By: Joe Strupp
When The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash., broke the story of former Mayor James West trolling the Web for young men in May 2005, the paper’s use of a consultant posing online as a gay man sparked much of the initial controversy. But as the story developed, and the Spokesman-Review continued to cover the fallout in detail, the paper’s risky decision to to share much of its raw reporting material with online readers drew just as much attention.
As the story progressed through the year (eventually leading to West’s recall by voters in late 2005), the paper increased its transparency, posting audio and video clips of interviews with key players, documents, and letters related to the story, and even a transcript of an early morning phone call West made to Editor Steve Smith’s home as the mayor frantically tried to defend himself. Materials and documents that usually remain in newspaper filing cabinets or reporters’ notebooks were instead put out there for all to see.
“The Web gave us some reach we didn’t have before,” says Smith, adding it “was our first foray into that level of transparency. We realized that we had the opportunity to do it. Thousands of people have accessed it and many appreciated the opportunity.”
Among those eventually studying the material were the producers of Frontline, the PBS program that did its own story on the West scandal this past November ? and took serious issue with some elements of the Spokesman-Review’s coverage. In several cases, the program utilized raw materials culled from the newspaper’s Web site to criticize its reporting.
In questioning the paper’s assertion that West first proposed a face-to-face meeting with their online imposter, for example, Frontline cited the paper’s own transcript of the Web chat. It argued that the paper’s consultant actually brought up the idea first. Frontline also used a snippet of audio from a nearly two-hour Spokesman-Review interview with West to indicate the paper had ambushed the mayor. “I think they were unfair to us because they took one little clip and did not put it in context,” contends reporter Bill Morlin, a key figure in the dispute.
Transparency figured further in this episode. Following the Frontline show, Smith and dozens of readers from around the country forcefully aired their views on the fairness of the Spokesman-Review’s West probe on a blog the paper operates as part of its wide-open approach.
In any case, the coverage of West and its aftermath represents both the positive and negative aspects of newspaper transparency, which is spreading among daily papers. Whether it’s the posting of documents, audio and video interviews, and court transcripts or letting outsiders into news and editorial board meetings, newspapers are becoming increasingly willing to let readers know exactly how they do their jobs, and what materials helped create stories.
“I am of the school that the more openness, the better,” says Amanda Bennett, former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, which posted undercover police surveillance video and audio on its site as a supplement to a series on cyber drug dealing. “We know that they are getting hits, people are looking at them.”
Chicago Tribune managing editor/news George de Lama agrees. “We do it in ways that we think will help people understand the story,” he says, citing the posting of a murder victim’s 911 call for a story about an alleged wrongful execution in Texas. “It’s a trend in the business to give people different ways to access a story.”
But Tom Fiedler, executive editor of The Miami Herald (who retires next month), offers perhaps the best quip in referring to the reader appeal: “Everybody’s an editor.” Still, worries surround the trend, including new legal questions, concerns about reporters losing control of their notes, and the danger of overloading readers with esoteric material.
News, in the raw
The Spokesman-Review may be one of the best examples of the newspaper industry’s newfound embrace of transparency. Among the first to post raw reporting materials on its Web site and open up news meetings via a daily webcast, the Spokane daily sees its future bound to Web-related openness.
“I believe that our transparency really blunted a lot of the criticism [of the West probe],” says Online Publisher Ken Sands. “I want to give people the raw material so they can judge.” Editor Smith says readers often cited the online extras in letters to the editor, some contending that “we drew the wrong conclusions.”
The same materials that bolster reporting can also open the paper up to criticism if readers focus on a fact or piece of reporting that didn’t make the final story. “It does have a downside to it,” says reporter Karen Dorn Steele, who worked with Morlin on many of the West-related stories. “We are trying to be as transparent as possible, and you can draw your own conclusions that may be different from ours.” In more than 400 e-mails and letters to the paper the first week after the West story broke, readers made their conclusions known.
Sands sees the paper’s Web use only growing in the future. He predicts an approach in which the paper would post its reporting on a specific story from an initial tip through to the final report. “You tell people what you are working on so they can help you,” he says. “We have nothing to hide. You bring the same journalism practices into play.” He compares it to a breaking news story on a local or national newscast in which anchors report one initial piece of information, with details added as time goes on: “It gives us a place to start.”
More ammo for the critics?
