Bloggers blur journalistic lines
News, opinion freely mixed in growing medium
CAPITAL REGION John Tighe isn’t what you’d call a conventional news reporter.
The 56-year-old Milton man uses a downtown Saratoga Springs coffee shop as his office for most of the year and a swimming pool in Saratoga Spa State Park in summer. He admits he’s never received any formal training in journalism and that his writing often has spelling and grammatical errors.
“I’m not a writer,” he said during an interview at a small corner table at Uncommon Grounds coffee shop. “I’ve never even taken a writing course.”
But for the experience Tighe lacks in writing, his reporting travels far. His 3-year-old blog, “Saratoga in Decline,” receives roughly 3,000 visits per day, from readers in such places as the state’s Unified Court System, City Hall and even the White House.
His work has drawn praise and criticism — as reflected by comments on his blog. Critics consider him a pariah spewing a vitriolic and not-always-accurate account of news unfolding in Saratoga Springs and elsewhere; others view him as a valuable news source who picks up the slack of the professional media.
“I’ve made a lot of enemies,” he conceded last week, “but I’ve also made a lot of friends,”
Tighe’s blog and several others that generate content around the Capital Region are growing in popularity while mainstream news sources are not.
The bloggers’ reporting is often unsophisticated, but their ability to rapidly generate content and augment news coverage has made their sites popular during a time when local stories sometimes fall through the cracks created by shrinking newspaper and television coverage.
“If you have individuals who are filling a reportorial vacuum, that’s likely to be — all things considered — a good thing,” said William Husson, a communications professor at the University at Albany.
In the news
Bloggers also operate without many of the safeguards aimed at quality and accuracy in commercial news operations. And their sometimes edgy content can create situations where the bloggers themselves are injected into a story. Sometimes they become the story.
Earlier this month, Tighe landed in the news as he tried to cover the public disciplinary hearings of Mary Zlotnick, a clerk in the Saratoga Springs city assessor’s office who accused co-workers of doling out favorable assessments to certain property owners. Moments before the hearing began, Tighe was handed a subpoena to give evidence in the case that was apparently posted on his blog.
“Ten minutes after they saw me, they came up to me with a bogus subpoena,” Tighe recalled.
In another example, “New York Citizen One” blogger Theresa Grafflin angered Albany County officials when she published the Social Security numbers of several workers who received bonuses from District Attorney P. David Soares. Though Grafflin said a source leaked her the document containing the numbers and that her posting them was inadvertent, County Executive Daniel McCoy called for both a county and state investigation into how she obtained confidential information.
Still, Husson said news bloggers seem to fill a viable role in the modern media. He said such bloggers are occupying space left by the professional news media, even if they’re filling the capacity in an imperfect and often opinionated way.
“It’s heavily oriented to opinion, and that is sort of unambiguously presented to its readership as such,” he said.
While some may question the credibility or role of independent news bloggers in modern journalism, their dedication can be admirable. They often spend hours at community meetings and then even more time hammering out content to post afterward.
News blogger Rick Morrison wakes up shortly before dawn to start gathering news for his blog and four three-minute spots he sends to Amsterdam radio station WCSS (1490 AM). By noon, the retired 59-year-old Mayfield man is seeking advertisers, and by evening, he’s attending various meetings in Fulton and Montgomery counties — his core audience.
“I want to be the guy you can go to 100 times and 100 times you get the right story,” he said.
In all, Morrison estimates he works about 100 hours a week generating content for the radio and his nearly 2-year-old blog, “The Rick Morrison Regional Report.” The effort is more of a labor of love for Morrison right now, but one he sees eventually evolving into a viable commercial venture because of the dwindling coverage of local news by conventional media.
“People are losing the ability to get some of the content that they want, and that’s the niche news bloggers can fill,” he said. “They can be ultra local.”
Unlike some of his regional counterparts, Morrison has experience working in the media. He started in the radio business as a teenager and worked his way through the industry before leaving in the mid-1980s.
He said his experience, even if it’s outdated, helps bring credibility to his blog and when he’s covering news in the region. He proudly affixes his name to his coverage, and like many other news bloggers, he offers his readers or listeners the opportunity to correct any mistake they feel he’s made in his reporting.
“If you disagree with something I wrote, get on,” he said. “Tell me I’m wrong.”
