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When Hurricane Bonnie roared toward the Carolinas in August 1998, the Knight Ridder-owned Charlotte Observer deployed an army of reporters and photographers to cover the storm and its impact. Given the large commitment of resources, one Observer staffer recalled that it “would have been a shame to use the information we gathered only for the paper.” To get more of that material to readers, the Observer‘s solution was to launch an Internet Web log, more commonly known as a blog. That allowed members of the news team to publish personal, updated reports around the clock on the paper’s Internet site. According to the Online News Association, it was the first time a paper reported a news story on a blog. Since then, hundreds of newspapers across the country have cautiously entered the so-called blogosphere, which started as the province of individuals disseminating information, opinion and commentary to anyone on the Internet who might be interested. Law firms, computer and Internet outfits, and other types of companies also have encouraged their employees to post blogs on company-sponsored Web sites, hoping the blogs boost their marketing and customer service efforts. South Florida news organizations have been relatively slow to join the bandwagon, and there are good reasons why. Media lawyers warn that staff-written blogs, which are supposed to provide a platform for a freewheeling give-and-take between writers and readers, pose serious libel and defamation issues. They note that staff-written blogs legally are indistinguishable from articles published in the newspaper or broadcast. Thomas R. Julin, a media lawyer and partner at Hunton & Williams in Miami, said blogs pose liability risks because they “are likely to attract some of the most extreme forms of speech.” The federal Communications Decency Act, he explained, established strong immunity for third-party Internet postings by interactive service providers such as news organizations, “but it’s not 100 percent.” Nevertheless, in recent months, the Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Palm Beach Post all have added blogs to their Web sites. One example is Season Ticket, the Sun-Sentinel’s sports blog, written by sports columnist Ethan Skolnick. ALM, the New York City-based parent of the Daily Business Review, has begun linking to blogs written by lawyers on its Web site, Law.com. Publishers consider blogs by staff writers to be an important wave of the future in building stronger relationships with younger, Internet-savvy news consumers. But one major reason for the lawyers’ concern is the nature of blogs, which are intended to sound spontaneous and personal. As such, blog postings generally receive little or no review by editors before publication. Michael Burke, deputy managing editor of the Palm Beach Post, said his paper’s blogs started as an experiment. “Now we’re accumulating enough experience that we’re in the process of putting together guidelines — dos and don’ts to make us comfortable,” he said. “But at this time the copy does not go through an editor.” Another worry is that some newspaper bloggers are encouraged to express personal views. They tend to rely less on standard news reporting procedures to ensure accuracy, which, when scrupulously followed, make successful libel suits less likely. A few bloggers sometimes include unverified rumors. Another liability concern is that blog writers encourage responses from readers, which are incorporated into the blog. Indeed, generating such comments is one of the main purposes of a blog. But the law governing liability for these third-party comments is not entirely clear. “It’s such a recent phenomenon [that] the law is very far behind in trying to deal with new issues,” said Ryan Koppelman of Brown Robert in Fort Lauderdale, a member of The Florida Bar’s standing media and communications law committee. “Every case is a case of first impression.” News organizations are jumping into blogging even as employee blogging on personal sites that are not employer-sponsored is becoming a growing legal and personnel headache. Derogatory comments about employers and fellow workers, leaks of proprietary information and other objectionable material broadcast into cyberspace have led to firings and lawsuits in dozens of cases nationwide. But those issues aren’t foreseen with employer-sponsored blogs. ‘DISTANCE YOURSELF FROM PUBLIC’ Staff-written blogs at South Florida news organizations have not generated much attention, at least partly because editors and publishers here have proceeded cautiously. The Palm Beach Post so far has been the local leader, launching as many as five blogs. By comparison, the St. Petersburg Times has a dozen. All three of the area’s large metro dailies devote at least one blog to sports and another to the entertainment scene. The Herald‘s best-read blog was launched by humorist Dave Barry, who continues to post items even though he has taken a break from writing his newspaper column. Eight of the Post’s critics and entertainment reporters are grouped in the Blog Squad. No litigation involving newspaper blogs has yet made it to a federal appeals court. And so far only one state court of appeal, in California, has held that a blogger can be held legally responsible for postings by others. In that case, the blogger published a comment that he knew to be false. The case is now before the California Supreme Court, and few lawyers expect the ruling to stand. Edward M. Mullins, a media lawyer at Astigarraga Davis Mullins & Grossman in Miami, said, “It’s not absolutely certain how far the [Communications Decency Act] will apply to blogs. You would certainly want to distance yourself from the public.” But that caution runs directly against news organizations’ prime purpose in establishing staff-written blogs — to get closer to the public. The Palm Beach Post’s Burke calls blogs “another way to interact with readers.” Even so, the Post‘s Web site, while steering readers to its blogs, lays down some rules: “It’s not a place for campaign ads, personal gripes, consumer complaints — or profanity. If you post stuff that we consider inappropriate, we’ll remove it. So make the postings good, and help us make the blog fun.” The Post so far has not encountered any problems with reader comments, but they can be hazardous. The Los Angeles Times recently scrapped an innovative “reader-written” editorial page because a number of contributors flooded it with pornographic material. Up to now, “fun” is the operative word for most local newspaper blogs. But Suzanne Levinson, managing editor of Herald.com, the Herald‘s Internet site, said her newspaper is studying the possibility of additional blogs that would cover more serious topics, such as politics. “We need to determine which topics have the most appeal for readers,” Levinson said. “And because we are doing this with the regular staff of the paper, we have to be sure that the reporters will have time to update the blog several times a day.” Operating a blog is not cost-free. “We have to pay for the technology, for the server space, for designing and maintaining the blog,” she noted. Managers at the other newspapers say they also expect to expand their blog operations. The Post just started a blog devoted to science. A spokesman for the Sun-Sentinel, Kevin Courtney, declined to discuss specific plans but said, “Our goal is to make our Web site more interactive, and we are constantly exploring new opportunities.” While it may appeal to readers, moving into more sensitive areas of news coverage, such as business and politics, could involve the publishers in greater controversy and legal risk. Still, most media lawyers interviewed for this story were not particularly worried about the dangers of newspaper blogs. “The beauty of the Internet is that Congress has decided it should be a forum for free and open exchange of everything,” Julin said. “Even if you post a rumor, and it’s demonstrably false, there’s no liability to the service provider. The person who wrote it can be sued, but that’s usually just a waste of time.”

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