When Colorado Confidential is presented with a Mark of Excellence Award from the Colorado Society of Professional Journalists next month, it will be an all-too-rare moment when members of the traditional media sit down with the upstarts from the online media revolution in an atmosphere of mutual respect. But while Colorado Confidential is fairly unusual as a site that is able to do its own original reporting, what it has in common with both the masses of progressive minded amateur bloggers and with the professionals of the SPJ is a commitment to advancing and promoting higher standards of journalism.
One way I think traditional media can promote higher standards is to recognize not only that the world of blogs is full of people who want better products from media outlets and who give instant feedback on how to improve, but also that some of the people writing blogs or commenting on news stories on-line have great expertise in certain subject matter areas. Accessing this expertise can help improve the product.
The limitations of the traditional letter-to-the-editor model of reader feedback were illustrated by a recent Denver Post article that interviewed Qwest CEO Dick Notabaert about federal legislation concerning “net neutrality,” the principle that internet service providers should not be permitted to give preferential treatment to or discriminate against internet content, applications or services. (Senators Dorgan of North Dakota and Snowe of Maine are co-sponsoring a bill that would transform the long-standing FCC net neutrality rule into statutory law; the bill is opposed by many large ISPs such as Qwest.) That January 11 article quickly became the subject of a critical post on SquareState.net, which among other things pointed out the following:
Notebaert states no problem currently exists regarding net neutrality. That’s because the FCC currently enforces it. He’s referring to efforts by some in Congress to stop a bill that would have removed net neutrality as we have it today. Trying to distort reality by calling legislation that would formally enact net neutrality protection as unnecessary regulation is just dishonest. . . . It’s also interesting that telecom legislation in 1995 gave large tax breaks to companies including Qwest to bring fiber optic internet access to our homes. I’m still waiting and wonder where those tax dollars went.
This SquareState post actually did end up as a published letter to the editor at the Denver Post. But letters to the editor — the traditional forum for reader feedback to print media — are an unsatisfying way for subject matter experts in the community to correct stories that lack needed balance or context. There is too much time between the story and the response, and criticism leveled from the letters page lacks the impact of criticism internalized by reporters who then write better stories on the topic.
Traditional reporting benefits from feedback from on-line media critics in real time. A February 8 story from the front page of the Denver Post business section about the possible effects of House Bill 1072, a proposed change to the Colorado Labor Peace Act, read to me like its authors were very aware of the criticism of their reporting being leveled on blogs and by the professionals at Colorado Media Matters. It critically examined the claims of the bills’ foes that the law would cause Colorado to lose jobs, went beyond the opponents’ talking point that "all of the states surrounding Colorado are right-to-work states" to identify specific states beyond the immediately surrounding ones that are and are not "right-to-work," and provided statistics regarding unionization rates and worker wages in both "union-friendly" and "right-to-work" states.
The authors of the February 8 piece didn’t say whether they were paying attention to on-line criticism, but the article did contain the kind of factual information critics said was lacking from earlier reporting on the story. It’s an illustration of the potential of internet feedback to promote better journalism. And that’s a goal that internet media critics share with journalists of the traditional media.
Longtime Colorado political blogger Luis Toro is Colordo Confidential’s newest guest columnist. Look for his thought-provoking opinion pieces here each month.