Newspaper's Web Bios Rile Privacy-Concerned Reporters

By: Steve Outing

When the Holland (Michigan) Sentinel launches its newest Web site in early August, it will probably include a nifty feature that allows site visitors to learn more about the journalists at the 19,000 circulation Morris Communications daily paper. When a reporter's byline appears on a story published on the Web, it will be hyperlinked to a biography page about the writer.

While that sounds like a noble idea -- to let readers get to know the human beings behind the newspaper -- the Sentinel's staff writers and editors aren't so sure they want the public to know personal details about their lives. While the Web can go a long way to getting readers and journalists to engage with each other and taking away some of the mystery (from the public's point of view) about the news reporting process, at this newspaper, at least, a number of journalists object strongly to the whole concept.

The Sentinel's online editor, Mike Ureel, explains that as part of the new Web site design for what will be called (Windows on the Waterfront Communications), everyone in the newsroom was asked to fill out a form with biographical information, including name, staff position, length of time at the paper, professional experience, education, some personal information (hobbies, etc.), and a personal quote. Everyone also posed for a photograph.

Ureel said that while some people endorsed the idea, quite a few objected. Comments included: "We should remain anonymous"; "Stories should be as objective as possible and connecting reporters' personal data to it may taint that perception"; and "I don't want people to know who I am." Others worry about putting up their photos, where they could easily be downloaded and used in unauthorized ways by people who disagreed with a story that they wrote.

At least one reporter stated the desire to remain relatively "anonymous," so as not to be recognized when going in to certain situations. A photo on the Web might compromise that.

This is not TV

The biggest issue seems to be of the mixing of supposedly "objective" reporting and personal data. Sentinel city editor Jim Timmermann says that a number of his reporters strongly resisted the whole idea of Web bios. They don't mind the idea of the Web site making it easier for readers to contact them, but objected to publishing online any information about their personal lives, what they do in their spare time, and favorite quotes.

Says Timmermann, "I want to avoid stressing the personality of reporters too much, of being like TV" where journalists attain local celebrity status. "I want the public to deal with the Sentinel as an organization," and not just the individual who wrote the story. The point is that a piece of newspaper journalism is the work of not just the writer but also editors and photographers who operate in the background, he says.

Timmermann doesn't see much benefit to readers knowing personal information about assignment reporters. In fact, he believes, it can have a negative impact, because readers who disagree with something the journalist has written can read perceived bias into some tidbit published in the reporter's biography. Also, at a small paper like the Sentinel, staff turnover is high, as younger journalists gain experience and then move on to bigger papers. Thus, the community sees a constantly changing cast of characters at the newspaper.

All Sentinel staff journalists were required to have their photograph taken, and the staff biographies are expected to be in place for the Web site launch (although the issue continues to be debated). Staffers were allowed to omit personal information from the biographies, however, and just include the basics about their position and time at the paper.

Timmerman points out that most print-side journalists are supportive of the paper's Web project, but "they don't want it to disrupt their regular routine" too much.

The Sentinel's reporters do not have corporate-sponsored personal e-mail addresses, so readers will be invited to send the writers e-mail at a common newspaper address. That e-mail will be sorted by a clerk and routed to individual reporters. Ureel says that the paper hasn't yet addressed the issue of getting reporters separate e-mail accounts.

Resistance is futile

The issues brought up by the debate at this small western Michigan newspaper are certainly intriguing, and its reporters and editors perhaps have a point about tainting the "objective" nature of much newspaper journalism. Yet I remain unconvinced that this is a threat to journalism ethics. Indeed, efforts like this to connect newspapers and their community members should be lauded, not resisted.

Many citizens consider newspaper reporters to be quasi-public servants; indeed, citizens should expect newspaper journalists to serve the community by being non-biased in their reporting of local issues. Yet government officials typically are not afforded anonymity; why should journalists expect it?

Individual journalists' privacy concerns should be addressed, and the Sentinel is doing the right thing by permitting staffers to omit any personal information from their online biography pages. Those who agree to offer up personal glimpses to the public are doing a good deed, in my view, for they are getting closer to the community they write about.

A significant point in this argument is that the Web is a new medium, and old print media rules shouldn't necessarily apply. Newspapers are a one-to-many medium; the Internet is a two-way medium, where communication between two parties (even when one of them is a powerful media organization) is a given. I wouldn't advocate printing reporter biographies in the print editions, but online it's a different story.

Online, journalists will find that they spend more of their time interacting with readers directly. For a journalist to help readers see the human being behind the byline is, I repeat, a good thing.

Contact: Mike Ureel,

Movin' On

Arne Krumsvik is moving to Dagbladet (Oslo, Norway) as online publisher. He is leaving Scandinavia Online, where he was managing editor.


Previous day's column| Next day's column | Archive of columns
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

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


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here