ legal problems with the city, involving a company-owned downtown development project.

The Spokesman-Review hadn’t been properly inquisitive on that story. There had been some ethical lapses. Writing about those lapses and responding directly to readers in a series of community forums was an early experiment in transparency. And all indications are we closed the credibility gap on that issue, despite the fact that we had fallen down on part of the job.

Since then we’ve moved aggressively to achieve real—and by that I mean consistent, and routine—transparency with the people we serve.

In the days after I wrote about all this in the fall edition of Nieman reports , I’ve heard from several critics who worry that a more open newsroom will somehow cede control of “professional” journalism to the mob. They say we’ll lose authorship of the news we produce.

Others have told me they see value in openness, but the effort won’t help with circulation, or bring in younger readers, so it’s less valuable than another redesign or a free weekly tabloid or whatever innovation the consultants and researchers are pushing on us these days.

And I’ve even heard from a few of the veterans of the civic journalism wars of the 1990s who still argue that journalists produce the content, readers and viewers receive it, and any effort to make the exchange two-way violates sacred principles of separation and independence.

There is truth in all these hesitations. But the users of news aren’t hesitating. They are going to insist on an interactive, two-way flow of information, ideas and opinion— whether we like it or not. And if we don’t develop the user-as-producer model ourselves, others will do it for us or to us. Actually, that’s already happened.

Citizen participation in journalism may create a product that is more relevant, compelling, authentic and valuable than the journalism we did behind the fortress. The transparent newsroom isn’t really about “watching the sausage being made.” It lets the users of the newspaper get their hands dirty alongside the journalists. They produce some—a fraction, but it’s growing—of the content we publish daily.

That would never happen in “fortress newsroom,” a term I used in a series of speeches for the Pew Center for Civic Journalism in the early 1990s, when some of us were warning about the disconnect between citizens and their newspapers.

Fortress newsroom was the walled enclave where journalists practiced their craft in a “just the facts” environment, using selective notions of objectivity and artificial forms of balance to shield themselves from many consequences of their work.

In fortress newsroom, readers are something of a necessary inconvenience. We need their business, but not their ideas. In fortress newsroom, objectivity means independence defined by separation from… Journalists report on their communities but by newsroom law cannot be part of their communities. And listening to readers, trying to understand their interests and motivations, is the business of ad reps and circulation managers.

That the fortress newsroom model was failing newspaper journalism became apparent in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, which is when the industry began to wake up to declining readership and plummeting credibility, problems deeply upon us today.

I first fell out with the fortress during some early civic journalism experiments at The Wichita Eagle, where I was managing editor. Those Eagle projects were built around the notion that newspaper journalists and citizens were active partners in the support of democratic institutions and that citizen voices were the bedrock of effective public service journalism.

But attacking fortress newsroom through the frame of civic journalism wasn’t easy or effective. The civic journalism movement was too great a flashpoint and its critics successfully derailed the conversation by shouting code words at it, like “advocacy” and “boosterism.”

The turning point was The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) credibility project of 1997-1999. In two far-ranging ASNE credibility surveys, some of the key findings suggested that newspapers could slowly rebuild citizen trust by better explaining themselves and their decision-making, and by engaging with readers who have questions about the news and commentary they’re getting.

“This research suggests that most of the public is fairly generous in giving us credit for trying to explain ourselves to them,” Judy Pace Christie wrote in the overview to a report on the 1999 credibility survey. “The best outcome, of course, is that the education will be reciprocal.” And that’s the foundation for the “transparent newsroom,” which is simply the antithesis of the fortress kind.

I’ve been involved with transparency initiatives through the years at four different newspapers. In Wichita, editors went to malls and recreation centers and set up tables inviting readers to discuss their newspaper concerns. Crude. But poople came to talk and helped us understand several critical civic issues later addressed in the paper’s innovative “People project,” which marked one of the first times a newspaper let citizens actually help set the newsroom’s agenda.

In Colorado Springs, we invited community groups into the newsroom to audit and critique the paper’s journalism. Initiated as part of the ASNE credibility project, these community audits gave newsroom pros a glimpse into the often unanticipated, surprising ways readers interpreted the paper’s journalism. The process was never comfortable, particularly
when the staff took criticism from minority groups. Reporters and editors believed these groups were being well served; the auditors didn’t agree.

