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Hartford Courant editor: 'Blog away'

In a fascinating essay for the fall issue of Nieman Reports, Hartford Courant editor Brian Toolan explains why he decided to shut down staffer Denis Horgan's external Weblog earlier this year, a move that set off a storm of controversy in the blogosphere (see two CyberJournalist.net opinion pieces on the controversy: "Lasica: Let journalists blog!" and "Meyer: Employers have right to ban blogging.").

In the article, Toolan says his decision was easy. "Behaving in a manner that safeguards the integrity of a news institution and avoids real or perceived conflicts of interest is central to the compact between a journalist and his employer. Journalists should operate in ways that don't display bias or predisposition. These are ethical considerations, not legal ones, but they are central to the conduct of journalism and must be zealously maintained."

"Denis Horgan's public profile is a product of his long-standing relationship with the Courant. Horgan and the Courant are forged by tenure and highly visible roles. After his opinion column in the Courant was ended, Horgan created a new journalistic platform for himself and began opining on issues, institutions and public officials that reporters and columnists at the newspaper must cover. Even though he was no longer writing his column, Horgan could not separate himself from the Courant by simply declaring that denishorgan.com has nothing to do with the paper, particularly while he is at the paper in the role of an editor.

"Nor could he disconnect himself -- in the public's mind -- from his long-time position as a Courant columnist. These realities combined to make me believe that many readers of denishorgan.com would not differentiate the Weblog's Horgan from the one who once wrote columns for and still works for the Courant. Part of the appeal Horgan and his site held for online readers was directly attributable to his role at the Courant, yet the newspaper had no control over his comments and opinions. For example, if Horgan wrote a column about the unfitness of John Rowland to be Connecticut's governor, some people -- including the governor, surely -- could imagine that mindset prevails in the Courant's newsroom. That strikes at the credibility of the newspaper. It doesn't work.

"This is not an issue of freedom of speech. It is about professional expectations and, when they are ignored, as in this case, the newspaper's standards and public responsibilities are compromised.

Toolan says he's not nearly as anti-blog as many made him out to be during the controversy.

"Frankly, I'm an agnostic about Weblogs. I know they're out there, but I have no strong feelings about blogging generally. I don't read them, but that's because I'm reading a whole lot of other things I find interesting, lots of it ink-on-paper, but lots of it online. So blog away....

"...Horgan didn't have any discussion with editors at the newspaper before he launched denishorgan. com. But if he had proposed a Weblog in which he would write about more benign topics, like fishing or gardening or day-tripping in New England, it probably would have been approved. That isn't what happened....

"As far as Weblogs and their future with daily newspapers, I can certainly accommodate the notion of Weblogs being part of a newspaper's online portfolio. In fact, the Courant has had devices like that in the past. But is a Weblog truly a Weblog if it is supervised editorially? If the answer is no and that anything but complete freedom is a perversion of the genre, then I think editors must ask themselves if they are comfortable having their news organization represented in that manner. I wouldn't be."

You can read the full article in this PDF file or order a copy of the magazine from the Neiman Foundation for $5.

RELATED LINK: Read about the other articles in the Nieman Reports issue on Weblogging.

Oct 02, 2003 | E-MAIL | SAVE | PRINT | PERMALINK | DISCUSS(2)



Discussion

2 comments about 'Hartford Courant editor: 'Blog away''

This was a very remarkable piece, that makes you wonder whether slavery is still among us. I think it makes sense to discuss have a blog or not with your editors, whether they are agnostic or ignorant about blogging. But they are not the ones who can decide about an issue like it is part of their paper. There is a new reality out there and the Nieman Report shows you cannot simply blow it away.

Posted by Fons Tuinstra at October 6, 2003 11:16 AM

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