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In rush to the Web, newspapers must not forsake standards
Published May 18, 2009
Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition
As newspapers fall by the wayside, they are quick to blame the Web for their demise. It’s the shooter on the rooftop that they point to as the assassin of all that’s good about paper and ink.
But, before it’s too late, newspapers must also look inward if they are to survive in any form. They cannot relinquish the standards that have distinguished longtime news organizations from some of their new online competitors. There are indications that one, the venerable Atlanta Journal Constitution, is losing sight of those standards.
Here’s my story:
I am one of the owners of the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Thrashers. I am also a journalist by profession. Selfishly, for the sake of my teams, I want the AJC, and its sports section in particular, to prosper.
AJC reporter Kristi Swartz asked me for a private meeting recently. The subject matter, she said, was too important to discuss by phone or even by e-mail. I agreed to meet.
Her earth-shattering topic: She wanted to know if I was “Whammer.” She produced a stack of printouts from “Whammer.”
It seems “Whammer” has been e-mailing the AJC frequently in recent years in response to sports columnist Jeff Schultz’s articles critical of my teams, our management and our ownership. Whammer’s rambling rants attack Schultz, while defending the Hawks and Thrashers organization. In one of his many posts, Whammer echoes the oft-stated but ridiculous notion that Atlanta fans are bad fans who do not support their teams. This notion first surfaced, as best I know, when the Braves failed to sell out some playoff games in the 1990s.
I explained to Swartz that I was not Whammer. I have responded to AJC articles and others, but always in my own name. It’s one of the values I’ve stressed to the journalists at my own company: You lose credibility with anonymity.
Swartz did not believe me. In what she thought was a “gotcha moment,” she told me software at the AJC had traced Whammer’s e-mail address to my company’s internal network, thereby, I guess, proving I must be Whammer. I explained to her that approximately 700 people from Atlanta to Singapore have access to our network. I readily admitted that one of those people, either out of loyalty to me, disdain for Schultz or both, could likely be the author of these e-mails.
Later that day, Swartz informed me that at the exact time I was meeting with her, Whammer struck again. I was off the hook, she told me, adding that the paper now thought that Whammer could be my partner Ed. (What she didn’t know: Ed at the time was in the hospital battling spinal meningitis, unable to even look at a computer screen.)
“If you are not Whammer, what will you do to stop these e-mails?” Swartz asked me. I told her I wouldn’t do anything. We don’t read our employees’ e-mails; I wasn’t going to conduct a witch hunt; and even if I found out who the person was I couldn’t prevent him or her from sending e-mails (or old-fashioned mail for that matter) to the AJC in this wonderfully free country.
I’ve thought for years that many electronically sent letters to the editor published by the AJC’s Web site (including those in response to Schultz’s attacks on me, as well as those posted by Whammer) don’t seem suited for publication.
One published comment from “LAC” challenged me to a street fight and called me a “potty mouthed coward … and little bitch wimp.” Another deemed me a “pathetic liar.”
What’s wrong with this picture and what does it have to do with the demise of the AJC?
For starters, those who post e-mails to the AJC anonymously or through screen names need to beware. The AJC can find out who you are or at least find out the company you work for and come after you and your boss. That fact should do wonders for the free flow of comments between AJC reporters and their readers, a key component of the AJC’s strategy to successfully move from print to electronic.
Why doesn’t the AJC follow the best practices of other major metropolitan newspapers and screen inappropriate content before publishing it? And, if they are screening, why would the AJC give voice to such blatantly libelous letters?
I’ve thought of suing the AJC for libel, but I would much prefer to see the organization apply to its electronic version the same journalistic standards it uses in the print version.
Surely some of these electronic comments would never have been published in the print version.
By publishing these tirades, the AJC is discouraging thoughtful readers from participating in the very electronic forums that the paper hopes will help it make a successful transition to the Web. It seems to me that if the AJC continues down this path, it risks reducing its readership to jerks like LAC and Whammer, hardly a long-term recipe for success.
I want the AJC to succeed for the sake of my teams, for the citizens of Atlanta and because I see no viable substitute to fill the void. But I fear it’s doomed. Not just by outside forces buffeting it from all sides, but by its own lack of judgment. Swartz insisted she would have asked Arthur Blank if he was Whammer had the e-mails come from his charitable foundation.
Resource-strapped, the newspaper has stopped sending beat reporters to cover some away games of the city’s professional sports teams. Most importantly, the AJC has announced large numbers of layoffs in its newsroom that will leave it a mere shell of its former self, severely limiting its ability to cover the people, institutions and events that impact Atlantans’ lives.
Yet, from the IT department, to former sports editor Ron Ramos to Swartz, the AJC squandered precious dwindling resources chasing a meaningless dead-end story; one it sought to manufacture from one of a thousand sentences Whammer wrote in an e-mail the AJC should never have traced.
In these tough times, there is a premium on good judgment.
Bruce Levenson (email@example.com), in addition to being an owner of the Atlanta Hawks and Thrashers, is a founding partner of UCG, one of the leading privately held business-to-business information publishers in the U.S. His first job out of college was in the newsroom of the defunct Washington Star newspaper in Washington, D.C.