In Salem, Ore., open news meetings attracted community visitors almost daily. Open news meetings were not a new idea, and I’d been involved in such efforts since Wichita. But citizens took full advantage of the opportunity in Salem. I cannot remember a visitor that didn’t contribute in some way to the day’s news agenda. Often reader ideas for stories would send reporters in unexpected and enormously valuable directions.

The Spokesman-Review incorporates many of those earlier experiments but now we have the Internet, an ideal medium for newspaper journalists to interact with readers as citizens. Earlier transparency efforts required significant commitment. It isn’t always possible to for people to come to your meeting, even though they might be interested. Now with a little commitment they can contribute a lot.

Transparency isn’t complicated. It says we can improve the Spokesman-Review’s reputation in the communiy by better explaining what we do and why, by soliciting and then listening to reader criticism, and by involving citizens, at some level, in news planning and decision making.

Among our newsroom initiatives:

  • As many editors do, I periodically write about our journalism for the op-ed page. But the focus more often is on newsroom values, routines, reflexes and practices rather than particular stories or news decisions. One recent column articulated the core values that underlie newsroom policies and practices.
  • Too small to support a full-time ombudsman, we hired a local journalism professor with no connections to the paper to independently critique our work and respond to citizen complaints once or twice a month. Sometimes Whitworth College professor Gordon Jackson tackles subjects of his choosing, sometimes he responds to reader questions.
  • Five editors participate in an online blog called “Ask the Editors,” portions of which are repurposed for publication on the op-ed page each Friday. Questions tend to come in bunches and generally involve coverage decisions such as why the newspaper chose not to review a recent appearance of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The editors think about it, and reply.
  • One of our staff drafts a daily summary of the morning and afternoon news meetings, which is then posted online as “Daily Briefing.” The report summarizes the daily staff critique and highlights the major stories being worked for the next day.
  • We have a new transparency feature, “Finding the Frame,” in which photographers explain (and show) how they captured a particular image or set of images. For example, see the series of photos that led up to the dramatic, helmet-popping hit delivered by two Eastern Washington football players on Montana State’s quarterback, and hear Christopher Anderson’s explanation of how the scene unfolded. And Brian Plonka talks about a series of unsuccessful photos he made before capturing the imaginative photo that landed on Page 1. New concept in credibility: explain how you were unsuccessful.

Of course, The Spokesman-Review relies on traditional means of communicating with readers. We publish more than 5,000 letters-to-the-editor each year, far more than most newspapers our size. Editors, reporters and support staff handle e-mail and telephone doorways into the newsroom for people to voice compliments, complaints and concerns, all promoted in print and online. And through the energetic innovation of Online Publisher Ken Sands, we have started a bunch of staff-written blogs that have become lively, topic-focused conversations between journalists and the users of their product.

But we didn’t know that when we started. It’s the same with Webcasting our newsroom meetings. We plan to invite online viewers to comment on stories we’re developing and suggest ideas of their own. But will anyone participate in that way? How will observers respond to the occasionally off-color tone of a newsroom meeting? Will it enhance credibility or further confuse matters?

I understand why some of this seems so scary to journalists. The control issue is the biggest one. But we tend to forget that journalists always have control over what they publish, and with enough courage they can always say “no” to citizen-generated ideas that just won’t work.

The smart ones will recognize that transparency builds habits in journalists that are easier to trust. When they make a mistake, as Bob Woodward did, they will know from daily experience how to be open, and non-defensive. They will have many portals through which to communicate to readers, and answer questions. Leaked memos to an anxious staff won’t be one of them.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…


Steven A. Smith is editor of The Spokesman-Review, a privately held newspaper in Spokane, Wash., with a daily circulation of 107,000 and a Sunday circulation of 133,000. As editor, Smith supervises all news and editorial operations and a staff of 130 that produces three daily editions. He was named editor in July 2002.

Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years of the Statesman Journal, a Gannett newspaper in Salem, Ore. Previously, he was editor and vice president of The Gazette, a Freedom Communications Inc. newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was named editor in October 1995 and vice president in 1997. Fuller version.

