September 23, 2003

Bee the Blog: Crabs in a Bucket

The most disturbing thing about the Sacramento Bee's decision to edit political columnist Daniel Weintraub's blog, California Insider, before it's posted online is that it was apparently made, in the words of Slate columnist Mickey Kaus, to "placate PC forces within the Bee's own newsroom."

Bee ombudsman Tony Marcano reported Sunday that the editing dictate followed a complaint about Weintraub by state Legislature's Latino Caucus. Said Marcano:

"Weintraub wrote that Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante 'certainly owed his elevation to the job of Assembly speaker to his ethnic background (emphasis added) 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."

As Kaus discovered when followed up with Bee Executive editor Rick Rodriguez that version of events was not true. Rodriguez told Kaus the Latino Caucus complaints had nothing to do with his decision to have Weintraub edited. Kaus explains:

"Rodriguez says 'folks on the staff brought' the issue to him after Weintraub's posting. They 'wanted to know if it was edited,' he says, though he adds he suspects they mainly wanted to 'yell at some editors' about it. Rodriguez volunteers the ethnic makeup of the angry newsroom 'folks': 'Some were Latino, some Anglo, some black.' The result was a review of Weintraub's status. 'Our policy at the Bee is that everything's edited,' Rodriguez declares."

Kaus adds, without sourcing, that there was enmity between the Bee newsroom and Weintraub. "Apparently the news side of the Bee has never liked his blog, for some obvious reasons - e.g., he's been beating the pants off them," says Kaus.

The whole incident saddens and angers me - and not because Weintraub is going to be edited. Even thought he's an opinion columnist (but, as L.A. Observed says, "He's their opinion columnist.), everyone can benefit from a good editor. [ Read: Blogging and Editing: Reloaded ]

No, I'm disheartened because the reaction of Weintraub's colleagues to his opinion - an opinion, to restate, that he is paid to write - illustrates that they, and by inference, the newspaper industry remain mired in ethnic divisiveness. They're focused on exploiting sensitivity instead of pursuing truth and obsessed with defending turf instead of promoting quality.

I don't like it when good journalists like Rick Rodriguez make poor management choices and allow the opinion of the mob to determine the fate of the few.

Newspapers need to change or they will lose all relevance. As organizations, they are defensive by nature and therefore resistant to innovation - whether it be a new tool, such as a blog, a new style of management, such as transparent news meetings, or a new editorial voice, such as unfettered opinion that challenges, or at least spotlights, the role of race in political life.

Jeff Jarvis has several good thoughts on the matter, but to me this is the most important: "We should drop the term 'news' with all its heavy baggage and instead look on our job in terms of imparting information."

He's right.

Newspapers are blessed with large numbers of journalists and equipped with sophisticated tools for gathering and dispersing information. A tremendous opportunity to regain momentum and reposition themselves as indispensable platforms for public information and civic discourse awaits those papers bold enough to expel the curse of traditional newsroom thinking.

Until that happens, Weintraub and others like him will continue to be yanked back into the bucket by their crabby colleagues.

(Even Rodriguez might agree with that. As he said during a Poynter Institute conference on journalism and business values: "Editors cannot be intransigent nor shortsighted. The industry has changed. There is much more competition for our readers and our advertisers. … there also is little doubt we have moved into a new media age, one in which we constantly will have to respond and adapt to new challenges and competition.")

UPDATE: Here's NYU's Jay Rosen on the Bee's new group blog by editorial page editors: "By these gradual means the Web is teaching journalism back to journalists… on the Web. For when you have to decide how to use the form, when you’re sitting at your desk and there are things strange, wonderful and new on your screen, you may have to re-decide what journalism “is” ... To force this moment upon mainstream journalism in setting after setting could be the Weblog’s gift to the newsroom."

 Readership Institute Inside Newspaper Culture

Posted by Tim Porter at September 23, 2003 09:43 AM

I blogged on the need for editing of staff-written copy. It seems absurd that anybody would be advocating that a newspaper's copy be published unedited. At the Mercury News a recipe for chocolate chip cookies sees four editors before it's typeset, and sometimes it takes that many sets of eyes before somebody discovers the directions say use X cups of sugar but there's no sugar in the list of ingredients. Let's not throw editing out with the new media bathwater ... it serves a purpose in every medium.

Posted by: tom on September 23, 2003 10:34 AM

To edit or not edit blogs: I just can't get excited about that controversy. That seems like a largely logistical question that is easily resolved.

More worrisome to me is the fact that, according to an LA Times piece: "Sources at the Bee say that other internal reservations have been raised about Weintraub's blog. Some reporters and editors dislike the concept of linking to publications with which their paper competes. Others object to the fact that Weintraub, who also writes a thrice-weekly column, routinely breaks news on the Web before it appears in the Bee's print edition.''

When are we - daily newspapers - going to realize that we are multi-headed beasts serving multiple audiences? As media companies, are we going to ignore an emerging medium just because it threatens the way we have historically done business? Talk about a recipe for irrelevance. If newspaper web sites are going to be nothing more than digital replicas of their print versions, then why bother?

Posted by: Michael Bazeley on September 23, 2003 04:50 PM

I'm with Michael Bazeley. Our industry threatens to suffer the fate of the railroad bidness, which fell into irrelevance because it continued to think it was in the railroad bidness 'sted of the t'anspo'tation bidness.

[/egregiously Southern accent]

Posted by: Lex on September 24, 2003 07:29 AM
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