More and more newspapers in North America are launching blogs, often amid great fanfare, a trend that has raised policy issues for editors and reporters, not to mention the ire of grassroots bloggers who decry the instrusion of "mainstream media" into the "blogosphere."
The policy issues have often focussed on whether reporters -- who are expected to report on the world in a balanced way (as opposed to columnists, who are expected to take a subjective, and often sharp, point of view) -- may expose themselves to charges of bias through the informal, personal nature of blog writing. Another issue is how to balance the workload of a blog with a reporter's primary job of reporting for the paper (or the paper's website).
But another issue for newspapers and mainstream media (MSM) is: how much of the "anything goes" element of blogging do they want to embrace? Blogs are seen as a way to connect more directly with readers and create a conversation, to break out of the once-a-day publishing cycle, and to give writers freedom to publish more quickly or at odd hours. But newspapers have over decades evolved strict standards around the hows and whys of the information they publish, for reasons of community standards, accuracy, transparency and, of course, legal liability.
The Star's Public Editor, Sharon Burnside, recently set out some thoughts about blogs on thestar.com in responding to a reader's concern about links on our blogs. Here's an edited version of her email:
Blogs are a relatively new medium for the newspaper and policies are being refined as we gain experience.
The Star's general approach, where blogs are concerned, is to allow great latitude for freedom of speech and ideas. This means, necessarily, the freedom to express ideas that may be unpopular or even objectionable. Dissent is vital in a healthy democracy.
Blogs are, by nature, a conversation among participants and links are a defining characteristic. This does not mean that the Star agrees or disagrees with any of the comments or links offered.
Reading a blog is a choice, contributing a comment is a choice, moving to a link is a choice and our readers are intelligent adults.
Blogs are different in character and spirit than in-paper content. Like a conversation, the direction can take unexpected turns and the energy is created, in part, by the spontaneity of the debate.
The Star is making an effort to respect that character and the usual latitude offered to columnists. This does not mean that anything goes - although things are allowed to go considerably further on blogs than would be acceptable in newspaper content.
The blogs are monitored by editors.
Abusive comments or obscenities, links or posts that break laws, comments that are deliberately or maliciously off topic are unacceptable. These judgments are subjective and the paper may not always get it right the first time. To a certain extent, blogs have a self policing element. Protests from participants have resulted in second looks and removal of postings.
The rules that newspapers rely on to maintain their credibility means that they won't likely be the ones to push the boundaries of blogging, and will lead some observers to circular arguments about whether a MSM blog is even a blog. But that doesn't mean newspaper websites should shy away from the form as they try to find new ways to engage readers.