PressThink’s Jay Rosen answered questions about recent controversies in the press at Transcript is here. (Nov. 22)

About “losing control,” and its myths. Here’s the note the Post appends to all its online chats, explaining what it controls and does not.

Editor’s Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Which is a balance-of-power solution: we choose the questions, you choose which ones to answer.

The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten writes about transparency in Spokane: (Nov. 20):

To show how much it values its readers’ viewpoints, the Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review has begun a program called the “transparent newsroom.” The editors invite the public to news meetings, encouraging them to watch and even participate as the editors discuss the news of the day, their plans for coverage, etc. With no disrespect to the members of the public — you know who you are — I think this is a terrible idea. If a horse produced by a committee comes out looking like a camel, a horse produced by a committee that is being assisted by well-intentioned, earnest, helpful, highly opinionated members of the public who happen to have this kind of time on their hands, if you know what I am saying, would come out looking like a … like a … like a …

“a wildebeest!”

I am quoting Doug Clark, who is a metro columnist for the Spokesman-Review.

The Seattle Times reports on the recall election for Jim West, the mayor in Spokane: (Nov. 27)

In this toughest campaign of a 25-year political career, West says he’s pitted against a caricature of himself drawn by recall sponsors and The Spokesman-Review, the local newspaper that since May has published nearly 150 stories about West, reporting allegations that he used his position as mayor to lure young men and that West sexually abused boys decades ago…

“I have no opponent other than the person they created who is supposedly me,” West said.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 23, 2005 3:22 PM   Print


Damn, that was good. Really.

One quibble -- the link in the reference to the Spokesman-Review's underreporting of a controversy involving the paper's owners will take you to a Seattle Times link, for which registration is required.

Another useful read on the subject was posted on Romenesko's letters page a while back. The link:

It looks as if the Spokesman-Review is doing quite a bit to open itself up to readers, and that's good. It's something that everyone in the journalism biz should be doing. Make the trend your friend, or it runs you over.

Posted by: Dexter Westbrook at November 21, 2005 6:20 PM | Permalink

.... traditional print journalism now finds itself in an economic position much like General Motors -- the consumers are finding better alternatives elsewhere.

GM and the print-journalists are belatedly & reluctantly trying to 'connect' with consumers... unfortunately that requires a complete change in the way they think & do business
(...'Fortress NewsRoom' to 'transparency').

GM can't do it -- and will be in bankruptcy soon.

Most print-journalist establishments will follow that path too. { tricks for old dogs ??}

Posted by: Collins at November 21, 2005 8:02 PM | Permalink

Steve, thank you for writing this and thanks to Jay for inviting you.

Yes! to the transparent newsroom.

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on the community function of the transparent newsroom and a community news council. The differences and similarities.

I would also be interested, since "Fortress Newsroom" has failed, whether you think the transparent newsroom is a way for news organizations to avoid renewed public interest in news councils?

Posted by: Sisyphus at November 21, 2005 8:08 PM | Permalink

Steve, were you at the Wichita Eagle when the BTK guy was wreaking havoc?

Posted by: kilgore trout at November 21, 2005 8:10 PM | Permalink

"...Spokesman-Review's underreporting of a controversy involving the paper's owners ..."

Here's the Poynter link on this that Dexter provided, in clickable form. Interesting reading.

Many questions, to be taken as food for thought rather than demands for responses...:

Steve, apologies since I haven't gone and looked, but how did you deal with the paper's past sins? Was there a Truth and Reconciliation equivalent, or did you just move forward and say "that's in the past, we're different now"? Are those responsible for the past still present but reformed? If so, was it the transparency that led to the reformation?

"The Transparent Newsroom Works" in that it restores the paper's credibility to readers. But the goal of many smaller papers is to serve their owners or advertisers' interests; what happens when transparency runs into that culture and those values? Is there a way to successfully, incrementally, move a paper towards transparency under those conditions?
Which comes first, the transparency or the values?

