Seattle's News Elixir

before, during and after participating on yesterday evening’s SPJ panel at the UW on media ethics and internet journalism: 

Seattle Times Executive Editor David Boardman, who moderated the panel, is more optimistic now about the survival of the Times than he has been in months. Why? The Times now expects to keep more than 90 percent of its former print rival’s subscribers – former P-I subscribers that were switched over to the Times are actually renewing their subscriptions at a higher rate than regular Times subscribers, an unexpected development that is probably attributable to the fact that P-I readers were much older than Times readers (older readers are more wedded to the traditional print newspaper).

Got confirmation that West Seattle Blog editor Tracy Record, who was on the panel as well, never sleeps. If you haven’t read her powerhouse, content-rich neighborhood news site, you should. Check it out here.

Dale Steinke, King 5’s interactive news and operations manager, is not only my neighbor, he moonlights as the driving force behind Phinneywood, another worthy and emerging neighborhood blog.

Boardman, a Ballard resident, gave his SPJ ethical seal of approval to the food at the Jolly Roger taproom. Have not eaten there, but am going to have to check it out.

Chris Grygiel of the is old school about the rules of journalism – he blanched at my many conflicts of interest -- but added that he still reads PubliCola every day.

As for the panel discussion itself, we had an interesting debate. Times AME Jim Simon asked me to participate on the panel because he and Boardman think the dual roles that I play—political flack by day, PubliCola co-founder by night—is, in Boardman’s phrase, journalistically “verboten.”  Boardman started the conversation by pointing out that I flack for the mayor’s reelection campaign, and for Council Chair Dow Constantine’e bid for King County Executive—he wanted to know how we handled that.  

As I explained, Josh and I operate according to relatively straight forward ethical ground rules. I don’t write about candidates or issues I am working on, and I don’t have any control over what Josh posts on those topics. I see what he writes the same time as everyone else: After it’s posted. And we have tried to be up front with our readers about the fact that I am involved with these races.  

So far I think that arrangement has worked pretty well. While we don’t promise traditional journalistic objectivity—we’re urban liberals, and that does influence our coverage—we do want our reporting to be journalistically credible. I did concede that there is a potential perception issue with my involvement with PubliCola, but substantively I think our coverage meets the credibility test. I think anyone would be hard pressed to make the case that Josh’s coverage has tilted in favor of my candidates (case in point: the latest candidate to enter the race, Joe Mallahan, granted his first interview today to Josh). With a few exceptions, I said, most of the carping I hear about our arrangement (and my involvement with PubliCola) has come from other journalists.  

As the discussion continued, I made the broader argument that the people who run daily newspapers are “journalistic conservatives.” That is to say, there is a one right way to do journalism—the way they do it, naturally—and any other approach is less ethical. In other words, they believe journalism is best handled by a priestly gatekeeper caste of dedicated professionals who steep themselves in an ordered set of rules that originate from on high and have the force of tradition. Father knows best, they argue.  

I don’t believe that, I said. Tradition has its place, but I’m a “journalistic liberal.” When they say “Father Knows Best” I counter with “Kill Your Parents” or “Shoot the journalism professor” (there were several journalism professors in the room, so I’m not sure how well that went over). When practiced I the real world, the essence of journalistic ethics, I think, is not rigid adherence to a set of pre-conceived rules. Rather, it is about making smart, principled judgments about complicated, ambiguous and often unanticipated situations that arise in the course of producing news. And that is the same whether you are doing it on the web at a small start-up site like PublicCola or whether you are doing it in print and an established institution like the Seattle Times. To my surprise, Boardman said he agreed with that point. 

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