September 22, 2003

‘Free the Bee blogger!’

Kevin R. in LA Observed asks: Has Sacramento Bee political blogger Daniel Weintraub been reined in? The Bee’s ombudsman reported yesterday that Weintraub’s blog will now be subjected to the editing filter, after complaints from the Legislature’s Latino Caucus.

I worked at the Bee for 11 years (I left in ’97, before Weintraub got there) and I’m in agreement with Kevin’s bottom line:

He’s their opinion columnist, and his blog — by design — is more analysis and personality than it is factual reporting. Some readers may accept his insights as truth, but many don’t. It’s informative anyway. The point of a blog is personal insights, and as Kaus points out, if the Bee wants to broaden the spectrum of takes, it can add more bloggers. …

I’m pro editor and have yet to meet the journalist, myself included, who wouldn’t benefit from a good collaborative editor. Even so, I think the Bee erred. Spontaneity may be overrated in some bloggers hands — I prefer thought-out posts — but quickness to break or react to news is part of why Weintraub and the Bee have drawn so much positive attention.

I also tend to side with Mickey Kaus on this:

Even if the Bee’s move is just for show–to placate the Latino caucus with a procedural reform–and even if the editors involved have privately assured Weintraub they won’t change a thing, it will have an inevitable degrading effect on Weintraub’s blog. The whole point of blogging is that you get someone’s take right now, when it can make a difference. What if Weintraub has a good idea at 7:30 P.M. and the editors have gone home? By the time they come back in the next day to “review” his idea, history may have moved on–the idea will be stale, even if it might have actually made a difference if it had been posted in time. … But I actually doubt the editorial approval process will be completely benign. Read the ombudsman’s pompous report (“no newspaper should publish an analysis without an editor’s review”) and you can see an edge-dulling, anti-controversialist mindset at work that is inimical to sound and well-established blogging practices. … As long as nobody’s libeled, why not publish analyses without an editor’s review? … If Weintraub’s too much of an anti-liberal blogger, add a liberal blogger! Don’t supress them both under a smothering blanket of bureaucratic timidity!

Over at Condor Blog, David Jensen had a lot on this yesterday. Instapundit, Hewitt (who had it first), Simon and Matt Welch are among those who have also weighed in.

As for me, I blogged about the overall topic last winter: Should newspaper bloggers be subjected to the editing filter? Short answer: After-the-fact copy editing and reviewing content for libel is fine, but this kind of pre-publication editing review tamps down the very thing that makes blogging special.

September 17, 2003

Are emails private? And should bloggers scoop their interviewers?

Mark Glaser, a friend and columnist for the Online Journalism Review, has a small beef with bloggers, which he related to me by email and allowed me to share on this blog.

It’s simply this: an increasing number of bloggers whom Mark has interviewed by email post their interview comments on their blogs – before the interview even runs!

Mark says this has happened to him many times now, most recently yesterday when the irascible Jeff Jarvis posted his interview responses (scroll down) on Buzz Machine before they appeared in OJR.

There’s another twist, too. Apparently Mark sent Jeff an email that expressed some disappointment with this, and suggesting that an exchange between reporter and interview subject is understood to be private. Jeff sent back a note saying that in the age of blogs, no one should expect an email to remain private. (I may be misrepresenting Jeff’s thoughts here; if so, he’s free to clarify.)

Says Mark: “If someone is writing a story that quotes you, often it’s a promotion of you, your site, blog, etc. Why would you want to upset that journalist by posting stuff without their permission? I’m not really sure what to make of it, other than to take your advice and always put something in emails to bloggers like: THIS IS NOT FOR PUBLICATION ONLINE UNTIL AFTER THE STORY POSTS. I understand the transparency angle, but sometimes that should be counterbalanced by common courtesy. Why not just ask for permission? The interview involves two people, and they both should give consent for seeing their words posted somewhere.”

This post-your-own interview thing is spiraling into interesting new directions, and the trend cuts both ways. Sheila Lennon today posted an item on her blog (“Me and my different drummer”) recounting her email exchange with Mark G. and recalling the transcript of the New York Times interview she posted on her personal blog one year ago, which helped kick off this trend.

