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An Interview with Journalist Blogger Laura Washington

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Mike Doyle

Since 2005 scribe of the local blog, Chicago Carless. I invite you to visit.

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In Chicago, the idea of journalists blogging for free is a controversial one at best. Some journalists scoff at the suggestion that they give their words away for free. However, Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington does just that--and in the process shows why blogging is key to the future of journalism. Enter: The Washington Report.

Many local journalists attending the summer 2009 conferences Making Media Connections and Chicago Media Future took a dim view of blogging. The idea rampant at both events was that reporters deserve to be paid for their investigative work and shouldn't be giving it away for free on blogs or anywhere else. I made a point to question this perspective at late August's C-BOM: Community Blogging & Online Media meetup. At the latter event, I asked: If you were a newspaper editor, whom would you hire first: an out-of-work reporter with no evidence of keeping up with the issues, or an out-of-work reporter with a current blog on the issues?

The answer seems obvious. But to really increase your relevancy, better to start your blog while still employed at a major masthead. That's just what the Sun-Times' Laura Washington did in mid-August with the launch of her community-news blog, The Washington Report. "I feel like there are stories not being told that I think are important in the city," Washington announced at C-BOM. "Some are appropriate in my Sun-Times column, but others are not, so I'm using my blog as another outlet."

Judging by the content covered on Washington's blog since August, she appears to be using it as an outlet for criticism that perhaps the Sun-Times might find too pointed or politically charged for her newspaper column. [Ed. note: In a subsequent conversation with Washington, she let me know she cross-posts her Sun-Times content on the blog.] Recent topics include:

Given her background, the content is no surprise. A regular commentator on NPR and WBEZ Chicago Public Radio and frequently quoted in national media on issues of African-American affairs, politics, race, and racism, previously Washington served as editor and publisher of the social-justice investigative journal, The Chicago Reporter, and an investigative producer at CBS-2/Chicago, as well as deputy press secretary to Chicago's first (and so far, only) black mayor, Harold Washington. Deep breath, there's more...she has also taught and lectured widely, and is the recipient of honors including two Chicago Emmys, the Peter Lisagor Award, and Community Media Workshop's Studs Terkel Award for Community Journalism, and is a founding inductee to the Medill School of Journalism Hall of Achievement.

Given her impressive credentials, last week via email I asked Washington why she launched her blog, and what she thinks about the importance of blogging for the future of journalism.

Mike Doyle: As a successful, employed local journalist, why did you choose to launch your blog?

Laura Washington:  I live and breathe information. I am a natural gossip, an essential quality for a good reporter. Several times a day I run across a story idea, tip, blog post, or event that offers up a story. There are so many stories in Chicago that are under-covered or ignored. I treasure my weekly newsprint column, but it's a challenge to hit the right timing. Timing is everything in news. For example, by the time I heard about the Obama Nobel, I had already written my column for [that] Monday. So I did something on the blog instead. By next Monday the Nobel [was] be a dead issue.

MD: At the C-BOM meetup, you noted that reporter blogs can give voice to stories that might otherwise not be heard. Is that what you hope to achieve with The Washington Report?  

Laura Washington: The voices, opinions of community leaders, rabble rousers, and the so-called "regular folk" and activists are often overlooked. They don't have a platform like the downtown heavies do. I want to use the blog to cover politics and dirty laundry in communities of color, GLBT issues, what's happening in the non-profit world, and news from a host of institutions, from higher education to arts and cultural groups. The ideas, leads, and angles have exploded exponentially with the advent of the Net. The ideas are coming from everywhere. There are opportunities 24/7. [On a blog] I don't have to worry about a news peg--there's always one around the corner.

MD: Do you find there's a difference between writing local news for the web and writing for a newspaper?

Laura Washington: It's instantaneous [writing for the web]--it delivers more impact, immediacy. I can be more pithy and irreverent. That's fun. I live to opine, but getting the facts straight is still crucial. Cute and wrong is a fatal combination.

MD: So is blogging a way forward for sidelined journalists to stay in the public eye?

Laura Washington: Journalists have to have a platform to deliver their stories. The blog is a brand that they can control and market...There will always be more stories to tell than places to tell them--especially about communities of color. The blogosphere opens up a whole new world to tell them in.
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That last answer says it all: blogs give journalists a branded, marketable platform to deliver their stories over which they have full control. That means a complimentary outlet for employed reporters like Washington--and a powerful way for wise reporters to remain relevant between pink slip and future hire.

For their own good, here's hoping more reporters make wise like Washington. 

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