Digital City Gets a Scoop, Then Fumbles It

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By: Steve Outing

Steve Outing is taking a few days off, following the arrival of a new child in his family. His column will resume next week.

Digital City has learned that practicing good journalism can be “complex.” In its first test of journalistic acumen, the online city guide company’s Digital City Denver unit in the middle of last week put online an investigative package about the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant that included the first-ever publication of a full release of a judge-censored grand jury report — scooping Denver’s major newspapers. But when Digital City corporate executives realized that their Denver unit had published a confidential report that technically might be in contempt of court, they pulled the series off-line on Friday so that company executives and lawyers could “evaluate” the situation.

In so doing, Digital City seems to have floundered in its handling of a journalistic hot potato, and called into question whether the company really wants to be serious about providing in-depth news coverage for the communities in which it operates locally — or stay out of the “real” news business and leave enterprise journalism to those local media partners who are established news organizations. (In many cities, Digital City allies with local media outlets, who provide news coverage for the online service.)

Digital City executives say they are taking some time to closely consider publishing the grand jury report, and there is the possibility that they might put it back online this week.

Digital City’s big ‘scoop’

DC-Denver made headlines last week by being the first to publish on the Internet the controversial complete report of a federal grand jury about allegations of wrong-doing and a cover-up of environmental law violations by managers of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant near Denver. (The plant no longer produces nuclear weapons, but since 1990 has been operated by EC&G, the company charged with cleaning up the facility.) Freelance investigative journalist Ryan Ross, who has covered the Rocky Flats story since the mid 1980s, wrote a series of articles about the Flats controversy exclusively for DC-Denver, and acquired from an unnamed source the full, uncensored report of the grand jury, which DC-Denver managers decided to publish online.

Grand jury reports normally are not made public and jury members are sworn to secrecy, but in 1993, a (now retired) U.S. District judge who presided over the grand jury agreed to allow publication of this report — minus sections that he censored, because he believed they contained unsubstantiated allegations against Flats officials. DC-Denver is the first media outlet to publish (at least temporarily) the full, uncensored report of the grand jury. (However, some judge-censored excerpts were published in 1993 by Denver alternative newsweekly Westword and Harper’s magazine. The DC-Denver publication of the complete jury report was a journalistic first.)

Ross, in his accompanying online stories, explained that the jurors are angry over prosecutors’ successful moves to quash their report about alleged wrongdoing and the covering up of environmental violations. Flats officials working for EC&G and previous plant manager Rockwell International were never prosecuted individually for alleged illegal acts, and a deal was worked out where Rockwell was fined $18.5 million for violations of federal and state environmental laws. Grand jurors spent three years investigating the Rocky Flats allegations, and reportedly many are outraged at what many observers call a “slap on the wrist” against Flats management. Jurors blame prosecutors for squelching their more serious allegations, which they believe should be prosecuted. They want the ability to speak out with their side of the story, but are bound to stay quiet by judge’s order.

U.S. District judge Richard Matsch (who presided over the recent Oklahoma City bombing trial in Denver) now has jursidiction over the Flats cases, and he is considering a request by the grand jurors to release to the public the full, uncensored report. DC-Denver’s publication of the uncensored report last week rendered that decision moot. But then Digital City pulled it off-line on Friday.

There is some speculation that Matsch could go after the source of DC-Denver’s copy of the report with contempt of court charges, but journalist Ross and DC-Denver editor Gil Asakawa have said publicly that they will not reveal how the grand jury report was obtained. Should some sort of legal action by Matsch transpire, pulling the report off-line after it was already once published online — and reported on in Denver area media — may not do much good. At this writing, there was no indication that Matsch would try to get DC-Denver editors to reveal their source.

Bellwether event

Publishing the Rocky Flats series and the grand jury report was good journalism — not much different than what you would expect to find as enterprise reporting in a major daily newspaper or as the cover piece of a fiesty alternative newsweekly. Environmental problems at the Rocky Flats nuclear plant is one of the most important stories in the Denver area, and allegations of a government cover-up deserve to be aired in public. This is an important story.

That an online news service made a significant break in the ongoing Rocky Flats saga is defining moment in the evolution of online news. A modestly staffed online operation covering the local scene was able to beat the dailies on an important story. Journalist Ross (who also was responsible for DC-Denver’s live online coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing trial, though he is not a DC-Denver staff member) chose to break this story online rather than in the traditional media.

Alas, by backing off and pulling the Flats package and grand jury report, Digital City opens itself up for criticism for not knowing how to handle an important news story. Journalists watching companies like Microsoft and America Online edge into the news business have the opportunity to say “I told you so!” when corporate executives override local journalistic decision-making. The news business is more complex than these companies might realize, some will say.

A Digital City spokesman explained that DC-Denver’s Rocky Flats package came to the attention of Digital City top executives late last week, after it already was online. Asked whether the decision to pull the series had anything to do with speculation in a local newspaper that the source of the report could face contempt charges as a result of the grand jury report being published on DC-Denver, the spokesman declined to comment.

In an official statement, the spokesman said: “Digital City provides relevant information to the regional areas it serves. With this focus, Digital City Denver created the Rocky Flats online area as a response to community interest in the Denver area. The issue of electronic dissemination of sealed materials is complex. In light of this complexity, Digital City senior management has instructed Digital City Denver to remove the report from the site pending further evaluation.”

This story is a defining moment for Digital City as a company. If its executives choose to put the Rocky Flats series and the grand jury report back online, it will have chosen to define its Digital City local units as legitimate news organizations that can compete with established local news media players on selected local stories. If they choose to keep the Flats package off-line permanently, Digital City will be defined in most eyes as an online city guide company where news — at least in-depth news that requires some fortitude to publish in the face of controversy and/or threats of legal action — is not part of the business plan.

This is a story we will watch as it unfolds.

Job seekers, look here

My column last week containing advice to college students interested in new media careers brought a note from Joe Grimm, recruiting and development director for the Detroit Free Press. He has created a useful Web site containing information for those seeking journalism careers, with details about Free Press job and internship openings, as well as links to other positions open throughout the Knight-Ridder chain (the Freep’s parent company). The site also contains links to journalism career resources and articles of interest to the student job seeker. I encourage you to check it out at http://www.freep.com/jobspage.

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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