Whatever X, Day XIV

This following reheat, from 2003, is interesting to me because in a very real sense, I don’t think this controversy would be a controversy anymore, simply because there are so many professional blogs now that no one any longer has a problem with the idea that they might be edited somewhere along the way. Which is to say, the very nature of the “blogosphere” has fundamentally changed over the last five years.

SEPTEMBER 29, 2003: Pro Blogs and Editing

I’m so far behind the blog news cycle on this story that the New York Times managed to publish a story on this before I did, but I’ve been asked by one of my readers to comment on the “edited blog” fracas involving the Sacramento Bee and a blog run by one of its reporters. And you know how I am about reader service. I love you guys.

But first, a quick recap for those of you who aren’t blog geeks: the Sacramento Bee newspaper has a politics reporter named Daniel Weintraub who in addition to the regular stuff also writes a blog for the Bee called California Insider. For the first part of the blog’s life, it was unedited, but a week or so ago, the Bee’s ombudsman announced that the material in the blog would now be edited before it was put up. The ombudsman’s column seemed to imply the reason for the editing was that the unedited Weintraub had written something that upset some prominent Latinos, but later iterations of the explanation seemed to move the reason internally, suggesting that other Bee reporters were upset that the blog was unedited while all their stuff had to be passed through a human filter.

The blog world went nuts about this, proclaiming it was in a blog’s nature to be unedited and unmediated, and generally proclaiming the Bee’s move as unwanted editorial intrusion/a bad political move/various other stripes of the sky is falling. That’s pretty much where it stands at the moment.

I suppose I might have an interesting perspective on this story, having been at one point or another in my life a newspaper man, an employee of one of the Bee newspapers, a professional blogger and (yes!) an ombudsman, although for the University of Chicago rather than for a newspaper. But to be honest I couldn’t find it in myself to get all worked up about this story. I pretty much side with the Bee with this, although (of course) I’d like to note a few caveats.

First, let’s state what should be the obvious: If Weintraub is writing a blog as a Sacramento Bee employee, on the Sacramento Bee Web site, located on a Sacramento Bee Web server, and using information collected in his duties as a Sacramento Bee reporter, that blog can reasonably assumed to be associated with the Bee and the newspaper is entirely within its rights and obligations to be concerned about the editorial content and to edit such content. Just because what Weintraub is writing in “blog” form doesn’t give it some sort of special immunity from editorial insight or oversight, and I think suggestions that the “blog” form is inherently meant to be unedited are kind of stupid.

Blogs have been traditionally unedited because blogs are typically written by (in the best sense of the following words) blathering amateurs in their own homes or dorm rooms, who don’t have access to editors, even if they wanted them, which they don’t. However, there is a manifest difference between a blog written for amateur purposes and one written explicitly as an adjunct to one’s professional life on one’s employer’s Web site. If I write something stupid on the Whatever, for example, the only person who gets blamed for my stupidity is me. But if Weintraub writes something stupid (or even worse, legally actionable) on his blog, the Bee is also on the hook, both in reputation and in legal fees.

From my point of view the question should not be “Why is Weintraub being edited now?” but “Why wasn’t he being edited before?” If the Bee just sort of let him wander off and do his blog without oversight, then may I suggest it was being somewhat negligent in its duties. At the very least, Weintraub should have been made aware by his bosses that the unedited nature of his blog was strictly provisional and could be revoked at any time for any reason.

To go even more into it, I don’t know that it’s in the best interest of news organizations to let their reporters and staffers blog unedited. This is not the same as saying they should not let their reporters and staffers blog. If the kids wanna blog, why not let them? It solves one of the great editorial quandaries that everyone on staff wants to be a columnist, right? So instead of listening to Joe Schmoe, ace cub reporter, beg and wheedle and whine for 20 years about having a column space, you give him a blog space on the Web server and tell him to have a ball, so long as it doesn’t mess with his real job of putting high school sports scores into agate type. Everyone’s happy.