( BTW, side-links - McGill on Sulzberger, especially the part about S's then-vision for the Times. Also Lex's Working in the Glass House, on transparency. )

Posted by: Anna Haynes at November 21, 2005 8:47 PM | Permalink

The transparent newsroom will only work as long as the readers who are involved don't get in the way of an agenda.
The agenda may be conscious, it may be unconscious, the result of newsroom inbreeding.

First, you get rid of the agenda.

Read Cori Dauber's Rantingprofs for starters.

Her blog does not prove bias, but it shows major, glaring, flaws and inconsistencies. They may be the result of bias, they may not. But they will kill you. You should be able to do something about the agenda.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at November 21, 2005 10:18 PM | Permalink

Great piece. Gene Weingarten's column in the Washington Post comments on the Spokesman-Review's transparent newsroom, too.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at November 21, 2005 10:29 PM | Permalink

It seems to me that having "daily news meetings in public" changes the way those meetings are conducted, and not necessarily for the better. Its impossible to believe that the some of the participants don't censor themselves during such meetings, while others "play to the audience." People simply act differently when they are being observed (and judged).

Here's a specific example that I'm curious about.

Right now, The Spokesman-Review is giving lots of coverage to the accusations of sexual improprieties of Jim West. How do you discuss the West coverage in public, given that much of it concerns private consensual behavior between adults, and there are probably tons of rumors related to the most explosive charges against West (involving sex with young boys 25 years ago...).

My guess is that in a "Fortress Newsroom" editors would be much freer with their opinions regarding the coverage. And the reluctance to speak your mind could result in changes in how the news is reported....and not always for the better.

Posted by: ami at November 21, 2005 10:56 PM | Permalink

Interesting post. Thanks. I agree with ami about the difference between a private and public news meeting. But on the other hand, if editors claim to give us what we need to know, then we should be privy to their decisionmaking.

Here's a counterpoint from yesterday's Boston Globe, from a column by James Carroll. It's from a piece about the Woodward scandal:

The free press is an absolute value not only ecause the unfettered flow of information is essential to the republican system, nor only because the fourth estate serves as a check on the power of the other three, but because public expression is necessary for the communal self-awareness that keeps the body politic alive. You routinely turn to the newspaper each morning not only to learn what happened, but to stroke the otherwise intangible bond you share with the neighbors and strangers in whose company you will spend the day. Reading the morning paper is like tagging up, a literal ''touching wood," a dispelling of the darkness of night, all done in the knowledge that everyone else is doing the same thing, which gives you not only a place to start the day from, but a reassurance that you are not alone in your concern for the common good. The news media do for democracy what liturgy does for religion; what poetry does for experience; what gesture does for feeling. With words out of silence, the press tells you who you are.

This is lovely writing, but I find the sentiment irritating and patronizing. I don't need a newspaper to tell me who I am. Nor do I think that news people are the only ones who give life to democracy.

I agree that the press has the power to keep a better check on democracy and government than I do by myself. But the idea that I listen passively to journalists who tell me what to think, or what's important, or who I am, is just nonsense.

This seems like a view from a fortress newsroom.

Posted by: JennyD at November 22, 2005 7:47 AM | Permalink

There's nothing "transparent" about what Len Downie's been doing to save his worthless ass.

Go directly to firedoglake to read what Jane hamsher and company have to say not only about the Plame case and the mushrooming Abramoff scandal, but our famously "Free Press" (now enchained more than ever before.) You will also find there solid information about how a grand jury actually operates and how to interpret its findings. In other words this lowly blog is doing the sort of work a massive news operation like the Washington Post ought to do, but won't. Instead the Post wastes its space and our time with two-bit gossip and spin carefully crafted by unnamed Beltway "sources" whose water it ever-so-eagerly carries.

The Weekly Word News has higher journalistc standards than this pathetic rag!

Posted by: David Ehrenstein at November 22, 2005 11:38 AM | Permalink

To whom it may concern....

As much as I agree with David about the whole Woodward/Post/Downie thing, I'm desperately hoping that we can keep this discussion focussed on the issues of transparency as described by Steven Smith.

maybe Jay can get something up about the woodward debacle (just a short note about your recent chat at WP on-line would do,Jay) and we can have our usual wingnut/moonbat partisan debate in that thread, and have discussions of transparency here) :)

Posted by: ami at November 22, 2005 11:59 AM | Permalink

First, let me thank Jay for his spectacular editing and organizational help with this piece. He makes me sound much smarter and insightful than the reality suggests.

