Sunday, September 21, 2003

He who pays the ISP calls the tune 

At the outset of this blog I decided it needed to be hosted off-campus. While at some schools respect for a faculty member's opinion outside of the classroom allows for even controversial sites (see Eric Rasmusen), I did not think we'd have that protection here. The purge of the faculty discussion email list and the proposed civlity code only confirm my suspicions.

That is further reinforced this morning by Hugh Hewitt's alert to us about the Sacramento Bee. Its ombudsman alerts readers that from here on all of its web content will be vetted by an editor. This includes Dan Weintraub's blog, The California Insider, which has been a real-time outlet for news and opinion on the California recall election. It appears there was an argument between the web people and the newsroom editors, and the editors won.
Ed Canale, The Bee's vice president of new media and strategic planning, said that at the inception of, "We made a decision not to replicate the newsroom." The "290 trained journalists" in the newsroom, he said, provide much of the content for the Web.

That's not good enough, in my view. Rodriguez said The Bee did once have an editor in the newsroom dedicated full-time to Web content, but after some newsroom restructuring the job was appended to the already considerable responsibilities of the editor who posted the press release.

Let me put it as plainly as possible: Half-measures don't work. The newsroom needs someone (and probably more than one person) with full-time responsibility for and authority over Web content. I hope that The Bee considers that its credibility is worth more than the cost of one full-time employee. (emphases mine)
I can see their point. Weintraub's blog is on their site and has their banner across it. Speech is location-specific, and if you speak on someone's website, that person should have some control over what is on their site. This is de Jourvenal's "chairman's problem" that free market apostle Murray Rothbard often spoke of. (See Timothy Terrell's explanation FMI.)

But while I think the ombudsman and editors have the right to make this decision, I think the SacBee has made a poor decision for two reasons. First, as the Commissioner points out, slowing the flow of information from reporters is a bad idea. Weintraub's blog represented
...a decision to move one paper into the new century by equipping its best talent with a computer and a mission to report in real-time, thus moving an old-media dinosaur out of the swamp. Weintraub has consistently delivered scoop after scoop and most of his postings have shaped the news cycle that followed.
But that elevation of reporters means a concomitant loss of power to editors, just as this blog's existence removes some power from the administration to control its public presence.

Second, the independence of an opinion writer is in fact part of their attraction. Looking at California Insider makes it quite plain that this is Weintraub speaking on his own. His independence is part of what they are selling. I think an admission that he is going to be edited makes Weintraub's pieces less attractive. The ombudsman's article might give the Sacramento establishment more comfort and the Bee's editors less pressure, but it may come at the cost of readership.