Monday, September 22, 2003

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The unstable equilibrium of j-blogs

The Sacramento Bee has decided to "edit" Daniel Weintraub's blog. According to their ombudsman:

Weintraub wrote that Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante "certainly owed his elevation to the job of Assembly speaker to his ethnic background and to the support he received from fellow Latinos. If his name had been Charles Bustmont rather than Cruz Bustamante, he would have finished his legislative career as an anonymous back-bencher."

Further, he alleged, "it's indisputably true that the Legislature's Latino Caucus advocates policies that are destructive to their own people and to greater California, in the name of ethnic unity." The caucus protested in a letter to Bee Publisher Janis Besler Heaphy.

Make what you will of Weintraub's statement, and of the caucus' protests. No matter what I or anyone else thinks, he has every right to analyze the political scene and reach those conclusions. But no newspaper should publish an analysis without an editor's review. That doesn't necessarily mean that Weintraub's blog should have been reworded, but an editor should at least have had the opportunity to question his conclusions.

Since these incidents came to light, The Bee has instituted some reforms. Weintraub's blog now goes to the editorial page editor or his deputy before it's posted on Editors will not be allowed to write items for the Web without another editor's review.

This has prompted much gnashing of teeth across the blogosphere. The usual suspects -- Mickey Kaus, Glenn Reynolds, and Robert Tagorda -- are all over it. Kaus does the best job of identifying the problem with the Bee's "reform":

So now readers of Weintraub's blog are not getting his unfiltered, up-to-the-moment thoughts. They're getting the thoughts that are approved by an editor--an editor who is now well aware of how sensitive the Bee is to complaints from powerful constituencies. ... Or some powerful constituencies, at least.... 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.... As long as nobody's libeled, why not publish analyses without an editor's review?

That's a lovely sentiment, but my strong suspicion is that newspaper editors will be congenitally incapable of following through on it. Editors, like many managers, tend towards risk-averse behavior. Editing a blog lowers the probability of stepping into an unwanted controversy, while allowing a journalist to roam unfettered in the blogosphere has little upside.

I agree that it's a shame that Weintraub's blog is being muffled -- but I also think that this incident is endemic to the unstable nature of the j-blog phenomenon. [How do you know -- you're not a journalist!!--ed. Call it my "right now" take. But I may be wrong. Eric Zorn, I'm looking in your direction to correct me if I am] And I'm not sure that anything can be done about it.

[What if bloggers and their readers e-mailed the Bee's ombudsman to point out that controversy swings both ways?--ed. What a subversive thought!! And you, an editor no less!!]

UPDATE: Well, it does appear as if bloggers have the power to get sportswriters fired at the Sacramento Bee (link via David Pinto).

posted by Dan on 09.22.03 at 11:32 AM


Well, I encouraged Dan to make his own blog. He could pay for it with Google AdSense and a tip jar.

posted by: Bo Cowgill on 09.22.03 at 11:32 AM [permalink]

I would think that editing is a newspaper's comparative advantage. Since a separately edited a blog is almost an oxymoron, I just wonder if it actually does make business sense.

That being said, I'm all for newspaper's establishing blogs and proving me wrong. --sw

posted by: Scott Wood on 09.22.03 at 11:32 AM [permalink]

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