Blogging Through Open Meetings Swamp

Must news bloggers apply for local government press credentials, such as a press pass, so they may attended closed-door executive sessions at city hall or the county courthouse? Some Oregon communities are mulling that option.Keep an eye on the City of Lake Oswego, where a spirited debate is underway – with statewide implications – on whether a blogger is a journalist, and whether a blogger from non-traditional media may attend a closed meeting.

Under Oregon’s open meetings law, the elected leaders of local governments may hold closed “executive sessions,” where certain sensitive issues may be discussed but no formal final decision made. These issues include labor negotiations and legal strategies, real estate transactions and personnel discussions, among other issues.

Under the law, reporters may attend for background purposes but not report on the closed-door sessions. They must wait for formal action to be taken during a regular or special meeting open to the public.

Why should anyone care? The interpretation of a state law crafted in the 1970s, inspired during the Watergate cover-up era, no longer fits all sizes. Emerging, nontraditional news sources want a seat at the table.

It also is important because there is more than talk in Portland of the creation of a new online news operation not affiliated with traditional media. The web-based news site could feature a blend of original reporting and feeds from established news bloggers.

The mere posing of the question – Is a blogger a journalist? – is aggravating to some. In a comment posted on CFM‘s website earlier this year, Blue Oregon blogger Kari Chisholm stated:

“This is a stunningly stupid question – and betrays a stunningly limited view of blogging. A "blogger" is a person who uses a technology called a blog; nothing more, nothing less.”

“Some bloggers are most certainly journalists – Jeff Mapes, for example. Some people who use blogs are activists – like me. Some bloggers are teenage girls ranting about their stupid boyfriends. Some bloggers are parents posting pictures of the kids for the grandparents.”

Sitting at the table

Bravely, Lake Oswego is developing a policy, which may become a model for other local governments, on who may attend executive sessions. Important organizations are involved. But the city may not have all the necessary players in the discussion or be crafting the most workable definitions.

A thoughtful story in the Lake Oswego Review described the brewing storm:

“The issue came up two years ago when Mark Bunster, who writes as Torrid Joe for the political blog Loaded Orygun, tried to attend an executive session. Unsure whether a blogger would mind the state’s no-reporting rule, the city council, which has changed since this occasion, asked Bunster to leave. They said his lack of institutional affiliation made it impossible to penalize him if he failed to respect or understand the law.”

Many key players involved

In developing the proposed policy, the city has involved the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, The Oregonian, Open Oregon: A Freedom of Information Coalition, the League of Oregon Cities, Pamplin Media Group (the parent company of the Lake Oswego Review), the Society of Professional Journalists and the Oregon Association of Broadcasters, as well as others.

The proposal was met with concern from trade organizations, open government advocates and media outlets, the Review reported. Briefly, the policy:

  • Defines media as any organization that has been previously recognized as eligible to attend executive sessions, such as The Oregonian and the Lake Oswego Review.
  • Does not exclude bloggers or other non-traditional media members, as long as he or she is a part of an institution and committed to compliance with the law.

There is a lot left to debate, such as what is the definition of an institution. Can one person be an institution? Certainly I. F. Stone (1907-1989) was. Before the days of PCs, Stone self-published a newsletter, I. F. Stone's Weekly. Stone’s work ranked 16th in a poll of his fellow journalists of "The Top 100 Works of Journalism in the United States in the 20th Century.”

No doubt, the non-traditional Izzy Stone would have been a blogger as well as an independent journalist.

The Lake Oswego debate will continue into 2011.