John Robinson is editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina. He was a member of a panel at the May 2005 Nieman Reunion whose task was to speak to some of the changes taking place at newspapers today, including his newsroom’s increasing use of Weblogs. The panel, “Thinking About Journalism,” was moderated by Alex Jones, who is director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics & Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Edited excerpts from this discussion follow.
Alex Jones: John has been getting a lot of attention and probably being called and queried more than most editors of most newspapers these days because he is genuinely on the forefront of the intersection of blogging and new media and the traditional local newspapers. He has his own Weblog and responds daily to reader criticism. And we’re going to be hearing from him about what he thinks is going on in Greensboro and how it might apply elsewhere.
John, you seem to be using your blog to try to create transparency without making it just a matter of apologizing for mistakes—explaining rather than correcting and doing mea culpas. What’s really going as far as you’re concerned, and what is the relationship as you’ve seen it evolve?
John Robinson: I can tell you it’s a nasty world out there in cyberspace. Eight months ago, we started creating Weblogs so that our staff could talk with readers and interact with readers. Now we have either 14 or 15 Weblogs that are staff produced. I kind of lose track because they grow organically from our staff. We embarked on this for two reasons. One for transparency, on mine in particular, where I post lots of thoughts about our newspaper, some things that are going on in journalism as it applies to Greensboro and our community. And these blog posts range from acknowledgement of errors, or directly publicizing our errors, to awards that we’ve gotten, from how we did this story to complaints that we’ve gotten and the reasons why we do things.
But that’s not really all the blogs are about. For us, it really is about journalism. So our blogs range from a couple of editorial writers who essentially take the editorials that they write, or take the voice that they have on the editorial page, and move it online, and talk about a whole lot of different topics because we don’t have space for them in the paper. It ranges from that to direct reporting blogs, where the city hall reporter, for instance, is able to tell readers about things that are going on in his own voice while still maintaining the fundamental journalistic values of integrity and trust. He can also link readers to documents that are online, converse with readers about things that are happening at city hall, get information for them, and deliver it directly to them online.
The other thing that we’re attempting to do is participate in more citizen journalism and solicit reader submissions of news stories so we can put those online. There is this sense that there’s a lot going on in Greensboro that readers know about and we don’t. In Greensboro, there are people who are bloggers who go to municipal meetings, county meetings, and write about them online. There are city council members and county commissioners and one state representative who have blogs and break news in their blogs. So we have to play in that field. And what it’s done: It’s given readers access to us, to talk about things, to tell us about things we’re doing wrong. And it gives us the opportunity then to talk back to them and explain, in almost a real-time way, what it is that we do.
Jones: The people who have been blogging and reporting, are they sort of two-voiced people? Are they one voice when their work appears in the newspaper and another voice on the blog? Should we take some lessons from the blogosphere, if that’s what builds trust? Should that be the voice of our print products now?
Robinson: The reporters, in particular, have two voices, just as editorial folks and I do. One is institutional, and that one is in the newspaper, and the other, which is more collegial and accessible, is in the blogs. In journalism circles it seems the most controversial thing we do is not edit the blogs. That was done on purpose for a variety of reasons. If we sent their blog posts through editors, the editors would beat the life out of them, and we wanted to have a voice in this new medium that was more casual and that readers could respond to differently.
So the information the reporters bring to their blogs has the same value as the information in the newspaper. But there might be something that happened at a city council meeting that only 100 people are interested in. We would give it some space in the newspaper, but if there was some interesting interplay or drama then we could put it online and play with it a little bit more to make the point to readers that what is happening inside their city hall has value. What we haven’t figured out, but which we are working on now, is how to move the more conversational, accessible writing style of the blogs into the newspaper.
Jones then turns to another panel member, Karen Stephenson, a Harvard professor who studies trust, and invites her into the conservation.
Jones: Karen, where is the trust question here? Is this a good idea to have two different voices? To have an official voice and then a sort of unofficial voice that is also one that seems to have even more weight and authority?
Karen Stephenson: I don’t know if it’s a good idea, but I think it’s very realistic. Because any time anybody works inside organizations, and we all have organizations of one sort or another, there is the spoken word and then there’s what’s really going on. There’s policy and then there’s procedure. There are the rules of hierarchy and then there’s the informal chitchat about how we really get work done. So I actually think that people being able to see what’s codified and what’s edited is fine because that’s putting it out there. But they can also, if they want, have access to be able to go to these other sites. I remember this blogger with The Washington Post. He wrote articles that were edited in a certain way and then he had his own blog. And I just thought about how people could go to either source. They have direct contact with that person.
After the panel participants spoke, audience members asked them questions. Several questions were directed to John Robinson.
Questioner: At the News & Record you have vastly increased the amount of published material. Whether it’s published in the newspaper or on the Web, it is still a huge increase in the amount of published material. Given that you’re responsible for the content of what the paper publishes, how do you find the time to supervise all of this content? Or are you essentially giving up on supervising it all? But if you are supervising it, what that you used to supervise are you not supervising today? Or are you just really cranked up to a higher rate so that the factory assembly line is effectively just moving by very quickly? That’s what I want to know, how you manage your time, given this vast increase in publication.
Robinson: When you say supervise, what do you mean?
Questioner: Aren’t you the editor?
Robinson: I am.
Questioner: So aren’t you responsible for what you publish?
Robinson: I am.
Questioner: And have you not increased exponentially the amount of material that’s published?
Robinson: I have.
