Thursday, May 12, 2005

No, The New York Times Should Not Have Its Own Blog

This is the third of a series of six blogs examining recommendations of a New York Times panel last week for improving the credibility of the paper. Since the NYT often takes the lead, if it adopts these ideas, other newspapers will follow, making the whole subject consequential for journalism throughout the country.

Today, I'm going to support, within a few limits, the idea for putting documents and transcripts used in stories in the paper on the Web, so things can be viewed more completely and in context by the readers. But I'm going to oppose the recommendation of the panel that the NYT consider establishing its own blog to promote interaction with readers.

The New York Times already does a much more comprehensive job of printing transcripts and excerpts of documents than the L.A. Times or other newspapers do. When the LAT prints excerpts, they generally are far more briefly presented than in the NYT.

Obviously, the Web is a way to do this without using up all the space and costly newsprint that are used now. Already, Time magazine does put supplementary materials on its Web site. For instance, Time recently published an additional chapter of the Jane Fonda book on the Web. And newspapers are doing this more and more.

I must confess that I personally seldom go on the Web to read lengthy resource material. However, presumably some readers will, and the use of the Web in this way is probably bound to increase.

The only caveat I have is that the newspaper staff, particularly reporters, not be forced to transcribe lengthy transcripts that would not be used in their regular stories simply to facilitate putting them on the Web. This could prove to be a fresh burden on people already pressed to get their reports out in a timely way.

Also, I might mention that while the aim is to build better understanding by the readers, the result might well be to generate more controversy, since it''s inevitable that not everyone will agree with the reporter's judgment as to what to report out of a transcript. This could actually fuel even more controversy tha exists now.

Doing transcripts often is worthwhile for the reporter. When I was covering the Yorty campaign for Mayor back in 1969, both the editors and I were concerned that everything be accurate since it was known that the newspaper editorially detested Yorty and was backing his opponent. I found that in taping all of Yorty's speeches and then transcribing them, I did pick up a lot of things I would have missed in taking notes, and that my reports were a better reflection of what Yorty had said.

The most important single example of the utility of taping and doing transcripts in my own career, however, came in a judicial race. This was the attempt by then-Municipal Court Judge Malcolm Mackey to win a Superior Court seat. Mackey fell afoul of his own record of impregnating women, and there were charges that in one such case he had arranging for a Filipina to be deported back to the Philippines, before she could have the baby.

I went to interview Mackey about this without a tape recorder, but in the midst of the interview, I heard a click and it turned out that he was taping our conversation. I then demanded and received the tape. When I transcribed it, I found something that was not in my notes: a statement by Mackey that this whole thing would not have become an issue had this woman only been white.

When that was published in the newspaper, Mackey's campaign began sinking like a rock, and he did not successfully reach the Superior Court for another ten years.

So transcripts have their place, although this quote certainly belonged in the newspaper, not just on the Web.

As to the idea that the New York Times should establish its own blog, I tend to think not. Blogs, at their best, represent a kind of free flow of expression by people like me who cannot afford to own their own newspapers and otherwise are limited in their ability to write and make their feelings known..I think the danger here is that a blog would become simple spin for the paper, and would be so watered down by collective judgments as to frequently not be worth reading anyway.

There have been disputes over reporters doing blogs on the side. Should their editors have the right to edit them?

Just for the record, I'm enjoying doing this blog with myself as editor. I've been quite willing to correct mistakes or revise blogs later if I think criticisms are justified or I have been intemperate in something I said. But I just can't see why a newspaper,. with all the space available to it, should do its own blog.

There are already, some say, eight million bloggers. That's enough, in my view, without adding the New York Times to the list. And I do have the fear that a blog by the newspaper would end up being written by a public relations man, possibly compounding the paper's credibility problems.

Tomorrow, I'll deal with the recommendation for curtailing use of anonymous sources and going back to sources and allowing them to preview and comment on articles before and give feedback after they are printed.

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