By: Carl Sullivan
Updated at 5:45 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, April 25
What you do on your own time is your business, unless you’re a journalist. In that case, certain restrictions seem to apply, though these rules are debatable, and they’re not uniform.
The Internet only complicates matters, as a recent decision by Hartford (Conn.) Courant Editor Brian Toolan illustrates.
Toolan recently told Courant Travel Editor Denis Horgan that he could no longer publish commentary on his Web log, DenisHorgan.com. Horgan is a former columnist for the paper who was transferred to the travel writing position earlier this year.
Horgan said he then decided to set up his own Web page, where he has commented on everything from baseball to the Iraqi information minister to same-sex unions. “It kept me happy and gave me a chance to keep doing things that I wanted to do,” Horgan told E&P Online. “I do it on my own time, from my own house. I’m not competing with the Courant. I’m not looking for advertisers. In fact, it costs me money to do this.”
But Toolan sees it differently. “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,” Toolan said. “That makes the paper vulnerable.”
The editor added that allowing an employee to set up his own opinion blog was a bad precedent. “There are 325 other people here who could create similar [Web sites] for themselves,” said Toolan, who called his decision “common sense.”
This isn’t the first time a journalist has been asked by his employer to suspend private Web writing. CNN and Time magazine each recently asked an employee to cease writing personal blogs. And the Houston Chronicle reportedly fired a reporter last summer after he anonymously penned some scathing reviews on a blog about local politicians — who he also covered for the Chronicle.
Sreenath Sreenivasan, who runs the new-media journalism program at Columbia University, said he was surprised by the Horgan case. He said media companies benefit by having their reporters’ work distributed in other media.
Paul Grabowicz, director of a similar program at the University of California at Berkeley, didn’t want to comment on the specifics of the Horgan case, but said these types of conflicts will likely increase. “It’s not uncommon for media companies to ask reporters to refrain from expressing their personal or political opinions,” he said. “But I’m also concerned about this sort of notion that people who work for a publication are a bunch of unopinionated robots pumping out objective copy. … There’s got to be some kind of balance here.”
For Toolan, the balance has been established by journalism tradition. “Working journalists assume certain responsibilities in return for salaries and benefits and the proximity to news and newsmakers,” he said.
“There are restraints that we shake hands on here,” Horgan said, “but I don’t think I surrender the right to sit in my family room and type up my observations on the Red Sox.”
In the final posting on his blog, Horgan said he will continue to explore his “rights and options.”
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