Robinson: We’ve done a couple things. In all the newsrooms I’ve been in, if you ask a reporter what their biggest complaint is about being there—if you get past the I’m not paid enough and my parking space is too far from the building and I don’t like my desk—what they’ll say is there’s never an editor around when you need them. Which was another reason that we pulled the editors out of this flow. Do I supervise them? To the extent that before anyone starts to blog, we have conversations about what are the standards of our newspaper, and our standards have not changed. We’re still responsible for the content on the blog. For example, our expectation is that the people who seem to never have done very well in spelling in grammar school and still can’t spell are expected to have grammatically correct and correctly spelled blog posts. So if they need help with that, they have someone read behind them.
When I say these blogs grew organically, what I mean is that I started one, then people saw that it was okay and saw what I was writing, and so we started a few others. And it was only people who raised their hand, who wanted to do it. We are not paying them more to do this, but what we’ve got are the people who are really intrigued with this idea of another medium. It excites them. And they have a whole lot of information in their notebooks that they aren’t getting into the newspaper, so they can put this information online. They get feedback from readers that they don’t get in any other way, and that excites them.
I read all the blogs after they post the thing. Does it take up more of my time? Sure. But it’s important. What I eliminate is that I’ll find a meeting not to go to. And it’s amazing, I didn’t really have to be in that meeting anyway. So the result is that I’ve pushed responsibility and accountability down into our organization.
Jack Nelson, former Washington bureau chief, Los Angeles Times: I wanted to ask John Robinson, what sort of feedback do you get on the blog? Is it a lot? How does it change the way the paper now runs stories? Do you run shorter stories now because you can expand them on the blog? Has it changed the paper at all?
Robinson: I have my photograph on my blog, and my favorite feedback was from someone saying they appreciated the blog and the information, but really, I needed to update my photo because no one has a mustache like mine. [Laughter] The feedback really does span the Wild West, from people calling each other idiots and their mothers idiots to very insightful commentary. That’s just the way it is, as it is when any group gets together. And it changes our content in very subtle ways. We’re still playing with ways to move blog commentary and blog story ideas into the newspaper. On one occasion a reader submitted a story that we thought was good enough to publish in the newspaper and met our standards of reporting and writing. Most reader submissions that we get, we leave online and don’t transfer to the newspaper.
We do a lot of promotion from the newspaper to the blog so readers can get additional information. But it hadn’t really flown back the other way. We try to tell stories in a different way, not as a result of us having online content but as a result of trying to understand what readers want from us and how to deliver the information better.
Jones: Do you put information online that would be considered unverified, whereas you would not put that same unverified information in the newspaper itself?
Marilyn Geewax, an economics reporter with Cox Newspapers in the Washington bureau: I already work in an incredibly dense day. I’m very busy every minute. If at the end of my day I also had to write a blog, there goes dinner. All right—I’ll give up dinner. I can lose some weight anyway. But what about the readers who then want to respond to the blog and start e-mailing you? I find I waste so much time. I wrote a story last Sunday about wages. I probably had 12 e-mails the next day—lengthy things from retired economists who want to argue about wages. I sent back an e-mail saying, “Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m really too busy to engage in this,” and then they’re angry. Then they write back and say, “Well why don’t you want to talk about this? This proves your liberal bias because you don’t want to talk about this.” I feel like I’m becoming a high-paid pen pal for retired people. [Laughter] Where is the time? I don’t want to spend my time being a global pen pal. I want to find news. And I don’t even have time to do it now.
So my question on the blogging thing is, how do you in a sense create this expectation of interaction with the reporters and yet not give your reporters the time or the pay to do that?
Jones: One of the dirty little secrets of the blogosphere is that the most influential blogs, like Instapundit.com and places like that, don’t take comments. They only send; they don’t receive. What do you think?
Robinson: I think that you don’t really have any choice. The time has come in which readers expect—citizens expect—to be able to challenge us and that we need to respond. So my advice would be twofold. It really needs to be a corporate priority, or at least a newsroom priority. If it’s not a priority, then you do get a pass that you don’t have to actually respond to the people who pay your salary. The other is that a blog allows you to do a couple things. If you get 12 e-mails that require 12 very substantive responses, and you get those every day, you can cut a lot of time by doing a blog post saying, “Here it is.” The additional interesting thing is that someone will then comment about how half-baked you are and you don’t even need to respond to that because six other people will come on and comment on how half-baked the person who commented is.
Heidi Evans, reporter at the (New York) Daily News: I do a fair amount of investigative reporting. I have two questions: What does your legal department have to say about sending unsupervised things out there? It’s a frightening thought, like sending young children into traffic, that you could just send things out there. As an investigative reporter, although I think every journalist would like more paragraphs, extra space to tell certain things, I can’t imagine wanting to give my adversary certain details about what really happened, especially since there are lawyers for your adversaries who are just waiting for one little detail to sue you. How do you handle this?
Robinson: We don’t have a legal department. [Laughter] It does make our lawyers nervous, but our lawyers get paid to be nervous. There are two issues. The bloggers who we employ, they know what our standards are. They’re very careful about what they post. So it’s the citizen journalists that come to us and are on our forums, and we publish their commentary. We do edit those for libel. The comments on the site essentially are unedited because our understanding of the law is that if you start editing comments, then you are responsible for the comments, as opposed to leaving them unedited, and you’re not responsible for the comments. That, of course, is going to be challenged in court, we just hope it’s not in our federal district …. We’ve been doing this for eight months now. My point is that our bloggers know what we publish in the newspaper, and they’re not going to publish anything on their blog post that they wouldn’t normally put in the newspaper. If they’re in doubt, they ask. We’ve published probably 5,000, maybe more than that, blog posts. I read them every day. There’s only one that gave me pause, and it wasn’t a legal issue. It was just a taste issue. And so it really is a “trust your staff to know what they’re doing” issue with us.