Navigating the ‘New Ethics of Local Journalism’: Dangerous Curves Ahead

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Journalistic ethics is ordinarily a head-nodding, Sunday-sermon kind of subject.

Unless a community website names a teenager who died of a drug overdose in what was a string of Oxycontin fatalities among local youths…or publishes a “news” story about a business that’s a regular advertiser or is being avidly sought….or takes sides on a divisive civic issue.

They’re all situations that real-life hyperlocal editors have been in recently, and highlight a dilemma of new media — the old rules of journalism ethics often don’t offer clear directions.

The socializing of media, where boundaries between public and private seem drawn in wind-blown sand, where “news” may (or may not) be what someone posts on a Facebook page, has editors looking for firmer guidelines. The newly published “Rules of the Road,”  reported and written by Salon co-founder and longtime media critic Scott Rosenberg and edited by former J-Lab Editorial Director Andrew Pergam and J-Lab Executive Director Jan Schaffer,  is a commendable first pass at “navigating the new ethics of local journalism.”

Its title is somewhat misleading. “Rules of the Road” presents issues as Socratic questions that invite the reader to think. That’s a good approach because editors now do their job in a world where the insulating walls of the newsroom have collapsed. The newsroom has been reconstituted in a digital town square where new risks and opportunities—as “Rules of the Road” contributor Kat Powers discovered — abound.

Powers, managing editor for 19 Wicked Local sites owned by GateHouse Media, tells a stirring story about a rash of deaths from drug overdoses among youths in the Boston suburb of Somerville. Another 19-year-old had been found dead and Powers, sick of hearing about teenagers overdosing by chewing OxyContin they’d been prescribed for sports injuries, gathered every detail she could on the case.

We wrote a story that basically said, this kid did not die this glorious death that you are envisioning: he died because he choked on his own vomit….When the story came out, I had a group of young men who had pills jangling in their pockets and glassy eyes come in and physically threaten me in my office. I had a woman who called the publisher and said what I had done was horrible, and she hoped that I died by choking on my own vomit—which got his attention….But the day this story came out, 11 kids went to health services at the high school and got help. That was 11 kids in my column, I thought.”

From his newsroom-in-the-sky, “The Front Page’s” Hildy Johnson must be tipping his fedora. But for all his rough-and-tumble journalistic experience in Chicago in the roaring ’20s, Johnson didn’t have to cope with anything like the Web.  Powers did in Somerville, and the experience forced her to re-examine her journalistic ethics.

“In the print days, a story lived for a couple of days, then it went into the archives and was basically forgotten,” she told me.  “The family of the dead boy we named can’t put the story behind them because it was on the Web.  Stories on the Web live forever.”

To this day, Powers says she feels anguish about naming the boy, even though she believes the decision was justified by a greater good than respecting privacy.

“Rules of the Road’s” covers a number of topics besides privacy— police reports, business and advertising, advocacy, among them. What unites them is this big reveal: The first consideration of the contributors is always, What impact will my decision have on the community? They see themselves and their sites as integral parts of the community. There’s no “them” and “us” in the new newsroom.

The contributors don’t agonize over what their ethical decisions might have on ad revenue. Says Schaffer: “As much as they might need support, they’d forgo an advertisement rather than have an advertiser dictate what or how something should be written. For most of these sites, ditching a troublesome advertiser is not such a big loss. The ads don’t cost that much.”

One limitation of “Rules of the Road” is that most of the contributors are what Schaffer calls “solo entrepreneurs.” Major media companies, who have ambitious advertising strategies and have to answer to investors and stockholders, are represented only by GateHouse and Journal Register. “I consider this to be a work in progress and certainly dilemmas that [major-media companies] are confronting are fodder for next-stage work,” Schaffer says.

I asked MainStreetConnect CEO Carll Tucker, who wants to grow his network from its present 51 communities in suburban Connecticut, New York and Central Massachusetts to 6,000 localities nationally by 2014, how his sites look at ethical issues regarding news and advertising:

“To resolve ethical dilemmas, we remind ourselves, ‘We are your neighbor who brings you the news.’ What should one expect of such a neighbor? That she or he be honest, considerate, as accurate as possible, fair, and candid about any conflicts…. When bad news happens, we report it, of course, but considerately, never with glee that we have ‘a good story.’

“On the commercial side, because of the way the Web works in space and time, a new paradigm is desirable. We do not sell ‘ads,’ per se. We sell what ads give to a business—visibility. Our basic commercial unit is an Annual Visibility Package. Included in those packages, in addition to traditional banners, are the right to rotate snapshots of your customers or teammates through our pages (Customer Comes First!, Go, Team!); the right to nominate one or more “local heroes” (folks who do good works in our community) and receive credit for the nomination; one or more Neighbor Profiles, brief stories about individuals involved in your business; your storefront on what we call ‘the Digital Town Green;’ the right to upload pictures of celebrations; plus various other benefits that enhance visibility.”

Other companies are also pushing—if not breaking through—the news envelope.  At AOL’s Patch, its Fast Forward has found the art and science of leg shaving to be newsworthy.  At the Denver Post, its YourHub features business profiles whose content is often indistinguishable from ad copy (“It takes a lot to be successful, in this business especially, and we are very fortunate to have it all come together on a regular basis”).  At Topix, a Charleston, S.C., editors, Baldmongoose, includes a photo of himself vamping in bare chest with a cape and gold crown, and American flag in the background.  Baldmongoose has no recent editorial activity to report.

This all looks like a good start for a second edition of “Rules of the Road.”

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column, which appears Thursdays on Street Fight. He is editorial director of Local America, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.