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November 11, 2007

Out in the Great Wide Open

By now you may have heard about the implosion of Wide Open, a political blog started by the Cleveland Plain Dealer with four "outside" voices brought in from the ranks of Ohio bloggers: two left, two right. Twelve points you may not have seen elsewhere.

By now you may have heard about the implosion of Wide Open, a political blog started by the Cleveland Plain Dealer with four “outside” voices brought in from the ranks of Ohio bloggers: two left, two right. They were paid as freelance contributors.

Here’s the way the “reader representative,” Ted Diadiun, described the meltdown. It began when Rep. Steve LaTourette, a Republican Congressman, found out that one of the Wide Open bloggers, Jeff Coryell of Cleveland Heights, had contributed $100 to his opponent.

LaTourette was unhappy that the newspaper would pay someone who financially supported his opponent to write political opinion. He complained to editorial page director Brent Larkin, who referred him to Editor Susan Goldberg, whom he had never met. LaTourette set up an appointment, then thought better of it and canceled.

Goldberg was also unhappy, but not because LaTourette was unhappy.

“The issue here isn’t blogging, or political pressure,” she said. “The issue is our financial tie to these four bloggers. To allow someone we pay to use our site to, potentially, lobby for a candidate they financially support would put us in a place we can’t go. Had we known that he had contributed to the opponent of a person he might write about, we wouldn’t have put him on the blog in the first place.”

After some deliberation, Dubail told Coryell he would have to agree to refrain from writing about LaTourette if he wanted to continue with the blog. Coryell declined, and they parted ways. The other liberal blogger quit in sympathy….

And that was the end of the blog, Wide Open. But the episode was just starting. (See Editor & Publisher’s account, and Jeff Jarvis once, then again. Danny Glover thinks Jarvis has been too rough on the P-D. Here is Jeff Coryell’s resignation, and Jill Zimon’s I’m quitting too post. See Jill’s blog, Writes Like She Talks, for continuing coverage.)

My own conclusion tracks with what what Mark Potts said: “A classic case of a newspaper so stuck in the old ways of doing things that it shoots itself in the foot when it ventures into something new. The paper’s management has rolled itself into a defensive ball over something that shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place, making things worse in the process.”

Which is especially true of Ted Diadiun’s odious explainer, “Wide Open blog bumps up against journalistic ethics,” almost a primer in legacy media sludge think. What not to do in a blog storm has rarely been better shown. Organization of Newspaper Ombudsmen (ONO), bid your members to study Ted’s work that you might warn them not to repeat it. And if you need help, Jarvis took the column apart point-by-point.

“This is a story about how The Plain Dealer got itself spattered by some primordial ooze last week,” Diadiun wrote. That would be the mud—an image of ethical taint—that gets slung casually around in the blogosphere. Because a lot of people were sympathetic to Coryell’s argument that he was dumped after a Republican Congressman complained, some of the mud hit the newspaper in Cleveland. In case you’re wondering what “newspaper” signifies these days, that’s the building where they keep the ethics, at least according to Diadiun. “The fallout from all this draws a bright line between the way newspaper reporters and bloggers ply their crafts.”

What he means is: bloggers can afford to have zero ethics, journalists cannot. It takes a special kind of mind to divide up the world that way, which is why I am including Ted Daidiun’s column in Cold Type, my anthology of great curmudgeon lit. (Other selections here and here and here and here.)

Since so much has been written on this episode, and I am late in commenting on it, I offer a few points not made elsewhere: (Okay, so twelve points is not exactly a “few.”)

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After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Also from the Plain-Dealer, this piece may be the greatest “curmudgeon says bloggers suck” column ever— and that’s a big category. It is practically a work of art. You cannot get more old school without issuance of a death certificate. Favorite line: “Or do I mean blog? No, I think I mean blab.”

“Establishing written guidelines with contributors — whether they are paid or not — is critical, says Tom Regan, news blogger for National Public Radio and former executive director of the Online News Association. I agree with Tom on this. And when the 12 newsrooms participating in beat reporting with a social network are announced on Nov. 14 (watch for it) they would be wise to establish such guidelines for the networks each beat reporter pulls together.

Jeff Coryell in the comments to this post: “It may be that bloggers ought to be more rigorous with disclosures even on their own independent blogs than they are.”

Kathy Gill: “Way back when (2005), the LA Times tried an experiment with wikis without really understanding what wikis are all about. It looks like the Cleveland Plains Dealer has done the same thing with a four-reader political blog.”

Danny Glover of Beltway Blogroll in the comments: “The opinion wiki was a bad idea from the start and was doomed to fail based on the content it was bound to generate. All the Times did was create a new forum for an online flame war, thus giving old media sanction to that particular type of new media bad behavior. Wide Open did not fail because it was a bad idea. It was actually a great idea — and one that a smart newspaper will embrace and improve upon someday soon.”

See also Glover’s Your Ethic, My Ethic, Our Ethic. “Journalists and bloggers will never be able to work together in peace until people in both worlds find some common ethical ground,” he says. “Right now, the two groups are talking past each other with an air of superiority.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 11, 2007 1:04 AM