44% of newspapers wouldn’t allow staff writers to blog during free time without prior approval

According to a survey I recently conducted, approximately 44% of newspaper editors and publishers wouldn’t allow their staff writers to maintain personal blogs without prior approval.

To complete the survey, I sent emails to editors and publishers of 250 newspapers — five for each state — containing this question:

Question: Would you allow your staff writers, without prior approval, to blog during their free time after work as long as they don’t write about the beats they cover for your newspaper?

To provide clarity, I added this example:

EXAMPLE: A staff writer for your newspaper covers the local courts and cops beat and then goes home and writes in his personal blog about the national presidential election. He does this without asking for your permission. Would you be fine with this?

Of the 250 surveyed, 39 responded. Twenty-two — 56% — said they wouldn’t mind if writers blogged on non-beat issues without obtaining permission. The remaining 17 — 44% — either required disclosure of the blog, issued caveats over what subjects couldn’t be covered, or had outright bans on having personal blogs at all.

I decided to conduct this survey after reading about two high-profile firings of journalists from mainstream news outlets when their superiors learned of their blogs. Chez Pazienza, a former producer for CNN, was fired from his job in February because he wrote for Huffington Post and other high-profile blogs. His superiors cited a CNN policy that any outside writing required prior approval.

In April, Michael Tunison was fired from the Washington Post after he revealed that he wrote for the sports blog Kissing Suzy Kolber. His bosses told him that he had brought “discredit to the paper” through his blogging.

These two cases highlight the often-tense relationship between blogs and news outlets. My survey shows that many editors and publishers feel unease toward the blogosphere and they often worry about how a personal blog affects a reporter’s credibility.

“Blogging is not just a conversation with an intimate, trusted family member or friend,” wrote (Everett, Washington) Herald city editor Robert Frank. “…So would I be fine with one of my reporter’s publishing commentary (I’m presuming it’s commentary) about the presidential election, or a local election, for that matter? No. I would be upset if someone chose to demonstrate partisanship over professionalism. It likely would lead to, if not reassignment, at least a serious reassessment of their duties here, and, depending on all the particulars, could potentially lead all the way up to a parting of ways.”

Vickie Holbrook, managing editor for the Idaho Press-Tribune, said she would allow personal blogging on certain subjects but not others.

“A reporter can’t turn his credibility on or off as he enters and leaves the newspaper office,” she wrote. “So where do you draw the line on what’s OK and what’s not?…Politics would not be acceptable. Gardening would be.”

Several of the editors compared blogging to freelance writing and referred to staff policies requiring prior approval for freelance assignments.

“A staff member can’t write for a rival publication and can’t write a story for someone else we might want for our newspaper,” wrote Robert Zaltsberg, editor for the Herald Times in Indiana. “But they can do freelance work, and if they have any question about whether a story is appropriate based on our policy, they need to clear it with a supervisor. I also think it’s a matter of professional courtesy…I might be interested in learning more about their passions.”

Bill Doak, editor of the East Hartford Gazette, warned of the problems reporters can run into when maintaining a dual presence in the blogosphere.

“Blogs are really a Pandora’s Box for reporters,” he wrote. “On the one hand you have a reporter who, like anyone else, wants to be free to run home and say whatever he or she wants to say to friends, family, other reporters or on a blog. But the reporter risks his or her credibility and objectivity in so doing. Of course there is a place at every newspaper for those with opinions. But a reporter also squanders their objectivity by blogging, and that blog might also jeopardize the objectivity of the newspaper. So, to a degree the blogging reporter risks much more than he or she gains, not the least of which includes employment.”

What’s perhaps even more notable about my survey is that almost all the editors who responded to my survey said they had no written policy on blogs. This absence will likely provide a good bit of ambiguity in the future, leaving both reporters and editors between a rock and a hard place.