Kentucky governor’s blog ban lifted

A year ago, in a fit of political petulance, former Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher ordered state websites to block access to certain political blogs after Mark Nickolas, author of, criticized Fletcher in remarks reported in the New York Times.

Last week the administration of new Kentucky Governor Steve Breshear settled the case by agreeing to stop the discriminatory blockage. Read more about the case at Public Citizen (about) which, together with Louisville attorney Jennifer Moore, represented the banned blogger.

Whistleblower conference Monday in DC

Two important whistleblower protection bills were signed into law last year (for defense contractors and
ground transportation security whistleblowers) and two more reform bills are awaiting legislative action. They will be the focus of a conference convened today by the Government Accountability Project. According to the press release:

Coleen Rowley is the keynote speaker of the event. Rowley, former FBI Special Agent and Minneapolis Chief Division Counsel, was one of three Time Magazine “Persons of the Year” in 2002. She blew the whistle on FBI Headquarters’ failure to act on information provided by her Field Office, pre-9/11, about terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui.

Miscellaneous musings for a TGIF Friday

It’s the debt, stupid,” says Poynter Institute business commentator Rick Edmonds, who chides newspaper chains that grew through debt-financed acquisitions, such as McClatchy, Media News and the new Sam Zell empire. They will have a hard time in this downturn as they try to pay huge interest charges with declining cash flows. He contrasts these expansionists to:

some companies (that) have had the good sense or good fortune not to buy any newspapers this decade. That hasn’t earned them favor on Wall Street, but it does leave a lot more maneuvering room for transformation in the next several years . . . That group would include, among others, A.H. Belo, E.W. Scripps, the Washington Post and New York Times companies, and Cox.
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Speaking of Sam Zell and his new Tribune media company, Tribune chief innovation officer Lee Abrams has some good ideas in his “15 points that’ll grow newspapers.” But he also delivered them in a rather breathless and some golly gee whiz manner which is lampooned by former newspaper columnist turned blogger Nancy Nall Derringer.
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Despite the debt burden on McClatchy, the chain continues to win praise for its Washington and foreign affairs reporting. Robert Niles, former editor of Online Journalism Review, gives McClatchy its kudos in an interview published just before he wrote a goodbye column saying the publication is closed. Good luck — to us all!

WordGate — AP says 4 free, pay at five!

My posting yesterday naively assumed that it would be “fair use” to quote at least a 75-word chunk of an Associated Press article, or other any other copyrighted work, because that was what I recall from various journalism classes.

Now science fiction writer Nielsen Hayden proves me wrong by 71 words. He reveals that AP allows just four free words and shows the price list that starts the charges at $12.50 for five words.

Cory Doctorow, another science fiction author who writes for the influential blog BoingBoing, found further reason to fault AP by plucking the following clause out of the AP’s per-word license. He writes:

If you pay to quote the AP, but you offend the AP in so doing, the AP “reserves the right to terminate this Agreement at any time if Publisher or its agents finds Your use of the licensed Content to be offensive and/or damaging to Publisher’s reputation.”

Amy Gahran, a commentator for the Poynter Institute, put the controvery into context in a post whose titled answers its own question: “AP versus Bloggers: Hurting journalism?

What happens when bloggers realize that AP and other corporate media back a so-called shield law that would offer some protection to paid journalists but exclude bloggers.

Newspapers, blogs converge and conflict

To a considerable extent blogs have fed off mainstream media, repeating and commenting, supplementing and contradicting, but more often than not using some news article as their starting point. Now two developments, noticed by contributors to this blog, show how professional and citizen media groups are trying to coexist.

Der Cuz noticed recently that bloggers who want to develop their own stories and do their own reporting are turning to workshops organized by the Society for Professional Journalists. An Associated Press article carried by Wired News says:

About a dozen would-be reporters navigated the basics of journalism at a recent training offered by the Society of Professional Journalists in Chicago. The group plans similar seminars this month in Greensboro, N.C., and Los Angeles.

One lesson taught at such workshops has been how to avoid defamation — saying untruthful things that would injure an ordinary person’s reputation (public figures have to take more abuse under the law). The article quotes Robert Cox president of the Media Bloggers Association who says:

more than 100 judgments valued at $17 million have been handed down against bloggers over the last three years – about 60 percent for defamation, 25 percent for copyright infringement and 10 percent involving privacy.

In a related item, Charlotte (FedsHallofShame) Yee noticed a New York Times story about the Associated Press meeting with the Media Bloggers Association to discuss the concept of fair use. I hope I get this right because as a card-carrying journalist I should know that there is a legal threshold for how many words one can cite of a copyrighted work, without specific permission. I think the word count is in the 75 to 125 word range. Excerpts must be clearly identified (as by the indentations used above). It is legal to carry such an identified excerpt and link to the full article. But many bloggers extract and repost the entire text. That is neither fair use nor necessary, in my opinion, to make one’s point.