A couple of very quick responses to some of the questions. I'll find time later to be more fully responsive.

First, I was in Wichita from 1988 to 1993. During that time BTK was mostly a memory. It turns out one unsolved murder during that time was subsequently determined to be his work. But he was otherwise not a current event.

I am sensitive to the concerns about open news meetings. There is no question but the nature of the conversation changes somewhat. Least of my concerns is handling of sensitive stories or scoops. In a market such as ours, it is a rare daywhen our news agenda has such stories. On such occasions, we have plenty of opportunities to meet behind closed doors. Our Jim West coverage rarely makes the news meeting discussion agenda because of itnernal (not to mention external) security issues.

What I think we'll really lose with webcasting, and already do when we have guests, is some of the irreverent, even obscene black humor that marks any gathering of journalists and makes news meetings so much fun for us. We already dial that back when we have guests.

I think webcasting will mean even less of that cynical black humor. But aside from dulling us down a bit, I think that's probably a good thing. Our cynicism and black humor insulates us, in some ways, from the feelings and reactions of real people on the receiving end of our journalism. Forced to think and react like real people might help us make our journalism more authentic.

Havingsaid that, I think this will make a great anthropological/sociological case study for a doctoral someday.

More later.

Posted by: Steven A. Smith at November 22, 2005 12:44 PM | Permalink

Thanks for the info Steve. Some may think my question was OT, but I remember reading several accounts by journalists who were at the Wichita Eagle during the reign of terror by BTK, which were printed after he was caught, describing how they felt being a party to murder, dealing with the ingrained journo "scoop" mentality, how to balance the "public's right to know" with the work the police were doing and all that.

The question is how to deal with "transparency" in the face of a murderer who is using the press for his evil purposes?

Posted by: kilgore trout at November 22, 2005 2:07 PM | Permalink

On such occasions, we have plenty of opportunities to meet behind closed doors. Our Jim West coverage rarely makes the news meeting discussion agenda because of itnernal (not to mention external) security issues.

my first reaction upon reading this was "What a copout! When the heat is on, the "Fortress Newsroom" returns"

Then I realized that the purpose of the "open" meetings was not merely to provide a sense of transparency, they also (hopefully) instill a sense of confidence in the integrity of the process, and the people involved in it.

Posted by: ami at November 22, 2005 2:21 PM | Permalink

On the Washington Post chat today you said you felt that reporters being "credentialed" or "certified" would be unconstitutional. I agree if one is talk about a certification that becomes a requirement for practicing as a journalist.

But how about a professional organization espousing a code of ethics, where reporters are free to join (or not join). If they do claim membership, it signifies that they uphold that code of ethics.

I don't see a problem with that, and I do wish someone could take the initiative to get the profession back on track. I don't see change coming soon from the corporate media.

Posted by: Libby Sosume at November 22, 2005 3:40 PM | Permalink

Here's the (corrected) transcript of my Q & A with readers today at the Washington Post site: Journalism Under Scrutiny. This is my favorite part, also the one Romenesko used:

Toronto, Ontario, Canada: The Guardian UK had a story today about Bob Woodward's appearance last night on Larry King. Acknowledging that he should have told his editor that he had information relevant to the "leak" story -- and acknowledging that he only had a small piece of the puzzle, Mr. Woodward persists in his tempest in a teapot view of the affair. He has become part of the story, and long ago appears to have decided to become an insider in the Bush regime -- should he continue in any role with the Post?

Jay Rosen: I am not for firing him. But I do think this. In theory we send these people out to report back to us. Some of them penetrate the secret worlds of national security and government policy-making on our behalf. But if they keep going into the secret world they can come under the gravitational pull of another planet-- the people in power, the secret-makers themselves. They're still sending back their reports, but have "left" our universe, so to speak. I think this definitely happened with Judith Miller, who is very far gone by now. It may have happened with Woodward too. The mysterious part is you never know exactly when that point is reached.

