|Reporters Find New Outlet, and Concerns, in Web Logs
By DAVID F. GALLAGHER
New York Times
Given the space and time constraints of most news media companies, audience reaction often gets little attention. But Eric Alterman has so much room in his Web log on MSNBC.com that earlier this month he devoted an entire entry to readers' e-mail 8,000 words of it.
Mr. Alterman, who is also a media columnist for The Nation, and other print and television journalists are discovering the freedom of Web logs, or "blogs," online soapboxes that typically consist of frequent entries with pithy commentary and links to other Web sites. But that freedom can also have some unpleasant consequences.
Some journalists have already run into trouble with their employers over the contents of their personal sites, with one a reporter for The Houston Chronicle having been fired for his efforts. And news media companies may be opening themselves to questions of liability when they set up Web logs on their sites.
"You start getting into the question of, is this part of the paper or not?" said Jane E. Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. "If I'm a lawyer advising a news organization, the idea of a Web log like this would just make me break out in hives."
Once a news media company edits a Web log, not only does it possibly damage the spontaneity, it also becomes responsible for the content, Professor Kirtley said.
"It's the kind of situation," she added, "where the editorial side and the lawyers are going to have a clash."
Web logs sprouted in earnest in the late 1990's as new software made it relatively simple for anyone to become a publisher, creating and updating a site as often as was pleased. Do-it-yourself journalists are able to link to and dissect freshly published articles, adding many voices to the national debate. Blogs have been promoted by some commentators as a potential challenge to traditional news media companies.
But the format also appeals to professional journalists, and many publish Web logs as a creative outlet, as a way to raise their visibility or, increasingly, as part of their jobs.
"I can't imagine a nicer way to make a living," said Mr. Alterman, who is paid by MSNBC to write about politics, the media and culture in his Web log. "It's therapeutic, and you get things off your chest. I can write whatever I want."
MSNBC.com carries seven Web logs while many other companies have Web logs on their sites, including The Wall Street Journal and ABC News.
Journalists who keep Web logs on news sites say their blog writing tends to be looser than their other writing. But they say their Web work is usually edited to some extent.
Dan Gillmor, a technology columnist for The San Jose Mercury News, has published a blog on the newspaper's site since 1999. He said his editor usually looks over his entries after they are online, although "if I'm going to post anything that I have even the slightest doubt about, I run it by her first."
For a columnist like Mr. Gillmor, an opinionated Web log is a natural fit. But Steve Outing, a columnist for Editor & Publisher magazine and a senior editor at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education organization, said even beat reporters should have the chance to publish blogs.
Mickey Kaus, who writes a Web log for the Microsoft Web magazine Slate, said reporters and editors were likely to have tensions over what material goes where. "I'm a little worried that reporters will start to put their best stuff into blogs" to bypass editors, he said.
Some journalists maintain Web logs outside work, just for fun. But, as Steve Olafson found, these side projects can cause problems. Mr. Olafson was a reporter for The Houston Chronicle for seven years before his Web log cost him his job in July.
Writing under the pseudonym Banjo Jones, Mr. Olafson had at times used his site to poke fun at the local politicians he was covering. He even critiqued The Chronicle. "It gets constricting at times to write for a newspaper," he said. "They tell you what you can and can't write. You don't have those restrictions on the Web."
Mr. Olafson said that when his identity became known, his boss said that he had compromised his ability to do his job. A spokeswoman for The Chronicle said the paper would not comment.
Mr. Olafson said that news media companies should develop policies about employees' sites. "It's just so new I think most papers haven't caught up with it," he said.
Sheila Lennon, a producer at the Web site of The Providence Journal, believes she has found a way to maintain the line between her professional and personal Web log. She publishes a blog on the paper's site and maintains a personal Web log at lennon2.com. Even on the personal site, Ms. Lennon steers clear of anything that might compromise her objectivity. "I don't belong to a political party," she said. "And I don't publish every thought I have on my personal Web log."