Monthly Archives: September 2008

Paddling as fast as we can on the Palin e-mail story

On Thursday, Sept. 18, we collaborated with our sister paper in Memphis to get something on the record about the story that was ripping through the blogs, that a UT student was responsible for hacking into Sarah Palin’s e-mail. On Friday, we put what we were able to gather in the print edition.
On Saturday, I received this e-mail: “What happened to followup on this very high interest story??? Oh I forgot. It shows Democrats in a bad light. Can’t have that right?”
Monday morning, we updated the story, and we spent much of the late afternoon staking out the office where the student, David Kernell, was meeting with his lawyer. Sometime after 6, we grabbed a photo and brief video of Kernell, but he refused to answer any questions.
Tuesday morning I got this message: “Your paper took four days to do a follow-up on the fact that we have a politically motivated e-mail hacker enrolled at the University of Tennessee. Even then you tried to make excuses for the guy by alluding to illegal uses of e-mail by Sarah Palin. … You should remember that this country is pretty well divided down the middle so when you are constantly taking one side over the other, your credibility will suffer like it is now.”
Wednesday we posted an update out of Chattanooga from the Associated Press. Friday, our conservative columnist Greg Johnson weighed in.
We’re paddling as fast a we can.

Some abusive commenters end up in jail

We’ve definitely created a monster by allowing comments at the ends of stories online. It’s not unusual to get 1,300 to 1,400 comments a day. Some are substantive. Some are silly. Some make you wonder what kind of people are out there in the world.
“I truly think the News Sentinel should reconsider allowing people to post comments after articles published online,” wrote a Maryville woman to me recently. “The insensitivity (or stupidity) displayed after tragedies, in particular, is astonishing.”
In some other cities, posters have actually been charged with crimes if their comments seemed to cross the line into threats or harassment.
We have no plans to discontinue comments, but we have added to our comments box a standing reminder to “Be nice. If you want your comment gems to survive, you won’t defame, threaten or be abusive to other readers or the subjects of our stories. Victims have feelings too. Out of concern for them, we may not allow comments on certain stories.”

Was gas-shortage reporting irresponsible?

Is the News Sentinel responsible for the high price of gas in Knoxville right now? Some folks think so.
Here’s one e-mail I got over the weekend:
“This past Friday, you chose to practice the journalistic equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater. You plastered what anyone with an ounce of functioning brain tissue would understand is a panic-inducing headline about the availability of fuel in the Knoxville area. … You are directly responsible for flipping the switch that started a public panic over the possible shortage of a needed product. You scared people without a good justification. … You could have chosen in a responsible manner to put this information out there, but in a less prominent way. You could have provided it on page 2 or farther back, without all the histrionics. You should be apologetic and ashamed of yourself.”
The News Sentinel, did, indeed, report that Knoxville gas stations were running low on fuel. The story was done after motorists began calling the newspaper Thursday afternoon asking why gas stations were shutting down pumps and Bill Weigel of Weigel’s convenience stores called to say his stations were running out of gas. We contacted Pilot, which confirmed that the situation was “critical,” and we spoke to Colonial Pipeline to better understand the cause of the shortfall.
We couldn’t very well ignore the news. Our initial story appeared online on Thursday. It reported the shortage as well as the fact that the EPA was loosening restrictions to increase the supply of gas to the Southeast.
In the next day’s paper, we could have, as the letter-writer suggested, played the story down. But we decided, instead, to apply our usual news judgment, recognizing that here was information that could directly affect almost everyone in our community and that they would be very interested to know about. We ran an A1 headline that said: “Knox hit with gas shortage.” The story included information about shipment schedules, supplies in other cities and concerns about panic-buying.
In publishing the information, we recognized that there would be a rush to the pump and that could worsen the situation. But we also realized that the problem existed whether or not we reported it, and we had a responsibility to let the community know what was going on.

