Some political candidates are privately complaining that The Cincinnati Enquirer is using a subtle form of extortion to gain their participation on the newspaper's Web site and increase its Internet traffic.
The Enquirer this week began using the blog for its editorial page, called "Today at the Forum" (frontier.cincinnati.com/blogs/forum), to allow commenting on issues by Cincinnati City Council candidates. The blog includes questions submitted by The Enquirer's editors, readers and even the candidates themselves.
Questions mostly cover the usual topics, such as this recent submission: "Do you believe that a position on city council should be used as a platform for national issues?"
Candidates were told about the blog experiment when they attended endorsement interviews recently with The Enquirer's editorial board. The newspaper uses the private interviews to decide which of the 26 candidates running for city council will receive its official endorsement. Such endorsements are considered so important that many people who receive them promptly tout them in TV and radio commercials.
But some candidates say members of The Enquirer's editorial board implied in conversations that one factor that will help them decide on endorsements is whether the person has participated in the newspaper's online Q&A forum.
"Most of these issues are already covered more in-depth on our individual Web sites," says one candidate. Referring to how The Enquirer broached the request, the person added, "It's pretty much arm-twisting, isn't it?
I have a full-time job and I'm campaigning. This could take up to two hours a day, if you let it."
Candidate blogging is the latest example of The Enquirer's mad push to rely ever more frequently on "crowd sourcing" to provide content for its print and online editions, even as the newspaper cuts staffing levels. The latest buzzword in corporate newsrooms, crowd sourcing involves using the Internet to gather information from a large group of people, most of whom aren't trained journalists.
Ray Cooklis, The Enquirer's assistant editorial editor, has called the concept "an effective tool when an organization doesn't have the resources to do the exhaustive research/data-crunching itself."
Journalism watchdog groups and media critics call it lazy, cheap journalism that gives the false impression of community involvement and results in vapid material that provides little or no insight into issues. Some local candidates agree.
"It's a cop-out (so) they don't have to cover anything themselves," says one council candidate. "I think we're writing the newspaper for them. They're investing nothing. Where is basic journalism? Where is reporting and due diligence, connecting the dots?"
Not only do some candidates believe The Enquirer's strong-arm tactics to solicit participation is odd, they also describe it as possibly unethical but are afraid to criticize the newspaper for the considerable clout it still wields locally.
The Gannett Co., owner of The Enquirer, places a premium on Internet traffic and even bases the bonuses for some editors on how many "hits" an article receives online. The local newspaper is so concerned about Web usage that it distributes a tally of which articles are the most read on its Web site to all Enquirer staffers, updated two or three times each day. Editors have let reporters know that the tallies will be used in making coverage decisions in the future.
An e-mail that Cooklis sent to candidates states, "We'll be working on ways to draw attention to this blog in the coming days, and you're welcome to put the word out that we are doing this. Again, add a link to it on your Web site if you choose, and you're welcome to direct people from the blog to your Web site for more information."
Just in case Cooklis wasn't clear, he later writes, "We also invite you to post a link FROM your campaign Web site to this blog."
In fact, The Enquirer's entire endorsement process this year has come under fire by some candidates. Candidates were interviewed in groups of seven or eight people at a time, and each was asked the same four questions. Each person was asked to keep his or her responses to one minute, and there was no time to give follow-up remarks.
Public Input Sought for Streetcar System
As Cincinnati officials edge ever closer to approving the creation of a streetcar system through downtown and Over-the-Rhine, they're once again seeking public input.
The Connect Cincinnati Streetcar Conference will be held Nov. 3 at Xavier University. Community leaders will be in attendance to discuss the project, and participants will divide into smaller working groups to examine such topics as the social impact of streetcars on Over-the-Rhine, environmental issues and possible funding sources.
City officials are considering a 4.6-mile looped route for a streetcar system that travels from Cincinnati's riverfront, near the stadiums and the proposed Banks project, through downtown north into Over-the-Rhine, with stops at Music Hall and Findlay Market. Such a system would cost about $100 million — about $25 million per mile — and could open by 2011 if city officials approve the plan later this year, transportation experts say.
The system would be built so it could be expanded later into other city neighborhoods or into Covington or Newport. Some Northern Kentucky developers already have privately expressed interest.
Planners say the system could spark more redevelopment because it would lessen the need for new residential and commercial projects to provide parking spaces.
The Xavier conference is sponsored by the Urban Transit Network, founded this summer by a group of XU students to promote transit-oriented development. The event is free and open to the public and will be held at the Schiff Banquet and Conference Center on campus. RSVPs are encouraged by replying to [email protected]. Lunch is included for those who RSVP.
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