Most papers that have followed Spokane’s lead on the transparency front, however, have stuck with providing background information and materials only on completed stories. Some of it is as simple as the Miami Herald posting video interviews with sources for a July series on housing corruption. “It is a different way of reaching readers,” says reporter Debbie Cenziper, who wrote the stories and appeared in some of the video. “I see it as complementing what we put in the newspaper. I think that can only help us.”
Inevitably, the Herald’s online interviews were sometimes more extensive than those used in the print coverage. Cenziper recalls some online video interviews that were done separate from the print reporting, with none of the former elements making it into print. When such additional material is placed online, it can prompt criticism from those who ask why it was not included in the print story ? charging in some cases that it might have changed the published account.
“I think a fair-minded person would conclude we did it competently,” claims the Herald’s Fiedler. “And even better than they could have, because we are professionals and they are not.”
Jonathan Landman, deputy managing editor of The New York Times, echoes that view, saying, “It doesn’t bother me at all ? let them take their shots.” Landman, who has been involved in the paper’s recent converging of its online and print newsrooms, adds, “The reason people read newspapers like the New York Times is that they like the editing; we boil it down.”
One such area in which the Times has opened itself to scrutiny is polling coverage. In the past, whenever the newspaper reported on one of its wide-ranging polls, it usually focused on the most newsworthy elements with some supporting data.
Today, the Times posts the entire raw database from the survey on the Web. “It is much more complete than anything you could see in the newspaper,” Landman points out. “Putting the raw material up there is a great thing; it gives the reader more information.”
However, it also opens the paper up to those who point to elements of a poll not reported in the final story. One such case was a Nov. 2, 2006, story by reporter Adam Nagourney on a late October poll that spotlighted findings on voter attitudes about Iraq, President Bush’s approval rating, and the likely outcome of the mid-term elections. But the raw data from the poll, posted online, provided all findings from the survey’s 84 questions as well as detailed information on those surveyed.
Readers who cared could see that results concerning Bush’s dealings with Iran, North Korea, and the environment did not appear in the printed story, and some could have wondered why. They also could find that about 80% of the respondents were white and just 28% were college graduates. “If people want to criticize, they can give it a shot,” says Landman. “I am concerned with making things useful to people.”
Nagourney, who writes many polling stories, often gets criticized by readers who see the complete poll and complain that some elements are not in his story. “They do it all the time,” he says. “It gives people ammunition to come after you.” He adds that laying out all of the findings at once can make it difficult to use some data in later stories: “It bothers me, because this gives it to a competitor.”
The Washington Post also reveals polling data, and readers often post comments on the paper’s site or on outside political blogs, asserting that certain surveys seem to have a disproportionate number of Republicans or Democrats ? and thus, in their view, should be taken with a grain of salt.
One New York Times project, Kurt Eichenwald’s controversial 2005 story on a teen who received money to perform sexual acts online via a Webcam, did not feature transcripts of related online chats. Eichenwald, who left the paper in October for Portfolio magazine, considered seeking an online slot for the chat exchanges between Justin Berry and his “clients,” but deemed the racy comments to be too objectionable for a family newspaper. “There were a lot of unbelievably graphic things,” he says. “It was difficult to find quotable things because it was in chat language, and it was very offensive.”
But Eichenwald and Times editors still used the Web to post two background items not found in the print version: a video interview with Berry and a first- person essay by Eichenwald describing how he found the youngster. “There were a lot of people who congratulated the Times on telling the backstory,” Eichenwald says. “Just laying out what happened.”
A chance to dig even deeper
Since The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning revelations in 2002 of sexual abuse by priests, which sparked an international review of the issue, the paper has continued to report on the subject ? and posted nearly all of its relevant documents and reporting material online. From an angry 1982 letter to the Archdiocese of Boston from a woman complaining that relatives had been molested to video interviews with several victims of abuse, the Globe regularly puts up supporting material.
“It brings credibility,” says Editor Martin Baron, noting that the award-winning coverage drew heavy scrutiny from the local Catholic community. “The documents themselves are very powerful. We can show [online readers] the documents, and they can see for themselves that we are not slanting it in any way.”
Even today, the paper’s coverage includes extensive material ? often beyond what ends up in print. One such example was an April 2006 interview with Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the new Boston archbishop. While the paper ran an extensive story on the interview, the Web site posted the entire transcript.
But Baron admits that the percentage of online readers who pick through the additional material is small: “It is a select group of people who have an intense level of interest and want to dig deeper.” For those people, he adds, the Web materials are a valuable asset.
