Heartaches of Journalist Bloggers

Adam L. Penenberg
Wired News, 01.13.05

After Chris Allbritton returned to New York from Iraqi Kurdistan, he raised $15,000 and headed back to Iraq in 2003 as the first independent journalist-blogger sponsored by his readers. There he risked life and limb covering the war and its messy aftermath, detailing his experiences on his blog, Back-to-Iraq 3.0.

With 25,000 readers a day checking out his dispatches, Allbritton was able to build on this success by securing a plum assignment as Time magazine’s Baghdad correspondent. As a result, Allbritton has had to change his approach to blogging.

“I’m just very, very careful,” Allbritton said. “I never scoop Time, for instance. And I’ve become much more miserly in parceling out my opinions. I place a whole lot more emphasis on the reporting on the blog, rather than taking a stance. This has alienated a significant number of my readers, who have accused me of selling out, going corporate, whatever. But, I came to Iraq to become a full-time foreign correspondent, so them’s the breaks.”

He also doesn’t post as often on his blog anymore, and says he is thinking of shutting it down.

Allbritton isn’t the only journalist-blogger who serves two competing masters. Om Malik, a senior writer at Business 2.0, pens two online columns a month, as well as contributing features to the magazine, while operating a blog on broadband that attracts 350,000 unique visitors a month. But it’s his day job that pays the bills.

“My first commitment is to my publisher, my magazine,” said Malik, who is also the author of Broadbandits: Inside the $750 Billion Telecom Heist. “Last month I earned $9 in net profit (on my blog). Thank God for Google AdSense — they let me break even now. Last year, I spent a lot of money out-of-pocket, when my bandwidth costs went through the roof.”

For all the press that bloggers have received for revolutionizing journalism by bringing Gutenberg’s printing press to the digital masses, when push comes to shove, journalists who operate personal weblogs face an inherent conflict of interest. In the end, it’s the blogs that usually get short shrift.

And according to some, that’s the way it ought to be. As Jason Calacanis, founder of Weblogs and publisher of the defunct Silicon Alley Reporter, put it in an e-mail: “Blogger + reporter = big problem. I wouldn’t do that, and I’m sure it will end in tears. I know as an editor of a magazine or newspaper I wouldn’t want my paid editors putting scoops out on their blog when those scoops could be driving and growing the print product.”

But it’s not just about who gets the scoops. A more serious question is how can bloggers, whose success depends largely on sharing unvarnished opinions, also work as so-called objective journalists?

There are no easy answers, and many media outlets find it easiest to avoid perceptions of bias by simply issuing blanket restrictions on what their reporters can say and do outside of work. In the past, for example, CNN pressured correspondent Kevin Sites to shut down his blog from Iraq. Time put the kibosh on freelancer Joshua Kucera’s personal blog, and the Hartford Courant strong-armed one of its columnists, Denis Horgan, to stop him from blogging. (With the exception of Kucera, they have all returned to the blogosphere.)

Wall Street Journal staffers agree to follow a code of conduct that restricts certain activities to ensure “the independence and integrity” of its publications, services and products. I imagine the Journal is particularly sensitive after an e-mail from Farnaz Fassihi, one of its reporters based in Baghdad, made the rounds last year, portraying life in Iraq as much more dire than her published work suggested.

The New York Times requires its staffers to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, and requires that no newsroom or editorial employee “do anything that damages the Times’s reputation for strict neutrality.”

Although the policy doesn’t specifically cover blogs (yet), the Times prohibits staff from marching or rallying “in support of public causes or movements,” and from signing “ads that take a position on public issues … if doing so might reasonably raise doubts about their ability or the Times‘s ability to function as neutral observers in covering the news.” Timesians may appear on radio and TV but “they should avoid expressing views that go beyond what they would be allowed to say in the paper.” (Of course, Op-Ed columnists like Maureen Dowd and William Safire “enjoy more leeway than others in speaking publicly because their business is expressing opinions.”)

But this whole idea that so-called objective journalists should hide their true feelings may be misguided. Reporters are people, too (really), and just because they express opinions doesn’t mean their reporting should be dismissed out of hand, as long as they arrive at their conclusions honestly, through rigorous reporting. In fact, when journalists give two opposing viewpoints equal weight in an attempt to be even-handed, they are engaging in superficial “he said, she said” journalism that may actually be undermining the search for truth, since one side might be completely without merit.

Readers “know journalists have opinions,” said blogger Ed Cone, who also writes for CIO Insight. “A writer who expresses an opinion in a weblog, and explains how that opinion relates to the subject he or she covers at work, might seem more credible, not less.”

Another member of the blognoscenti, Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds, agrees. “I think that the openness of opinions helps, rather than hurts, since it allows you to make adjustment for known bias, rather than guessing at unknown bias.”

And Peter Rojas of Engadget thinks the entire issue should be flipped on its head. “It’s a mistake to think that we’re making a choice between objectivity and honesty, with traditional media on one side and blogs on the other,” he said. “The larger issue here is trust, and whether or not readers trust the media outlets they’re relying on for news or information. If anything, being forthright and honest on blogs might have a positive effect on how people perceive the rest of their reporting.”

So perhaps publications shouldn’t worry that reporters who maintain personal blogs will undermine their organization’s objectivity. After all, the Times has been hit with accusations of bias for years, well before the advent of blogs.

Meanwhile, blog readers shouldn’t worry that mainstream publications get the primo stuff either. Blogs are “a value-added proposition,” Malik said. “I used to print out articles, stick them in a file and review them later. Now I just blog it. It’s a repository for my thought process.”

Copyright 2005 Adam L. Penenberg (penenberg.com)