Paper’s web sites grow with interactivity

Sometime in the next week or so, someone will click on a News Sentinel Web page for the 100 millionth time this year. Wow! Looks like this Internet thing is going to be around for a while.
One of the real attractions of an online news site is its interactivity.
For instance, since we started allowing comments at the end of stories on, our Web traffic has soared, and our sites now get some 1,400 comments a day.
As a newspaper editor, my role is shifting from merely delivering news to facilitating its discussion.So lately we’ve added new opportunities for interactivity.
What better way to interact with the news than by humbling our haughty sports editor, John Adams. Our Beat John Adams game on lets football fans win prizes by picking the winners of collegiate games. You can play against John or set up a private group for friends and family.
On, photographers and videographers can win prizes, too, and show off their work. A new application makes it easy to upload pix and flix. I just took at glance that the photo gallery that’s growing as a result, and there are many spectacular images of the scenic beauty of East Tennessee.
Letters to the editor were newspapers’ original interactive feature. Now readers can respond to letters even before they are published in the paper. Each letter now goes onto the Opinion section of knoxnews as soon as it is verified and edited.
Blogs have long been an important path to interactivity on the News Sentinel’s Web sites. Today we have more than ever before, covering a wide range of topics.
In the world of business, Carly Harrington and Josh Flory attract some 40,000 views a month to with their discussions about real estate, banking and the retail scenes.
Sports blogs by Dave Hooker, Mike Griffith, Drew Edwards and others draw a similar, if more rambunctious, crowd.
In the world of entertainment, Randall Brown’s “Ramblin’ Man” blog about the local scene lures up to 30,000 page views a month, and Terry Morrow’s “Tinseltown” blog, rich in celebrity videos, draws 50,000.
Our successful niche blogs include Frank Munger’s “Atomic City Underground,” where lab insiders grab the latest tidbits, and Mary Constantine’s “Stirring the Pot,” where visitors share recipes and cooking tips.
SchoolMatters” and “GoSmokies” are blogs that are Web sites unto themselves, where whole communities of interest gather to debate education and recreation issues.
Our big dog is Michael Silence’s “No Silence Here,” a current events blog that draws more than 100,000 clicks a month to his deft observations.
Challenging his supremacy, though, may be our newest blogger, Katie Allison Granju, whose “Because I Said So” blog already is attracting thousands to her diverse and lively observations on life and politics.
Our most unusual blog? Snark Bites by Scott McNutt. Three times a week he reports on news that, well, didn’t actually happen. One recent headline: “Ragsdale claims imaginary friend oversaw hospitality account.”
Now who can resist interacting with that?

To report or not to report rumors

One of our bloggers, Katie Granju, stirred up a tempest last week when she made reference to a rumor swirling through the Interent about veep nominee Sarah Palin.
“Your publication is being disgraced by a thoughtless, unsubstantiated and vicious rumor. … It’s no wonder that the “main stream media” is criticized for being the mouthpiece of leftists. Such irresponsible speculation is revealing, and will ultimately bring the downfall of organizations like the Knoxville News Sentinel.”
Katie eventually removed her posting after receiving complaints (including one from her mother). But the incident again highlights the problem the “mainstream media” face dealing with rumors in the online age.
Because of the power of the Internet — and without any meaningful MSM involvement — the Palin rumor was quickly so widespread and generally known that the McCain campaign felt compelled to respond, denying the rumor but revealing a fact that might have been the genesis of the smear: that Palin’s 17-year-old unwed daughter was pregnant.
The incident comes just a few weeks after attacks on the mainstream media for ignoring the John Edwards story. Rumors that the then-presidential candidate fathered a child out of wedlock were reported in the National Inquirer and swept through the Internet for months. Ultimately, Edwards admitted an affair but denied fathering a child as a result.
Should the MSM been quicker to report the Edwards rumors? Slower to report the Palin rumors?
I should point out that neither rumor ever appeared in print in the News Sentinel until there were statements of confirmation and denial by the principals.
Was the News Sentinel “disgraced,” as the letter-writer states, because one of its bloggers noted that a particular bit of information was spreading across the nation like wildfire? Or should we maintain a strict “see no evil” stance until full investigations are conducted or official statements are made?
The answer could have serious consequences for our relevance as well as our credibility in the age of universal, light-speed communication.

Accusations of bias mark campaign season

“Your reporting about the upcoming election candidates is extremely biased and untrue,”
Does that critique come from a Republican or a Democrat?
You may have your beliefs, based on how you perceive the newspaper’s bias. But for me, I had to read on. The inbox these days contains numerous accusations of bias, from both sides of the spectrum.
The criticism comes with the season.
One of my steady critics — who begins every note with “Hey, Jack!” — hit me with three screeds over the weekend. One read:
“Hey, Jack! Turns out Palin supported the bridge to nowhere until it became a joke then kept the fed $$ for it! Now she’s lying about it. Here’s the link but we won’t look for the story in the Sentinel.”
Another reader, though, insists we were being too critical of the new vice presidential nominee:
“I was very disappointed in the Knoxville News Sentinel the day after John McCain chose his running mate, Sarah Palin. I expected an article on the front page about Ms. Palin rather than a so-called analysis of the political efficacy of choosing a little known candidate for Vice-President of the United States. Ms. Palin is a remarkable woman and her accomplishments should have been stressed rather than hearing from an obviously biased man about her qualifications (or lack thereof in his opinion). Shame on you for “reporting” an editorial on the front page of our community’s newspaper.”
Admitedly, the timing of the Palin selection did put us in a bit of a bind.
The news broke on Friday. But our Perspective section — along with the Life & Arts and Go sections of the Sunday paper — closes on Thursday and prints Friday morning. As a result, the commentary in it focused on the Democratic national convention that ended Thursday. There was no mention of Palin in the section. Some readers thought that was deliberate.
‘I am thoroughly disappointed in your newspaper today,” wrote one reader. “In the Perspective section, you have five major articles plus a huge picture about Obama. You have one article about John McCain. How blatant can you be in your support for the Democrat? Have you lost all sense of journalistic credibility and professionalism? I know the larger news outlets and newspapers are in the back pocket of the liberal Democrat party, but I had hoped it did not extend down to little ole Knoxville. Prove me wrong, please. Be professionals. Be unbiased in your coverage.”
We are trying to do just that.