Top editors at the Washington Post have refereed their share of disputes between the print and Web shops. No matter where the two sides sitâmiles apart like now, or in the same officeâthereâll still be plenty to fight about. âTurf issues are part of journalism, and weâd have to negotiate those no matter what the overall structure was,â says Post Managing Editor Phil Bennett.
Actually, the newsroom ties itself in knots over the Web even when the people from washingtonpost.com arenât involved.
Last year, the paper began reverse publishing a blog written by Post Metro columnist Marc Fisherâmeaning that the Post took the work that Fisher first posted on washingtonpost.com and backed it into the print product. Titled Raw Fisher, the blog showcases the ranting and reporting of one of Washingtonâs most productive journalists.
Fisherâs stuff tends to draw gigabytes of comments, and he and his editors wanted to see some of the spleen laid out in the print incarnation of Raw Fisher. They got their wish: On May 1, Raw Fisher debuted in the paper via an item about the Neighborhood Pace Car program, in which a local group attempts to get drivers to studiously obey the speed limit.
The following were among the comments that appeared in the paper:
As a motorist who thinks pace cars are stupid, and as a bicyclist who refuses to honor the stop signs that appear every block on suburban streets, Iâm pleased that todayâs topic has raised such indignation. You folks go on with your indignation. Iâll go on passing pace cars and running stop signs.
Mister Methane, I hope you ride your bike through my neighborhood and try to pass me. Iâll take great pleasure in opening my car door right into you and your bike. Itâs jerk cyclists like you who give us law-abiding riders a bad name.
Stuff that racy just canât survive in the pages of the Post.
Mister Methane and dsbaf were up against decades of newspaper publishing tradition. They had sneaked their thoughts into the Post around the backs of the paperâs vaunted letter-vetting staff. These folks have long put all letters to the editor through a careful patdown, checking for author authenticity, address, and other issues of epistolary integrity.
They work for Fred Hiatt, editor of the paperâs esteemed editorial page. Under the Postâs solemn work rules, Hiatt doesnât generally cross the fire wall that separates his opinion shop from the newsroom. But after sampling a little Raw Fisher, he verily blasted his way throughâall the way through to Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.
Hiattâs plea drove right at the Postâs core values. First of all, he said, the Post tries to identify sources throughout the paper whenever possible. And the standard is even more stringent on letters. âWhen we run letters to the editor and op-eds, again, we virtually always insist on identifying the authors and, to the extent we can, any conflicts of interest they may have,â says Hiatt.
âThose are standards both on the editorial and news sides that we care about a lot, and we ought to think hard aboutâŚbefore importing anonymous comments from the Web,â continues Hiatt.
Downie agreed and ordered the Raw Fisher comments expunged from the paper. Experiment over, to Fisherâs dismay. The columnist is a free- speech absolutist who feels that the Post suffers little for the often hateful things that people post on the site. âMy response was that this horse left the stable a long time ago,â says Fisher.
Itâs tempting to dismiss the Raw Fisher episode as the product of an out-of-touch editocracy. Downie, after all, is 65 and not steeped in html. âIâm a late adapter to everything about technology,â he says. âI donât have a pdf...whatever you call those things.â
But newspapers everywhere are agonizing over the same problem, in part because it raises an unsettling prospect: What was the point of screening letters for all those years if youâre just going to turn around and let anon82 sling mud all over your pages? The quandary also alights on a classic journalistic hypocrisy complex. Reporters love to plant anonymous mines in their copy but squeal when nameless pussies slam their work in the comments space.
The trick is to apply uniform policies across the entire paperâin other words, a feat that the Post hasnât quite pulled off. The Sports section routinely publishes anonymous reader comments from its various blogs.
Whatâs up with the discrepancy? Downie says that comments are not âappropriateâ for Fisherâs column but insists theyâre OK in Sports. âThis is a classic example of where the Web is different from the printed newspaper and there is a difference between Sports and Metro in that sports columnists have much more leeway than columnists do in the rest of the paper, and even Sports stories have more voice in them than stories in the Metro section.â
One Mission, Two Newsrooms by Erik Wemple
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