Pressing Issues: When Bloggers Hit Too Close to Home

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By: Greg Mitchell

While 2005 might have been the Year of the Podcast, December ? in a throwback to 2004 ? was the Month of the Blog. Much of the buzz centered around developments at two bellweathers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, but issues that arose there during the final weeks of the year reflected challenges elsewhere. In short: At what point does giving prominent play to bloggers outside the paper’s own newsroom begin to seem self-defeating?

E&P has chronicled the rise of blogs from the very beginning, in print and on our Web site. Before it was fashionable, we were hailed by some bloggers for drawing on their research and commentary ? and crediting them ? while also providing scoopy raw material for them to exploit. We have even set up our own blog, its launch delayed only because of staffing concerns. So we are hardly blogophobes. But challenges for the MSM (mainstream media, as bloggers call it) remain. I’ll just tick off a few here, as E&P prepares an extensive feature article on this subject for a forthcoming issue.

Too much of a good thing? Blog philosophers such as Jeff Jarvis say readers aren’t interested in simply being informed, they demand a “conversation.” In response, some newspaper sites, principally the Washington Post, schedule numerous online chats with top editors and key reporters. That’s all well and good, but I find the form generally disappointing. The questions are screened, some are inane or feature political rants, and there’s no follow-up. And I can never stop thinking: This is valuable, but maybe I’d rather have this terrific reporter spend this hour working on a big news story that might save lives ? or at least give millions of readers and thousands of bloggers something fresh and important to “converse” about in the coming days.

Why help the critics and the competition? On Dec. 16, the New York Times broke one of its top stories of the year, revealing (somewhat belatedly) that the Bush administration was eavesdropping on Americans without court approval. For the first time that I have noticed, near the top of its Web site ? right under its headline about this story ? it included a link to blog reaction. Clicking on that brought you to a long series of links to partisan blogs.

There was no need to search for this. It was all right there, and nearly all of it was negative, of course, from both right and left ? ranging from Michelle Malkin denouncing the “civil liberties Chicken Littles” at the paper to Will Bunch claiming that if the Times had run this story last year, John Kerry would be president today.

Again, you might say this was a service to readers and improved the “conversation,” though as usual it was more of an argument or shouting match. Criticism of the MSM is warranted and inevitable, but does the MSM really want to hasten its demise by making criticism of it ? often based on inaccurate information or purely partisan beliefs ? quite so accessible? And, in the process, drive eyeballs away from your own Web site? The irony at the Times site was that it made outside commentary so freely available while keeping its own columnists behind the “pay” wall.

Antagonizing your own staffers? Also, you have to wonder how the Times reporters who produced the big spy scoop felt about getting smacked via their own site. The Washington Post for many months has been carrying a “Who’s Blogging” box within many stories with links to dozens of outside bloggers. Some Post reporters have complained about this practice. You could call them “poor babies” ? or perhaps they are merely proud pros who resent having instant (sometimes know-nothing) analysis attached directly to a piece they’ve just spent several tough weeks putting together.

It’s one thing to expect criticism, it’s another to find it yoked right to your piece. Since the feature is powered by Technorati, it’s something that any other site could, and perhaps will, soon feature.

What about in-house blog criticism? Controversy erupted in mid-December after the Washington Post’s ombudsman revealed that some at the paper had complaints about its popular blog “White House Briefing,” created by Dan Froomkin, a former Post staffer who now works off-site. Some object to its title (they say it makes it seem he is one of the Post’s White House correspondents), while others hit its alleged liberal tilt and/or resent Froomkin criticizing their stories or linking to others outside who did.

Eventually, the paper’s Web editor said the title of the blog would stay, but it would more clearly be labeled as “opinion.” Also, the paper is looking to add a rightward-tilting blogger. Where have I heard: “Double your trouble, double your fun?”

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