Now, here’s the thing. I’m one of the early proponents of posting full transcripts of interviews. (In January I posted transcripts of interviews I conducted with others, and sometime before that I posted transcripts in which I was interviewed.)

But to post an interview before it’s even published by the publication that initiated the interview is a slap at the reporter. (Afterward is fine, but before?) I’m not sure what’s to be gained by doing that. And you’re sure as hell certain to be crossed off his or her list of sources the next time around.

As for emails being private or public, that’s a big subject and could easily fill an entire column. Joe Clark had a very public run-in with the folks at Edelman PR for publishing their email exchange without their permission. And there was the case of the reporter (whose name escapes me) who sent some off-the-cuff observations about a conference she was covering (including comments that a speaker was kind of
cute) to a few friends by email and was mightily ticked off when one of them posted her thoughts to the Web.

My own view is that I think Jarvis is wrong if he believes any private correspondence between two people is fair game for publishing to the entire world. (I can think of many private emails I’ve received that I could have published because they were interesting or newsworthy, but doing so would have been hurtful or harmful to the sender.) I once mentioned to Doc Searls and Glenn Fleishman that I occasionally post snippets from emails to my weblog without asking the writer’s permission, and they were aghast (although I suspect this is becoming a very common practice). I still do it on rare occasions, when it’s fairly obvious that the writer is offering information intended for a wider audience and would have no problem with it. I generally email the person, letting her know I just posted her comments and that if she objected I would immediately remove them. Nobody has ever asked for a posting to be taken down.

As a journalist and a blogger, I have mixed feelings about all this. I’ve seen bloggers post email comments without permission often enough now that I’m circumspect in the wording I use to interview subjects or to approach potential sources. There have been rare occasions when I’ve attached legal wording to the bottom of an email that points out reposting my comments without permission would be a violation of copyright laws. I’ve done that only when dealing with someone who has ulterior motives or an axe to grind.

Having said that, I’ll also add that some of the bloggers have a point, too. Part of the attraction of blogging is its transparency. By posting transcripts, exchanges with reporters and private emails, people get a much closer look at the guts of the research, writing and reporting that makes up the journalism process. Bloggers complain that their comments are sometimes taken out of context, or that the nuances of their statements are lost when they’re quoted in an email interview that doesn’t involve a full transcript. So I can’t fault them for revealing part of the exchange with the reporter that led up to the publication of their words. The real bottom line is: Why did they feel the need to do this? Do they ascribe dark motives to the journalist? Do they think it’s important to scoop the reporter who’s interviewing them? Is it carelessness, lack of time? Or is it simply done in the interests of full disclosure?

I don’t know. You tell me.

September 16, 2003

Ethics, magazines and advertorials

Just came across this interesting New York Times piece on Ethics, magazines and advertorials, which is already behind a pay firewall on the main nytimes.com site, though available through the College Times run by the paper’s circulation dept. Excerpt:

Pick up a magazine on the newsstand, and chances are it will contain at least one advertorial. In September, issues of nine Cond Nast Publications magazines, including Vogue and Vanity Fair, carry a nine-page advertorial for Mercedes-Benz. At Hearst, Esquire, Town & Country and O, The Oprah Magazine, will carry a special section for Tourneau watches in October. …

In its April issue, Men’s Journal, owned by Wenner Media, produced an article called “Conquering the Highlands.” It looked, in typography and design, very much like the magazine’s editorial content save for a logo that combined the magazine’s name with Dewar’s Scotch. A tiny bit of type at the top of the page indicated to the reader that the package was an advertisement, but many readers probably thought the men’s adventure magazine simply favored toasting a day of rock climbing with “a few rounds of Dewar’s choicest Scotch whisky.”

The guidelines of the American Society of Magazine Editors specifically prohibit the use of a magazine’s logo and prohibit special sections from mimicking the design of the publication.

Here’s the complete article …

Continue reading

September 8, 2003

Expert help sites

A year ago I wrote about expert help sites. It’s time to take another look:

Allexperts.com, the oldest and largest free Q&A service on the Internet. Ratings help you find the right expert.