Also, and more to the point, such blogs could be a distinct advantage to the newspaper or news organization, since one of the real reasons you can’t get the “kids these days” to read a friggin’ paper is that all the newspapers have the personality of Pablum. A Web site full of actual personalities might encourage readers to feel allegiance to their favorite writers, a strategy straight from the golden age of newspapering (and the reason you have columnists in the first place). Blogs can work to the real advantage of the news organization.

But at the end of the day, a news organization is responsible for everything that goes onto its Web site, particularly from its reporters and staffers. The first newspaper lawyer who tries to suggest to a judge that her news organization had no idea what one of its reporters was saying on its own Web site because, after all, it was in a blog, is going to get laughed all the way to a very expensive settlement. If a news organization wants to trust its reporters and staffers not to say or do something stupid on their organization-provided blogs, well, I think that’s nice. But if I were a newspaper editor, I don’t know that I’d go that route.

Much of the hue and cry about Weintraub’s editorial oversight is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how newspaper editing works. I suspect a number of the complainants believe that the editors are going to hover over his shoulder and challenge every single word and thought that comes out of Weintraub’s fingers. But, you know, news editors usually don’t have the time for that sort of crap, even if they have the inclination, which they usually don’t. Editors aren’t thought police.

Look, back at the Fresno Bee, I wrote a weekly column where I wrote some pretty wacky stuff, like calling the Congress of the United States a “hideous bloated mass of cane toads.” I can think of only a couple of times where the editors actually came over and told me to re-write a paragraph, and in both cases they were perfectly reasonable requests. Most of the time, however, all they did was catch my inevitable spelling errors and edit for space (which is a consideration at papers).

Every newspaper editor I’ve worked for (as well as most of the magazine editors and online editors) assume a certain level of competence on the part of the writers. This is why Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass got away with as much as they did. This being the case, most of what writers write stands as is. Therefore, I would imagine that Weintraub being edited in his blog will mean very little to the final product. There may be a couple of times where someone says to him “is this the best way to put this?” and that would be that. Now, you may think that I’m being naive about the editorial process as it exists. But on the other hand, this belief is based on actual past experience (and current experience, since I write freelance on a weekly basis for the Dayton Daily News), so may I humbly suggest this naivety has some basis in personal experience.

As a pro blogger, would I want to be edited? Well, I wouldn’t mind having someone else looking for my spelling errors, that’s for sure.

Let’s also go back to what’s at the core of this fracas, which is that blogs are “supposed” to be unedited and unmediated. My question: Why? As far as my understanding of blogs go, they’re not “supposed” to be anything — the whole appeal of the blog form is its infinite flexibility. Blogs typically haven’t been edited, for the reason noted above: It’s primarily an amateur medium. But as more “pro” bloggers arrive, you’re going to find more edited blogs. I suspect eventually those who edit blogs will need to learn to adapt to a blogger’s capricious disregard for 9-to-5 updating (newspapers are actually well-suited for this, since a large percentage of the not-small ones do have a “night desk”), but otherwise I don’t see why or how editing changes the nature of a blog itself, as the nature of a blog is to be whatever those who create it want it to be.

Likewise, I think the other observation of bloggers on the subject of editing — “the blog world edits its own” through the use of comments and entries on other blogs — is looking at the editing process ass-backwards. No offense, guys, but you’re largely confusing kvetching with actual editing, and it’s not the same thing. Also, given the amount y’all fisk edited newspaper columns, there’s an interesting potential hypocrisy here, since clearly the point of a fisking is that the column in question has not been edited enough. Yes, fact-checking someone’s ass is all very fun, but in the case of professional writers, it’s on balance more efficient to have the editing done up front. An ounce of editorial prevention beats of a pound of haphazard blog-world cure.

If a professional writer wants to write a blog without being edited, the solution is simple — don’t write the blog for one’s employer. The Web is rife with journalists with their own personal blogs, and good on them. Occasionally that journalist’s employer will tell them to can the personal blog, which is something to which I am adamantly opposed. Journalists, like everyone else, are more than their jobs, and I’m firm in believing that your bosses can’t tell you how to live your own life, particularly if it has nothing to do with your job. If, for example, Weintraub decided to do a personal gardening blog and the Bee told him to quit it, I think he’d be perfectly within his rights to tell them to stick it — and bloggers would be perfectly right to raise a ruckus about that.

