Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor

News companies are paddling without a compass

In the week that a South African journalist was fired for moaning about his employer on a competitor’s website, the Los Angeles Times launched a spectacular new blog, called the Readers’ Representative Journal.

It is a thing of beauty, I tell ya. Clear, lovely and as well put together as only an American news organisation could do it. It’s truly a wonderful example of what can be done when you have the resources.

I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of corporate conservatism, “managerial authoritarianism” and the gory, gossipy issues around Llewellyn Kriel’s spectacular dismissal. (If I am to nail my colours to the mast, I don’t think Kriel should ever have been blogging for a competitor. But that’s another blog posting …) What I do want to comment on is the fact that South African news organisations’ policies and ethical guidelines are way behind their practices, let alone the rest of the world.

Because the thinking behind the LA Times‘s new blog is principally to involve readers in how editorial decisions are made, it carries links to the Times ethical guidelines. Editor James O’Shea is quoted as saying that the blog is part of the Times‘s “overarching goal of becoming a more transparent and integrated news organisation”.

South African editors would do well to take a leaf out of his book. Look, I’m not so naive to think that any news organisation here has the resources to do something on the scale of the Readers’ Representative Journal. But what I am suggesting is that news organisations start talking about and working on guidelines with their staffers. It’s all very well taking huge strides into Web 2.0 territory, but doing so without a compass is only going to lead to trouble.

And Shit Creek is exactly where Avusa has landed with the Kriel debacle. I wonder if its appointment letters include the company’s policy on blogging? Freelance work? Blogging for a competitor?

If it is looking for examples to follow, perhaps the LA Times‘s ethical guidelines could be a starting point. Under “Outside work”, for example, the rules begin with the reminder that the “first professional duty of every Times employee is to the Los Angeles Times”. It then goes on to acknowledge the treacherous territory that is blogging:

The emergence of blogs has created potential quandaries for staff members who want to express themselves through that medium. No matter how careful Times bloggers might be to distinguish their personal work from their professional affiliation with the paper, outsiders are likely to see them as intertwined. As a result, any staff member who seeks to create a personal blog must clear it with a supervisor; approval will be granted only if the proposed blog meets the paper’s journalistic standards. When approval is granted, staff members should take care not to write anything in their blogs that would not be acceptable in the newspaper. Staff members should observe the same principle when contributing to blogs other than their own.

Dispatch editor Andrew Trench takes on some of these issues in his posting “Blogs O’ War”. He raises many of the pertinent issues that newspaper companies should be answering in a clear and transparent manner.

I raised the problems of news websites not having clear corrections policies on their websites a few weeks back. News companies are going to get into trouble when the people they’ve had to apologise to in print to avoid defamation action work out that the defamatory articles are still up on their websites — not altered in any way or linked to the correction.

It’s time news companies, editors and their journalists (bloggers or not) start paying attention to the ethical guidelines of producing a quality product. It may seem all rather Big Brother-ish, but setting out the rules is only fair to both employers and their employees. It’s time they start paying attention to what they’re doing, not just to how they’re doing it.