The Oregonian in Portland posted bankruptcy files from the Portland Archdiocese to document how much the priest scandal there had cost the local church. “It helps address the complaint that, ‘Oh, you have an agenda,’ or, ‘You’re not telling the whole story,'” says Executive Editor Peter Bhatia. “It could be used against you in some cases; you have to be careful what you put up.”
Even smaller papers have joined the trend. Take The Post Register of Idaho Falls, Idaho, circulation 24,900. As part of its recent coverage of a local prosecutor’s alleged theft of police evidence, the paper posted a 1,400-page investigative report on the case. “It was about four inches thick,” says Editor Dean Miller. “But dozens of people downloaded the whole document.”
Sherry Chisenhall, editor of The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, says there isn’t much about the notorious BTK killer case that her paper has not run on its Web site. From a copy of confessed killer Dennis Rader’s response note to his high school reunion to transcripts of his court testimony, the Eagle has been pleased to reveal any and all background data and sourcing.
“We know from the links the transcripts got that people want to go that deep,” Chisenhall says of her paper’s Web coverage of the 60-year-old killer who murdered at least 10 people between 1974 and 1991. “In some cases, like BTK, it is almost impossible to give some people too much.” She says only graphic crime scene photos were considered too offensive to run, although she notes that Rader’s grisly testimony about the brutal murders was posted with a warning label.
“We never got complaints about it,” the editor adds. “The purpose is to give you access to the same material the reporters have.”
Not unlike those who decide what content makes the print edition, those deciding on what background information to post on the Web face myriad concerns. In some ways the decisions over what to put up online are tougher, because space limitations aren’t usually a concern.
Phil Bennett, managing editor of the Washington Post ? which pioneered many of the extras now typically found on newspaper Web sites ? warns that too much information online can overwhelm readers. “I don’t see a universal benefit of pushing a lot of that out unless it helps deepen the reader’s understanding,” he says. “It depends on what it is.”
Several editors stopped short of advocating the posting of reporters’ notes, saying that would open up too many issues of confidentiality and source protection. Wichita’s Chisenhall notes an unusual case in 2000 in which her paper was ordered by a judge to turn over notes related to a jailhouse interview with a murder suspect. The paper posted the notes after turning them over, which followed its ongoing policy of not releasing unpublished material. “It was not an issue because there was nothing in the notes that had not been in the story,” she says. “But we did not want to violate our policy.”
Most editors agree that posting reporters’ notes could be problematic, not only because they might be hard to decipher but also because they would open the paper to even more scrutiny over what was used. “If a reader wants to see some of the supporting material, fine,” says Jim Willse, editor of The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., which last spring posted FBI wiretapped conversations with reputed mobster Angelo Prisco. “But we would not put reporters’ notes online, for obvious reasons.”
James Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com, offers a similar view of posting notes, citing the impact it could have on what notes reporters take: “The one thing we don’t want reporters to have to worry about is when they take notes, that it becomes public.”
Needed: thick skin
Another concern with background material is the line between elements of basic reporting and those considered to be opinion or confidential. Policies on those issues vary from paper to paper.
“We are careful that every observation and view we take is grounded in fact,” says Brady. “Hearing how we work, how we come up with questions, can be a very sophisticated delivery method to bring readers and listeners into a whole new way to experience their newspaper.”
The Web editor cites a similar concern about his newspaper’s often-imitated online chats, which can stray into opinion. The live events have gained national attention for allowing reporters and columnists to discuss coverage with readers. “It is kind of unedited journalism when you are online,” he warns. “There have been cases in live discussions where they say something they shouldn’t have. But we haven’t had any kind of huge blowup.”
Blogs, too, have become a popular medium through which journalists can respond to critiques and explain decisions. John Robinson, editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., has penned a blog for more than two years and says that nearly every decision he explains is criticized.
“Some of the conversations get personal and become a little more abusive of me and the paper,” he admits. “You have to have a thick skin.” He cited a story that ran in November about a non-profit group that helps set up free photo sessions for parents with their stillborn babies or those that die shortly after birth. The paper’s decision to print a photo of one of the babies drew dozens of responses, some angry. “I found it unbelievably morbid,” wrote one reader.
But Robinson says the responses, both positive and negative, need to be heard. “If you pay attention to what some of the people say, you learn something.”
Legally, the transparencies ? from documents and background transcripts to (potentially) reporters’ notes and opinions ? draw mixed reactions from attorneys. Some contend that being more open with readers helps any defense against bias or libel, while others worry that exposing what you know to a possible plaintiff can actually bolster their complaint.
