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Features Posted October 22, 1998
Blues You Can Use
By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer and Columnist

Print version
They love it, they hate it, they find it "valuable," they call it a "joke."
 
But most of all, just two-plus months after the debut of NewsBlues, producers, reporters and technicians from the country's local TV news stations are reading the controversial job information site, which publishes anonymous letters from people working in TV newsrooms.
 
"It's really amazing. There's never really been an outlet like this before, there's been no way for people to kind of vent what they really thought," said Dow Smith, a broadcast journalism professor at the University of Syracuse and a 25-year TV news veteran. "Everybody in the business is aware of it. They're all talking about it."
 
NewsBlues, which calls itself "a forum for TV newsroom whiners," posts letters from "newsroom informants" at 244 stations across the country. Few stations come off pretty.
 
For example, KCBS 2 in Los Angeles, according to posted letters, "lies to its viewers," is "run like a garbage scow," and is "routinely unable [to] cover the amount of news the other networks get."
"News management, as we all know, does not abide by the concept of freedom of speech. Offering anonymity to contributors was a chance we took."
      Mike James

 
NewsBlues co-founder Mona Scott, a 28-year TV news veteran and former anchor, says she is "totally surprised" by the number of newsroom toilers who have provided workplace intelligence.
 
"We thought we'd have to beat the bushes to find contributors. To say it fills the need for a safe way to vent is an understatement!" Scott said.
 
Ex-WFTV Orlando sports director Mike James, who co-founded NewsBlues with Scott, says the site's success reflects a communication gap within TV newsrooms.
 
"News management, as we all know, does not abide by the concept of freedom of speech. Offering anonymity to contributors was a chance we took," James said. "The overwhelming response, the open floodgate of anger, speaks volumes to the pent-up frustration and hostility within the industry."
 
But the site's detractors say the response speaks more to the human ability to whine, especially when given the cloak of anonymity.
 
"NewsBlues swept through this newsroom I guess about a month or two ago. The site was viewed as pure comedy," said Drew Griffin, a reporter for KCBS 2 and a seven-time Emmy award winner. "Nothing is sourced, you have no idea who is writing in and quite frankly a keen ear can hear the same trash in the bathrooms around here. People do still check in, but its popularity faded in about two weeks when people realized it is just whining in print instead of in the parking lot."
 
Preparing the Dish
 
Scott and James hatched the idea for NewsBlues this summer after reading an article in the American Journalism Review about News Mait, a newspaper jobs site that prominently features "intelligence" gathered from anonymous newspaper people.
 
The duo thought the concept would "be a helpful connection for TV folks, too," said Scott, who retired from WBNS Columbus, Ohio, this August, "on the best of terms."
 
A week later, the two posted their first version, with anonymous inside scoops from informants from a handful of stations. To promote the site, they wrote to an e-mail newsletter called ShopTalk, which focuses on the TV news industry.
"Our guidelines are simple: We ask ourselves, 'Would this affect whether or not I would accept employment at this station?' or 'Would this affect how I would do my job if I worked at the station?'..."

 
"From that point forward, we have shown dramatic growth as word has spread," said James, who makes his living designing Web sites for businesses and managing an Internet-based import business.
 
The site now receives roughly 5,000 hits per hour -- mostly from people at work -- between 3 p.m. and 3 a.m. EST, James said, with the West Coast and particularly Los Angeles weighing in the most heavily.
 
Scott and James both review each piece of incoming mail before selecting the ones that meet their standards, a process that takes them a combined 15 hours a day. The result is a harrowing and hilarious peek behind the scenes of TV stations -- not to mention a damning document about the writing skills of broadcast journalists (They have "great difficulty with the written word," James said).
 
"Less than 10 percent of the submissions are printable, even after editing," James said. "Our guidelines are simple: We ask ourselves, 'Would this affect whether or not I would accept employment at this station?' or 'Would this affect how I would do my job if I worked at the station?' Using those two simple questions, we immediately remove all references to sexual improprieties, personal slander, retaliatory and inflammatory name-calling."
 
Most of what's printed comes from the newsroom rank and file, and most complain about the policies of station management. Though names are rarely mentioned, the "news director" and "general manager" are frequently singled out for criticism. A few of them have objected.
 
News director Mark Berryhill of Boston's WHDH objected to one posting that accused him of playing video games in his office. "We felt that whether it was true or not, it had no effect on how others in the newsroom performed their jobs, so we removed the reference, and took some heat," Scott said.
 
Another news consultant was denied his demand for a retraction after a posting said that he "should bear part of the responsibility" for "the station's consistently low ratings." And a general manager criticized for keeping a dog in his office wrote to explain that the puppy belonged to his daughter, and that he just "babysat" the creature a couple times a week. His letter was posted alongside the original.
 
Professor Smith, who used material from NewsBlues at a panel discussion he led during the Radio and Television News Directors Association meeting in September, said his news director friends look down on the site because of its "anonymous bitching."
 
"The don't think it's productive," he said. "But they all seem to read it. In some ways it's kind of a giant suggestion box."
 
That's how Darren Richards, news director at WFMY in Greensboro, N.C., has taken it.
 
"I'm glad I've heard these criticisms," Richards wrote Aug. 30, in a rare
signed posting. "They give me the insight to work on some of our problems. But rather than go through them here point by point, I'll close by simply saying this: My door is always open. Come on in and let's talk about solutions."
 