But it comes down to this. You write a blog on a news organization’s site, you’re writing it on their time, in their space, by their rules. You play by their rules, or you go somewhere else. It’s pretty simple stuff.

12 thoughts on “Whatever X, Day XIV

  1. Cool reprint John.
    I think that the Hulabaloo then (and even a little bit now) is that most people like me, right now, read and respond to Blogs at home while in our PJ’s eating Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner and we don’t like the thought of ANY oversight to anything that we do while eating Fruit-loops and whacking away at the keyboard in our two finger typing style. I mean would you like to have to post a picture of what you look like in what you are wearing right now while typing?
    I know I’d be scairing babies.
    Dave

  2. Jack Marx was an awarding winning pro-blogger for the Fairfax media group (Sydney Morning Herald and The Age) in Australia. In 2007 he posted a satirical story about our then future PMs visit to a New York strip club in 2003. Kevin Rudd claimed to not remember details of the visit. Marx wrote a mildly amusing story about what “could” have transpired. Marx was sacked over the post and it was removed almost immediately. Of course he was picked up by the competition News Limited website and the post was published there. Interesting what one employer could possibly find distasteful or too edgy can be snapped up by another.

  3. Ah, great post. Anything that might help convince writers that editors Are Not the Enemy is a welcome thing. Seriously, guys, we’re there to help create, not to destroy!

  4. Is there something about newspapers in California being named the Bee or am I just being led astray by sample size because I’ve heard of two there and don’t remember any others elsewhere?

  5. All the California “Bee” papers are owned by McClatchy. There’s one in Sacramento, Modesto and Fresno (the latter being the one at which I worked in the early 90s).

  6. The Washington Post still doesn’t edit its bloggers. Marc Fisher mentioned that in passing a week or two ago, in discussing the importance of copyeditors. His columns go through at least twelve different people, but his blog posts…nobody but himself. I was surprised the Post was so hands off.

  7. Edited pro bloggers. Oh such an outrage. Remember when everyone was aghast that (gasp) dirty rotten commercial businesses were interested in get on the Internet? It was going to ruin the Internet for everyone if any amount of that valuable bandwidth was going for people to make money. As in “how dare they make money off of my Internet connection fee”.

    Today, not so much of an argument. What? Take away my Amazon.com? Heresy! Indeed, that the Whatever has steadfastly clung to its “no ads” policy, though it does of course promote writings by Herr Scalzi and others, makes it something of an anomaly is 2008.

    Time moves fast and attitudes faster on the ol’ I-nets…

    Dr. Phil

  8. Great post, John. My favorite part was the bit that pointed out that blogs aren’t “supposed” to be anything. The people who raised a fuss were trying to argue that the blogosphere was wild and unregulated, but they were defeating their own argument by insisting that a blog fit a certain template. Textbook self-defeat.

    Reminds me of the “punk nonconformist” kids who you see all lined up in the Hot Topic, waiting patiently in line to all buy the same T-shirt.

  9. And from a controversy about editing, four wonderful people plus several of their employees decided that ‘unpublishing’ was even a better step than simply editing content.

    Of course, it was always hard to actually figure out whether those four people simply had a personal blog generally estimated at generating revenue in seven figures for a LLC, or if they were bloggers working for their own company.

    Nonetheless, unannounced unpublishing has been pronounced ‘jake’ by someone who previously used to decry such practices in a corporate environment.

    Guess that means bngbng.net is a personal blog, and not a corporate one.

  10. not_scottbot:

    a) It’s their blog, they can do whatever the hell they want with it. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.

    b) If all you’re going to do when you comment here is snark on Boing Boing, don’t bother commenting. You’re boring me, and the whole manufactured outrage was stupid beyond belief.

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