A Few More Words From the Unabomber

By: Steve Outing

My column late last week about the Unabomber's "manifesto" being published by online newspaper services brought quite a bit of comment, much of it opposing my point of view that online services did a public disservice by widely disseminating the full manifesto.

* I suggested that it was very unlikely that any newspaper other than the Washington Post would print -- on paper -- the full-text 35,000-word document. Well, I was wrong on that count: The Oakland Tribune printed the whole thing in 8 extra pages. The Tribune does not have an online service on which it could have published the manifesto.

In my (perhaps cynical) view, this was a decision -- when you strip away the journalism ethics question -- that probably resulted in a major boost in circulation that day. The Bay Area (California) newspaper market is very competitive, and the Tribune is in an ongoing struggle against its larger neighbors, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Examiner. The Unabomber's manifesto was not published on The Gate, the Chronicle/Examiner's online Web service.

* Scott Anderson, online producer at Madison Newspapers, had this to say: "Since the essay is now in the public forum, I think the online journalists would be failing their audience if they didn't provide the full text. As many of the editors you quoted said, this is a man who has disrupted thousands of lives. Why let only the journalists know his motives? Shouldn't the people be trusted? ... While we may disagree on one issue, I whole-heartedly agree that online journalists are still that -- journalists. Those standards for online journalism are still evolving, but everybody should struggle to find them."

* Bill Densmore, president of Newshare, commented: "At Newshare, we provided a link to Pathfinder's copy but did not 'cache' it as others may have done. This raises an interesting philosophical question: Is there any difference, from a journalistic point of view, between creating a link to someone else's Web site and creating a link to your own Web site, if the contents are identical? In our case, it seemed that pointing to someone else's Web site was akin to saying: 'There it is, if you really want it, go get it, but we aren't going to endorse it by physically putting it on our own server.' Perhaps that is a distinction without a difference."

(Bill suggests an interesting issue, and probably the topic of a future Stop The Presses! column. If you have an opinion, write me.)

* Felix Grabowski of the Detroit News ribbed me for linking to the Unabomber manifesto in my own column: "You linked to it -- twice. Now you've also enlarged his audience. Inadvertant? Or are you being funny?" Actually, I did recognize the irony and the thought entered my mind that I should note it in the original column. When I sat down to write it, however, I forgot that element of the story and left myself open to be zinged. I felt that I had to link to it, so that I could help online publishers reading the column make their own decision about whether or not to link to the full manifesto.

(By the way, check out the Detroit News' new Web service. Felix and crew have done a nice job with it, especially considering that the paper is still embroiled in a nasty strike. To be fair, I'll also suggest you check out the fine Web site of the striking Detroit newspaper workers, The Detroit Journal.)

* In last Thursday's column, I noted that NandO (the online service of the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina) did not link to the Unibomber manifesto. That was true when I called NandO VP George Schlukbier on Wednesday; but the decision was made later to in fact publish the full manifesto online.

* In the original Unabomber column, I quoted the opinions of several online newspaper folks. The supervisor of one of those people quoted was bothered that the fellow I quoted appeared to be speaking as the official spokesman of his organization, when in fact he was not. As I hope everyone reading this column realizes, the opinions expressed by those quoted last Thursday and those people quoted today are individuals' opinions, and do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of their employers.

This little episode points to a fact of online life that should be remembered periodically: When you express an opinion online -- in a newsgroup, on a mailing list, in a live chat session, etc. -- and your company name follows your comments, it's important to include a standard disclaimer. Something as simple as "Statements above are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employers" will do much to keep working online journalists out of trouble with the executive suite -- and prevent readers from interpreting your opinions as "official" corporate policy.

Steve Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note.

This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at outings@netcom.com


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