Fall 2003

A Reporter Is Fired for Writing a Weblog

He wonders whether there is ‘a place for Weblogs in the Fourth Estate firmament.’

By Steve Olafson

Memo to all professional journalists: Don’t write a Weblog without permission from your bosses. It could get you fired.

I knew that. That’s why I chose the nom de plume of Banjo Jones to write a Weblog called The Brazosport News while employed by the Houston Chronicle.

It was fun while it lasted. I opined, I poked fun. I waxed eloquent, I spun family yarns. I satirized, needled, dead-panned, criticized, japed. I adopted a tone and an identity, all under the guise of a fictitious person. Readers wrote fan mail. I gave away some Astros tickets. Some readers in Brazoria County, Texas, where I was posted in a “suburban bureau” (in my house), speculated about the real identity of Mr. Jones. But I kept quiet, silently enjoying what I considered a harmless creative outlet.

For a daily newspaper reporter of 26 years, it was exhilarating. In weblogging, there are no rules. You’re not required to write about city council meetings, fatal car accidents, or the weather. Forget the inverted pyramid, forget space constraints, and forget the five W’s and the H. All the pomposity, hot air, and ridiculousness you see and hear are fair game in a Weblog, but not necessarily in a daily newspaper.

So by day I was a news reporter for the Chronicle in its one-man Brazoria County bureau, located an hour’s drive south of Houston, in an area marked by one of the world’s largest chemical plants and six units of the Texas penitentiary system. By night I was Banjo. It was more fun being Banjo, though I was certain I could separate the two when necessary.

The Newspaper’s Reaction

Once the management at the Chronicle learned of my dual identity, they didn’t see things quite the way I did. The reaction, uttered by the paper’s editor in our only phone conversation, was “I am appalled.”

The unmasking of Banjo Jones occurred when the managing editor of the newspaper in Clute, a target of occasional media criticism in Mr. Jones’s Weblog, called the Chronicle to tattle. The local paper, a small daily, published a story reporting they were approached by an unnamed “newsmaker” about the Weblog and the true identity of its writer. Evidently, a column Banjo wrote about the death of his father was compared with the nonbylined, paid obituary that I’d written and placed in the Chronicle and my hometown paper, The Baytown Sun. That’s the story I got from the reporter who “outed” me.

I confessed to the Chronicle editor and said I was sorry. He told me to take down the Web site. I did. Then the managing editor fired me a week later. The managing editor said he decided I had compromised my ability to be a Houston Chronicle reporter.

I do appreciate the uncomfortable—and apparently unprecedented—position in which I had put the newspaper. Still, I don’t believe I had irretrievably compromised my ability to be one of its reporters. One public official who had been chided in the blog even wrote a letter to the Chronicle on my behalf. Maybe, I thought, management would view the blog as something done more for self-amusement than as a serious ethical lapse. Maybe they would just suspend me, I thought. My wife thought I’d be awarded a column after the smoke cleared and the Chronicle bosses realized how witty I could be.

If this had occurred in a more colorful bygone newspaper era, perhaps that would have been the outcome. But it didn’t work out that way in today’s self-conscious newspaper culture. “The Front Page” days of Hildy Johnson are over. I knew that before I launched the blog—hence, the use of my pen name.

Naturally, I was embarrassed, especially when my termination received some media attention, including a story and picture in The New York Times. But the reaction among nonmedia people I know generally ran along the lines of, “What about freedom of the press?” When I tried to explain how reporters aren’t supposed to express opinions, they would respond, “Well, what about all those reporters on TV?”

That’s a little different, I’d tell them. Why is that, they wondered? I was tempted to invoke the A.J. Liebling quote, that freedom of the press belongs to those that have one, but that’s not true anymore in the world of Weblogging. Everybody’s got a press—sort of.

Blogging and Newspapers

I am not aware that the blogging phenomenon has caused the newspaper industry any tangible economic distress, but with many dailies losing readership, perhaps it’s time for editorial reflection. My message to editors is this: “Embrace the blog; do not fear it.”

Is there a place for Weblogs in the Fourth Estate firmament? Could Weblogs, somehow, win back paying customers, especially all those advertiser-coveted, disposable-income-spending young people who everyday sit gazing at a computer screen?

Some newspapers seem to be awakening to this possibility. It makes sense. With some ground rules and a bit of thought, the right sort of blogs could make the daily newspaper become at least of passing interest to a younger generation that right now doesn’t seem to care much for newspapers. The ground rules would prohibit outright political partisanship, undue profanity, and whatever else might keep an editor awake at night.

Weblogging, much like the rare good column writing you see in the traditional press, can open a dialogue with readers that newspapers could find useful. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if the reporter on the cop beat or at city hall or the state house could give readers another side of the news via a Weblog, a place where they can speak to readers in a bit more casual way. Perhaps the police reporter could share what it’s like to work a crime scene. Or the state house or city hall reporter might figure out new ways to make the business of government interesting.

If ground rules could be agreed to, might it not be interesting for the readers to listen in on the background stories reporters trade in coffee shops and bars? Or to learn why they got into the business? Or maybe just a brick-by-brick explanation of how a story was built? That’s the sort of things Weblogs could do.

Having Weblogs as part of a news organizations reporting might even prompt some nonsubscribers to spend a few quarters on a daily paper now and then by giving a personality to the byline. There are plenty of journalists who could write them without compromising their ability to be newspaper reporters, and they wouldn’t have to use a pseudonym.

Steve Olafson is now based in Santa Barbara, California, where he is pursuing other interests, including freelance journalism.


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