I notice that the Media Bloggers Association says it “will be opening up registration for membership starting in Summer 2008” and offering a “media liability insurance product for bloggers as well as a new membership policy that requires all members to complete a 45 minute online training course.”

I am guessing here that Media Bloggers wants to credential and professionalize citizen media. I’ll look into that effort more as time permits. For now, bloggers worried about legal exposure to defamation suits should look into an umbrella insurance policy, as offered by standard insurers. These provide coverage against libel, which is a defamation that is published or broadcast. But I have no idea of the exclusions and will be eager to see if Media Bloggers can get a better deal.

Union tremor shakes Bay Area print media

Pro-union vote in eastern region of SF Bay

Editorial employees at seven newspapers in the San Francisco East Bay voted 104-92 to certify the Newspaper Guild as their bargaining agent with MediaNews Group. The San Francisco Chronicle and the MediaNews papers wrote short articles (see Chron or the Hayward Daily Review) devoid of analysis.

I am a Chronicle staff reporter who supports the organizing drive out of self interest, if nothing else. MediaNews is a debt-leveraged newspaper chain built by Dean Singleton. MediaNews got a loan from Hearst to acquire the East Bay papers from McClatchy, the newspaper firm which bought out Knight-Ridder. MediaNews recently refinanced its debt to eliminate reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which will allow it to operate more privately and without disclosures of margins or other factors.

Hearst Corp. and MediaNews have business relationships that complicate the notion of competition between them. As Peter Scheer of the First Amendment Coalition write two years ago:

Hearst, owner of the Chronicle, which will be MediaNews’ primary competitor in the Bay Area . . . Hearst will also become a MediaNews investor and partner . . . Regulators are suspicious whenever they see ostensible competitors engaging in transactions that could cause them to be less competitive with each other—or, worse, that could facilitate an agreement to fix prices or divide up the market.

For sheer balance of power reasons it behooves editorial employees on both sides of San Francisco Bay to have whatever (diminishing) clout comes from spreading the union on both sides of the Bay. But the margin of the vote is not overwhelming. It suggests that MediaNews workers wonder whether a union will do anything more than piss off the bosses and cost more than $500 a year in without preventing the implosion of the newspaper industry.

All valid objections. Nevertheless being represented will make a difference in how we do journalism in this period of retreat. Let’s look at staffing numbers. In 2000, when the staffs of the Chronicle and Examiner were merged, they totaled about 550 reporters. I am now one of about 300 surviving Chronicle journalists.

Across the Bay, the seven papers affected by the union vote employ about 225 journalists. So the Chronicle alone had a bigger editorial staff in 2000 than the combined headcount of the the seven MediaNews papers plus the Chron.The other big regional paper is the San Jose Mercury News. It is owned by MediaNews and is already unionized by the Guild. It now has about 170 persons on staff. I believe its staff peaked around 400 persons during the era.

Newspaper editorial staffs have been cut more or less in half in the last several years. How do shrinking staffs cover the region? How much say does the staff have in making decisions? That is as much at stake in the union vote as the hourly rate or the number of vacation days. As a union member I have the rarely exercised but important prerogative of taking my byline off a story. That allows me some final say over the journalism that goes out under my name. How much is that worth? And can the union even get a deal from MediaNews?

I don’t know but I am a survivor of the 1994 newspaper strike. I had only been in newspapers 2 years. People understand these jobs are tough to get and I was not happy about the walkout nor altogether behind the union position (for instance at that point the Guild opposed putting cameras into the hands of reporters; I thought that foolish). But we got back in the door and with a decent contract.

But before that strike settled, management was on the verge of bringing in replacement workers supplied by the Chicago Tribune. So I was told by a former management executive, The Trib, then under different ownership, was prepared to send in squads of out-of-town journalists to replace the striking locals.

That never happened. But with the financial relationship between Hearst and MediaNews already, I think reporters on either side of the San Francisco Bay could one day be told to work as strike breakers. Or maybe they never get to make a choice. They are told: write a story about X, Y or Z — never leave their desk, never cross a picket line and by a management edict their work appear in a supposedly competing paper.

What a world! What could a union do? The question to ask, I think, is what would management do in the absence of any check on its power?

Analyst says ‘cultural reticence’ changing

Former newspaper analyst turned professor Lauren Rich Fine attended the Florida Press Association meeting where the Tribune Company announced its new 50-50 ratio between advertising and editorial copy. She writes

there is a relatively new sense of urgency among participants to find and discuss solutions to the current economic woes of the industry; the historic cultural reticence is quickly being eroded.

Among other things fine says:

In my conversations with both newspaper executives in Florida and beyond, I sensed some agreement with my premise that newspapers needed to reengage with their community. Give reporters, not just columnists, opportunities to connect and gain some visibility.

That would be a huge change. I discuss the “cultural reticence” of the news industry in an essay titled, The Pyramid and the Cloud. Those attitudes could not change quickly enough.