Access journalism is un-transparent in the extreme.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 22, 2005 5:36 PM | Permalink

Steve: I liked your answer about black humor because I think "it insulates us from..." is worth considering.

Certainly an anthropologist, a student of cultures, or a sociologist, a student of groups, would say that filtering out black humor isn't the best way to get to know the group. Then there's the great Erving Goffman: every group has front stage and back stage behavior, and it enacts in each space a different understanding of itself and others. This is normal, not nefarious.

But taking it a little further, why shouldn't journalists, at their daily meetings, teach the people of Spokane the virtues of a journalist's black humor. Why is it your people filtering black humor out, rather than users factoring its uses in? After all, that would be equally transparent, right? Wouldn't real trust mean: I can joke in front of you... Wouldn't a really transparent news meeting say: "This is who we are" and all that?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 22, 2005 7:48 PM | Permalink

After all, that would be equally transparent, right? Wouldn't real trust mean: I can joke in front of you... Wouldn't a really transparent news meeting say: "This is who we are" and all that?

I can think of one reason -- paraphrasing a joke told to Madonna...

Imagine a meeting where the Jim West case is being discussed, and someone tells this joke...

Q: What does Jim West think is the best thing about having sex with twenty eight year olds?

A: There are twenty of them.

I can imagine a joke like that being told in a "Fortress Newsroom", but told in public it would raise questions about the impartiality of the editors. The very willingness to joke about serious news -- to not treat it seriously -- would have a negative impact on the paper, IMHO.

Posted by: ami at November 22, 2005 8:00 PM | Permalink

I am following the conversation re: black humor with great interest. I agree with Jay, to some extent but also agree with ami. There are no stark lines in this discussion. It is always going to be a matter of judgment with journalists in the position to make the decisions and draw the situational lines.

I would never suggest that we bleed our newsrooms or meetings of all humor and cynicism. For one thing, that can't happen. But ami's suggested joke -- a pretty funny and remarkably apt joke, at that -- is an example where holding our tongues might represent good, common sense, certainly in the interests of credibility.

In thinking about this, I come back to the grim humor newsroom's attach to horrible accidents, major crimes and the like. A weekend shooting at a mall in Tacoma prompted soem typical black humor at the morning news meeting.

Our reactions to such situations, similar to first-responder reactions, do insulate us from the reactions of real people on the street and failing to dfeel as they feel can produce a disconnected, even offensively cold and dispassionate report.

What I like about our upcoming webcast experiment is that we'll find out what works, what offends and what enhances credibility. That's because no matter what I say, our staff will quickly forget the camera is there and we'll fall back to typical newsroom habits. When we cross the line, we'll hear about it and have the chance to redo the calculus for the next time.

Scary but fun.

Posted by: Steven A. Smith at November 22, 2005 8:12 PM | Permalink

Then maybe transparency is a performance, which is different from saying it's an act.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 22, 2005 8:33 PM | Permalink

on restraining the black humor - sounds like it's similar to what all-male workgroups had to do when women's lib came along; what was 'natural' before, had to get toned down.
"The readers are the new women"?

Posted by: Anna Haynes at November 22, 2005 11:12 PM | Permalink

Very smart idea to create "transparent newsroom” and the idea that if you do not create then it will create itself is cvery smart in a sense it is creating your competetion.

Posted by: Ashley Bowers at November 23, 2005 10:57 PM | Permalink

Hey, Jenny -- you think that column is bad, you should see their latest billboards.

I know James Carroll -- he was one of the best teachers I had in college; I'll have to go read the whole thing. Carroll is a columnist, and I don't know if he's a regular.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at November 25, 2005 2:58 AM | Permalink

My general experience with blogging has left me thinking this: The crabby and vindictive can always find you, even if you've left no forwarding address, have an unlisted phone, and are living under an assumed name. Blogging lets the helpful, nice, and well-adjusted people find you and tell you how to fix your computer.

