A Reporter Is Fired for Writing a Weblog; He Wonders Whether There Is 'A Place for Weblogs in the Fourth Estate Firmament

By Olafson, Steve | Nieman Reports, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

A Reporter Is Fired for Writing a Weblog; He Wonders Whether There Is 'A Place for Weblogs in the Fourth Estate Firmament


Olafson, Steve, Nieman Reports


Memo to all professional journalists: Don't write a Weblog without permission from your bosses. It could get you fired.

I knew that. That's why I chose the nom de plume of Banjo Jones to write a Weblog called The Brazosport News while employed by the Houston Chronicle.

It was fun while it lasted. I opined, I poked fun. I waxed eloquent, I spun family yarns. I satirized, needled, deadpanned, criticized, japed. I adopted a tone and an identity, all under the guise of a fictitious person. Readers wrote fan mail. I gave away some Astros tickets. Some readers in Brazoria County, Texas, where I was posted in a "suburban bureau" (in my house), speculated about the real identity of Mr. Jones. But I kept quiet, silently enjoying what I considered a harmless creative outlet.

For a daily newspaper reporter of 26 years, it was exhilarating. In weblogging, there are no rules. You're not required to write about city council meetings, fatal car accidents, or the weather. Forget the inverted pyramid, forget space constraints, and forget the five W's and the H. All the pomposity, hot air, and ridiculousness you see and hear are fair game in a Weblog, but not necessarily in a daily newspaper.

So by day I was a news reporter for the Chronicle in its one-man Brazoria County bureau, located an hour's drive south of Houston, in an area marked by one of the world's largest chemical plants and six units of the Texas penitentiary system. By night I was Banjo. It was more fun being Banjo, though I was certain I could separate the two when necessary.

The Newspaper's Reaction

Once the management at the Chronicle learned of my dual identity, they didn't see things quite the way I did. The reaction, uttered by the paper's editor in our only phone conversation, was "I am appalled."

The unmasking of Banjo Jones occurred when the managing editor of the newspaper in Clute, a target of occasional media criticism in Mr. Jones's Weblog, called the Chronicle to tattle. The local paper, a small daily, published a story reporting they were approached by an unnamed "newsmaker" about the Weblog and the true identity of its writer. Evidently, a column Banjo wrote about the death of his father was compared with the nonbylined, paid obituary that I'd written and placed in the Chronicle and my hometown paper, The Baytown Sun. That's the story I got from the reporter who "outed" me.

I confessed to the Chronicle editor and said I was sorry. He told me to take down the Web site. I did. Then the managing editor fired me a week later. The managing editor said he decided I had compromised my ability to be a Houston Chronicle reporter.

I do appreciate the uncomfortable--and apparently unprecedented--position in which I had put the newspaper. Still, I don't believe I had irretrievably compromised my ability to be one of its reporters. One public official who had been chided in the blog even wrote a letter to the Chronicle on my behalf. Maybe, I thought, management would view the blog as something done more for self-amusement than as a serious ethical lapse. Maybe they would just suspend me, I thought. My wife thought I'd be awarded a column after the smoke cleared and the Chronicle bosses realized how witty I could be.

If this had occurred in a more colorful bygone newspaper era, perhaps that would have been the outcome. …

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