For some, it can be difficult to separate Morrison’s straight-talk news blog from some of the opinions he posts elsewhere on the Internet. Gloversville Mayor Dayton King credited the blogger for his efforts to fill some of the gaps left by other news agencies, but can be put off by the opinion and satire he posts on other sites, including Facebook.
“It’s hard to take it seriously,” he said of Morrison’s blog. “The question is, do you want to be real professional and report the news or do you want to be an opinion writer?”
Opinions get in
Grafflin, author of the nearly 4-year-old “New York Citizen One,” said she tries to make a clear distinction between what is fact and what is opinion. Posts on her site, which focuses primarily on life in Albany and legislation at the county level, are more polished than other area blogs and demonstrate a degree of professionalism the 52-year-old Albany resident attributes to her English major at Texas A&M and her work in communications for area nonprofit organizations.
But Grafflin’s subjectivity bleeds into her accounts of criminal court proceedings, in which she sometimes shows sympathy for one party in a case or disdain for another. She admits these firsthand reports aren’t the types a reader would typically find in the newspaper.
In one instance, she questioned the veracity of testimony of a victim in a rape trial in March. On another occasion, she offered sympathies to the emotional younger brother of Jah-Lah Vanderhorst, who was ordered to serve up to 25 years in prison for killing 17-year-old Tyler Rhodes in Albany’s Hoffman Park last year.
“A lot of people say I’m not objective and I’m not a journalist,” she said, “but I don’t claim to be either.”
Instead, she offers herself as an old-school journalist — who strives to portray what she sees instead of what readers will perceive as objective. Her long hours spent in Albany County Court helped transform her into a vocal critic of Soares and a supporter of Lee Kindlon, the prosecutor’s unsuccessful challenger in the Democratic primary earlier this month.
Grafflin has questioned Soares’ relationships with some of his workers and posted a document leaked to her that shows their disproportionate salary bonuses. What she didn’t realize was that it also contained their Social Security numbers.
“I was looking at the bonuses,” she said. “I was looking at the names.”
Grafflin claims the error was quickly corrected and that the page with the confidential information was only viewed a handful of times. Yet she said the mistake was immediately seized upon by her critics and used to discredit her message.
“Everybody is going to keep the focus on the irresponsible blogger instead of the real story,” she said.
Despite calls for investigations and grumbling about her content, Albany County officials had little to say about her impact on the news she posts. McCoy declined to comment, while Soares released a short statement criticizing bloggers in general for having a lack of standards.
“One of the greatest potential threats to witness safety at present are bloggers who have no journalistic integrity and follow no code,” Soares said in a statement. “When someone discloses the identity of rape victims as well as confidential informants, it can create a significant safety risk.”
Tighe faces similar criticism for his blog, which offers unabashed opinion amid his news content. He has a tendency to lambaste people whom he perceives as violating the public trust, including Soares, Saratoga Performing Arts Center President Marcia White, Saratoga Springs Housing Authority Executive Director Ed Spychalski, the Colonie-based NXIVM and four of the five members of the Saratoga Springs City Council.
Tighe’s latest target has been longtime Accounts Commissioner John Franck, who launched termination proceedings against Zlotnick after she questioned a number of reductions in condominium assessments. Tighe, who acknowledged being a supporter and one-time friend of Franck, lately has raised questions about assessment reductions given under his watch, including to several business associates.
“Those are the things that drive me crazy,” Tighe said. “Ask John Franck, I’ll turn on you on a dime if I feel you’ve violated the public trust.”
Tighe reserves plenty of space on his blog to tear into NXIVM, an executive training program he and others have likened to a cult. He said his stories about the cult-like tendencies of the company have led to legal threats from a powerful area law firm.
“They threw everything at me they could,” he said. “You can’t silence me.”
Tighe also blames a burglary at his home and an attempt to hack into his blog on those who dislike his point of view.
First-term city Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen tries to shrug off the criticism he gets on Tighe’s blog but has generally stopped reading it because of the taunts he finds there. Though he understands the value of a local news blog, he said Tighe’s credibility is undermined by insults and opinion.
“There may be some news value to the blog, but some of the offensive nicknames are really irresponsible,” he said. “That’s not necessary, and it doesn’t help anyone.”
SPAC’s White, speaking generally about news blogs, lamented the lack of oversight for writers like Tighe. She said the powerful mechanism of social media can sometimes fall into the hands of someone who uses it without regard to standards or boundaries.
“It crosses an ethical line and sometimes a legal one,” she said. “Trying to sell personal attacks and slander to readers as newsworthy is irresponsible and actionable.”