My hope is that newspapers end up feeling the same way about openness. The thing is, the news media are often central to a segment of people for whom moral indignation is one of the four food groups, which means that meetings could end up with persistent trolls who have nothing to offer but bile. Of course, people deal with that kind of thing on their blogs all the time, and eventually they end up setting up ground rules for discourse. Some allow more leeway to their visitors, others less. I think it's perfectly acceptable to expect guests to be constructive. While the relationship between readers isn't (I hope) the same as a customer buying a plastic doorstop, it should be noted that it is still a privilege to enter someone else's workplace as a guest and partake of conversation and a free danish. I think it's perfectly acceptable to ask readers who visit to offer something constructive, and to display at least some basic level of civility.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at November 25, 2005 3:12 AM | Permalink

It's not just black humor, but salty language that we have to filter out when we open our doors to the public. My former boss (God Rest Her Soul) was the sweetest, nicest woman I ever met in the business, but she dropped more F-bombs than a platoon sergeant.

I think Smith is to be commended for these initiatives, but I think the subject of humor is an important one. How many blogs do you read because they are dull but dependable? Would you advise a blogger to "dull it down a bit?"

Here's the thing: Newspapers want a mass market, and to reach and sustain a mass market you have to minimize the number of people you offend. This strategy doesn't give you a great deal of wiggle room, and it isn't likely to make you quotable, but it won't blow up in your face, either. It just... erodes.

I was thinking about this last night and it occurred to me that the spirit of the Old Media was broadcast and the spirit of the Old New Media was niche... but that the spirit of the New New Media is personal. In our print editions we're probably wise to stay relatively dull and reliable (it's what people expect), but as we move into the Web 2.0 world, how will we translate that product into a more personal format? Can we be reliable AND have personalities? Flaws? Quirks?

Posted by: Daniel Conover at November 27, 2005 10:03 AM | Permalink

Flaws? Quirks? Sure. But where?

Do I want my 4th grade kid's teacher to have quirks that make her teaching more enjoyable? How about my heart surgeon?

So where do journalists and journalism fit here? I like a good quirk in a novel. Do I want one in a news broadcast? Or at least in one that purports to be quirk-free? H

Posted by: JennyD at November 27, 2005 8:46 PM | Permalink

We're starting to get to the heart of things here.
Sure, good journalists crack black humor all the time.
It's their shield against the venality that they're exposed to every day.
But the same is true -- black humor -- of good cops, good shrinks, good prosecutors, good judges, good politicians, good professors and anyone who momentarily needs some down time to stop being a Boy Scout 24/7 and blow off some steam.
Which raises the question: Exactly how far do we want transparency to go ?
Maybe the public should know that the news editor making page one choices for the local Herald Bugle is a weary soul who is most of the time hungover, and also coming off of a bad marriage and a personal bankruptcy. (After all, his colleagues know, and his boss knows.)
Or ... and here I may be venturing into heresy ... maybe it shouldn't.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at November 27, 2005 10:46 PM | Permalink

I don't think it's heresy, or if it is I'm not familar with the religion you reference, Steve. Who ever said transparency should be--could be--total? The post talks about it being consistent and routine, but it doesn't mention "absolute."

Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 27, 2005 11:42 PM | Permalink

I think Steve's on to something. And it's not so much personal transparency (although a bit of that helps) but transparency of ideas and taste, much of which can be communicated very effectively by humor. What does the editor think is important? Where does he or she see themselves in the social order?

If you look at people talking about The Media (as opposed to individual people who happen to work in the news business), it's this kind of thing they are making assertions and speculating about.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at November 28, 2005 10:48 PM | Permalink

(Lisa, I read Steve L's comment as arguing - quietly - against "let it all hang out" transparency.)

When you embrace transparency, does that mean that you're willing to inform readers as thoroughly on your own institution as you are on others?

Because sometimes the informing is more effective when the 'camera' you provide isn't focused at the day-by-day, blow-by-blow, "see our trees" level, but rather provides an abstraction/ organization of the information available. i.e. if all you're providing is the raw datastream, you may be giving your readers the flavor of the institution, but not the big picture.

(With maximum 'transparency', and minimum capabilities for filtering/aggregation, the important things can get lost in plain sight.)

Here's the Seattle Times on the West case, which raised this question and others for me. (However this thread's not the right venue for asking the rest.)

Posted by: Anna Haynes at November 29, 2005 12:53 AM | Permalink

From the Intro