Askearth, a site created “so that people could be paid to give good-quality, in-depth answers to the really tough questions about life, business, technology and hundreds of other subjects.” Post a question and indicate how much you’re willing to pay for the answer. Then the service’s experts send you their answers.

• The Abuzz knowledge network from the NY Times Digital. 60% of questions are answered in 4 hours and only 10% are never answered. One reviewer said they have the smartest experts and most active community.

• Google Answers: Google’s expert site originally leveraged its wide user base but now relies on 500 paid experts.

Keen.com: SF site offers advice over the phone for a fee.

Expertcentral.com uses thousands of volunteer experts.

Quickcomputerhelp.com and GeekHelp are different brands of the same service. Two free minutes and $2.79/minute after that. Call (toll-free) 888-733-2463. No membership needed, unlike Speak With a Geek, which requires a monthly or yearly membership.

Looks like many other expert sites have imploded or left the consumer end of the business. Here’s a roll call of sites that were once on my list and now appear to be out of commission: Askme.com has turned into a company that manages employee knowledge networks; Expertcity.com has gone corporate; Yahoo Advice replaced Yahoo Experts, then was farmed out to Liveadvice, which itself has gone belly up and now forwards visitors to Keen.com; Sevant.com made computer house calls in the SF Bay Area; Aveo.com was a guide to explaining error messages, and more; Exp.com was an experts site out of Menlo Park, Calif.; Ask-a-tech.org was a site that let users submit questions and wait for responses from online experts; Epeople.com has gone corporate; Inforocket.com went kaput and forwards visitors to Keen.com.

One reason for the collapse of most expert-help sites may be the proliferation of weblogs. I can think of a dozen times where I’ve posted a query on my blog and received an answer without having to fork over any dough on the expert advice sites.

Don’t know if readers have used any of the above sites, but if so and you’d like to share your experience, post it here.

September 3, 2003

At my first Dean meetup

So tonight I went with my wife and 4-year-old son to our first Howard Dean meetup. It was also the first meetup ever held in our SF East Bay town. Everything about the 90-minute affair impressed us: a knowledgeable speaker, the endless stream of position papers available on the DeanforAmerica website, the bottom-up nature of this grassroots endeavor (there are few marching orders from Dean HQ, other than not to ask for checks at these gatherings). Here are some numbers:

• 106,000 people had signed up for today’s Dean meetups nationwide.

• At our meetup, 32 people turned out at a local cafe (I snapped the photo above), double the number expected. We sat with a couple of independents and a fellow who hadn’t been involved in politics since the McGovern campaign.

• Some 350,000 volunteers have signed up to help with the Dean campaign, with a goal of 1 million by June 1.

One speaker mentioned that PBS will be televising the Democratic candidates’ debates Thursday (Sept. 4) and Sept. 25, at 5 pm on the West Coast.

Some campaign sites of note:

• The Demstore, where Dean T-shirts and other candidates’ campaign trinkets are available.

Cafepress, where political bumper stickers (GOP, too) can be had. (Flynt for Governor, anyone?)

• The Dean blog, of course, and the campaign’s main site.

• A recap of the Dean meetups, and a Deanlink page to find fellow Dean supporters in your area. (By the way, when I signed up, I spotted a name I recognized just two names down: Christian Crumlish of Oakland, the blogger behind Radio Free Blogistan, whom I met at UC Berkeley several months back. His Deanlink page is here.)

• Some local Dean sites, including SiliconValleyforDean and EastBay4Dean.

Years ago, when California Sen. Alan Cranston was running against an extremist opponent, I asked the executive editor of the Sacramento Bee if he minded if I did a little weekend campaigning for Cranston, given that my work in the features and entertainment departments had nothing to do with politics. He said, “I can’t stop you, but I’d strongly prefer if you didn’t.” (I didn’t.) Many newspapers go further, preventing anyone on their staffs from participating in public affairs.

As a now-independent journalist, it’s a breath of fresh air to be able to engage in civic affairs and the political process.