"This was an ND who 'got it,'" Scott said. "Most news directors we know read NewsBlues with great interest. The few who have complained are probably missing the point. We actually empathize with news directors. They have a thankless job, trapped between the demands of employees and upper management. We would hope that they profit from the Web site and make efforts to address real problems, or perceived ones, rather than lash out at the individual writers or at NewsBlues."
 
Fact vs. Fiction
 
The site walks the fine line between rejecting gossip and reveling in it. The main section is called "Shop Squawk," a place where "Newsroom Informants Dish the Dirt," but below the listed stations an editor's note calls for reasonable discourse: "We don't need debates, profanity, name calling or self-serving gossip. Grind your axes elsewhere. WE WILL NOT PRINT PERSONAL VENDETTAS, RETALIATORY or INFLAMMATORY CRAPPOLA. We seek truth. We want facts."
 
"Axe grinding is the nature of the beast," James said. "Personal vendettas, quite obviously, fuel the machine. The trick is to salvage the message, somehow pluck the pearl from the boiling vat of bile."
 
James said that NewsBlues -- which operates as a non-profit site -- takes no sides in the newsroom debates, and is being unfairly criticized for merely providing a forum.
 
Adding to James' misery is the accusation that NewsBlues is a discredit to journalism.
 
"As a forum for journalists, [it] is quite professionally reckless in trafficking in maybe-truths -- following the example of Matt Drudge, the Internet rabble-rouser who dwells in the cyber-demimonde between fact and fiction," wrote the Boston Herald's Monica Collins. "NewsBlues is totally in tenor with the way fast-moving technology has changed our standards for the presentation of information."
"Drudge perceives himself as a reporter. We are an open forum. We post all sides of any issue on the table."

 
James says such criticism wildly misses the point.
 
"Drudge perceives himself as a reporter. We are an open forum. We post all sides of any issue on the table," he said. "We do not print 'gossip.' We try not to publish rumors. We post letters from people who have first-hand knowledge of what goes on in their newsrooms."
 
News Mait editor and publisher Maurice Tamman, a full-time reporter for Florida Today, also rejects ethics lectures about printing anonymous letters.
 
"Give me a break," Tamman said. "Pick up the paper, then come talk. Much of the national news is driven by anonymous sources. Those stories are cast as 'news.' News Mait is just opinion. Any person who views it as anything other than that doesn't understand the difference and should not be in the business."
 
Regardless of its ethical position, NewsBlues may provide a very real service to people who are looking for TV news jobs.
 
"If anything, a cruise through NewsBlues might be a great reality check for aspiring broadcast journalists who want to get another perspective on what they're about to get into," said CBS 2 Anchor and Senior Correspondent Larry Carroll. "I was struck by how similar the complaints were from coast to coast. They were fairly representative of the kinds of frustrations I have found in nearly every news operation I have ever worked for."
 
Smith said his students at Syracuse use it to scope out the working conditions in otherwise lesser-known states like Idaho and Nebraska. "For the kids graduating from this place it's invaluable, it's terrific," he said.
 
Such sentiment keeps James and Scott going.
 
"The process of answering the daily mail is terribly depressing," James said. "We gain absolutely no enjoyment or satisfaction from the exercise. But we feel that it's a necessary chore if the lines of communication are to be kept open. We continually hope that some good will come from it all... that no one will be harmed."
 
What do you think? Tell us on the OJR Forums.

 


Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


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"Drudge perceives himself as a reporter. We are an open forum. We post all sides of any issue on the table."

 
James says such criticism wildly misses the point.
 
"Drudge perceives himself as a reporter. We are an open forum. We post all sides of any issue on the table," he said. "We do not print 'gossip.' We try not to publish rumors. We post letters from people who have first-hand knowledge of what goes on in their newsrooms."
 
News Mait editor and publisher Maurice Tamman, a full-time reporter for Florida Today, also rejects ethics lectures about printing anonymous letters.
 
"Give me a break," Tamman said. "Pick up the paper, then come talk. Much of the national news is driven by anonymous sources. Those stories are cast as 'news.' News Mait is just opinion. Any person who views it as anything other than that doesn't understand the difference and should not be in the business."
 
Regardless of its ethical position, NewsBlues may provide a very real service to people who are looking for TV news jobs.
 
"If anything, a cruise through NewsBlues might be a great reality check for aspiring broadcast journalists who want to get another perspective on what they're about to get into," said CBS 2 Anchor and Senior Correspondent Larry Carroll. "I was struck by how similar the complaints were from coast to coast. They were fairly representative of the kinds of frustrations I have found in nearly every news operation I have ever worked for."
 
Smith said his students at Syracuse use it to scope out the working conditions in otherwise lesser-known states like Idaho and Nebraska. "For the kids graduating from this place it's invaluable, it's terrific," he said.
 
Such sentiment keeps James and Scott going.
 
"The process of answering the daily mail is terribly depressing," James said. "We gain absolutely no enjoyment or satisfaction from the exercise. But we feel that it's a necessary chore if the lines of communication are to be kept open. We continually hope that some good will come from it all... that no one will be harmed."
 
What do you think? Tell us on the OJR Forums.
 


Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


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Copyright 1998 Online Journalism Review