“More source material helps support these articles and make them less likely to be challenged,” says attorney Peter Canfield. He has represented The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on several cases including its defense against Richard Jewell, who was wrongly accused of the Olympic Park bombing in 1996. Canfield adds that showing potential plaintiffs what you have related to a story, can even block a lawsuit before it is filed.
“If [the plaintiffs] know from the outset that there was this evidence out there backing [the newspaper] up, they might not have filed suit,” he explains. “I think it would tend to keep you out of trouble.”
But Washington, D.C., attorney Bruce Sanford, who has advised the Society of Professional Journalists, among others, takes a different view. He warns that newspapers might open themselves up to legal jams by releasing information they should not: “Transparency is helpful because it shows how the sausage is made. At the same time, it opens the process up to microscopic scrutiny or criticism. In that sense, it can be self-defeating.”
Sanford says he would never allow reporter’s notes to be posted, adding that not everything in a story comes from notes or other written sourcing. “It is very common to take notes about things you might forget, but not take notes about things you would not forget,” he says. He adds that audio tapes of interviews can be problematic: “It is too much information that invites scrutiny.”
An open or shut case
Then there is the other side of the transparency revolution, in which the public is invited ? literally or via the Web ? into news meetings, editorial board sessions, and even endorsement interviews with candidates. More and more papers are posting audio and video files of such events, while also allowing the public in to view them. Once again, the Spokesman-Review is among the leaders of this effort, posting live video feeds of its two daily news meetings as well as numerous editorial board interviews. “We know people are watching these things,” says editor Smith. “But I can’t recall any negative feedback it has caused.”
The Ventura County (Calif.) Star, which began posting audio files of endorsement meetings about four years ago, claims it influenced one candidate this year to debate when he had continually declined. The Star also expanded its six-person editorial board several years ago to include 11 local residents. While they do not have the same voting power as the other board members, she says they have influenced such decisions as the board’s consideration years ago of Proposition 209, which would have removed affirmative action preferences in state college entrance requirements.
“She had a compelling story that was very persuasive,” Opinion Page Editor Marianne Ratcliff remembers about one community member’s involvement in that discussion. “We opposed Prop. 209, and I don’t know if we would have [otherwise] come to that as a board.”
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a similar approach via its year-old virtual editorial board, which posts topics about which the paper is planning to editorialize in the next day’s paper and seeks reader input. In some cases, this approach allows the paper to publish letters to the editor right along with the editorial about which they are writing. “It was an attempt to bring readers into what we do,” says Mark Trahant, the P-I’s editorial page editor. “This is more interactive and so much faster.”
He notes that reader influence has affected which issues are approached, citing the time when the board reviewed a proposal by the city-owned electric utility to use a surplus to lower rates. “Some bloggers suggested looking at paying down debt rather than turning the money back to the rate payers,” Trahant recalls. “The paper enhanced its viewpoint to look into that.”
The P-I also records its endorsement meetings and posts the audio file online, but is careful not to let the recording elements limit the meetings. “The danger is that people tend to be more guarded,” he says. “Some of the people we bring in tend to play toward the microphone.”
But the most common openness to the public seems to be simply allowing them into these typically closed-door meetings. “We have visitors more often than we don’t,” says de Lama of the Chicago Tribune. “College students, grammar schools, executives from networking groups. We have gotten accustomed to doing it, and people are used to speaking their minds. I don’t think the editors even notice anymore ? and some [visitors] even speak up and make suggestions.” Leo Wolinksy, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, also welcomes such openness at his news meetings.
“We have never objected to having members of the public in,” he says. “I would say it happens a couple of times a week.” In Wichita, Chisenhall says the news meetings with outside visitors had grown from one or two a year several years ago to numerous times a month today: “We have become more comfortable with people coming in.”
But this open-door policy is not without its problems. De Lama says his paper would not broadcast the meetings online out of fear that crosstown rivals at the Chicago Sun-Times could pick up on their plans. Wolinsky in Los Angeles says having outsiders can intimidate those in the meeting. “It sets up an odd dynamic where you do not feel as free to comment openly,” he says of the paper’s staff. “It is hard to get honest advice and honest discussion if everyone hears everything that goes on.”
For others, such as Willse of the Star-Ledger, it is better left behind closed doors. “I don’t see much value in having the readers take part in a Page One discussion,” he says. “It does not strike me as an effective way to respond to readers.”