New wave of local journalists sweat old rights and wrongs

The world of online journalism often gets a bad rap from traditionalists, who fear for the soul of the profession, wherever that may be. Web-only news sites are the places where unlicensed drivers get behind the wheel, rumors are news, and clandestine videos, shrewdly edited to embarrass, are posted as if they’re documentary records.

The new wave practitioners are criticized as hasty and reckless, slaves to mob sentiment and their funders’ wishes. They’re too impatient to verify, and have only the vaguest commitment to public service. If traditional ethics has been a tragedy, contemporary ethics is a farce.

That, at least, has been the rap among some of us, and since I’ve done my share of finger-wagging I was eager to see a timely report from American University’s new media incubator, J-Lab, subtitled “Navigating the New Ethics of Local Journalism.” It’s about what this new generation thinks about professional rights and wrongs, and it’s based on lengthy interviews with 17 top players whose local news sites throughout the country are a good sample of today’s online entrepreneurial journalism.

The report was compiled by Scott Rosenberg, who last year published a nifty history of blogging, “Say Everything,” and it offers reflections from the local news trenches on the challenges online journalists face: balancing speed with accuracy, deciding when privacy should be heeded, figuring out when harms of publication outweigh benefits, keeping the need for money from corrupting.

The surprise isn’t that these journalists’ problems are no different from the chronic ailments that have plagued local news for generations. It’s that their attempts to grapple with them are just as honest and thoughtful—and no less muddled, inconsistent, well-intentioned and praiseworthy as ever.

On printing the names of people who’ve been arrested, David Boraks, a former American Banker reporter whose DavidsonNews.net covers that North Carolina community, says: “I get some hate mail from people who wish I would publish every last name and the mugshots and everything. But I feel like, this is us. This is not some people in another place, or another town, in the big city nearby where you can look at it and have some bizarre satisfaction that people elsewhere are doing bad things. This is us.”

Barry Parr, who runs Coastsider in San Mateo, Calif., wonders whether omitting names of people who are arrested, as his site does, conceals the disproportionate number of Hispanics who get in trouble: “I think it would have been interesting for folks in the community to know the character of the way that the laws were enforced in the community.”

These web leaders do worry. They worry over the “Google juice” effect—that news of minor wrongdoing may remain perpetually accessible and become a permanent stain. They worry that a blanket policy of alerting the community to sex offenders who move in might unfairly doom people whose offenses were slight. They worry about how to handle news of suicides, aren’t sure it’s fair to reprint Facebook ramblings that were never meant for public consumption, fear that allowing anonymous postings opens their site to misuse and verbal cruelty.

They must deal with conflicts of interest, a problem that is always especially acute for local media, where funders or the things they care about always seem to show up in the news. At Pegasus News in Dallas/Fort Worth, the reporter who covers one local town council is actually a council member. That’s a stunning departure from conventional practice, but founder Mike Orren argues it’s better than no coverage at all, and because the conflict is known to readers, has been broadly acceptable.

They have the familiar old problems of drawing lines. Paul Bass–whose pioneering New Haven Independent scooped national media on coverage of the 2009 murder of a Yale graduate student–was uneasy about posting the rankings of schoolteachers (as The Los Angeles Times recently did). But his site was aggressive about reporting the evaluations of city managers. Who’s a public official, and who’s a private person on the public payroll? Is there a difference?

These questions are indeed hardy perennials, and as Jan Schaffer, the former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and editor who runs J-Lab points out, they’re being answered in a setting where the threshold for what’s news is lower, where stories are often reported as they unfold, and where readers seem to value a journalism of engagement rather than distance.

The solutions that these mainly shoestring operations have devised aren’t always optimal, but then neither are the ways that rich monopoly news outfits have done business. Still, the J-Lab report offers encouraging and reassuring signs that as the torch of local journalism is being passed, the flame of ethical aspiration, at least, remains strong.

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