Beware of the Blog By Joe Strupp

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Beware of the Blog
In Minneapolis, a local newspaper columnist and the prominent Powerline bloggers wage a war of words. Nick Coleman warns other mainstream journos to "watch out." Is this the wave of the future?

By Joe Strupp

(January 27, 2005) -- If you don't believe that bloggers are giving newspapers a headache, talk to Nick Coleman. A veteran newspaper columnist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Coleman is in the middle of an old-fashioned feud with one of the leading conservative Web logs in the country.

So far, his battle with Powerlineblog.com — Time magazine's "blog of the year" — has sparked an anger-spewing column by Coleman, an ombudsman's clarification, and a threat by a leading bank to pull advertising from the newspaper.

Moreover, it has confirmed the growing ability of blogs to get under the skin of the mainstream media. "This is just the beginning," an exasperated Coleman warns. "People need to pay attention to [bloggers]. To watch out."

The blog war began in December, when Coleman penned a column on some homeless people who had died. Powerlineblog.com, which had surged in influence after playing a key role in the recent "60 Minutes" scandal, criticized the piece in several postings. One blast called it "a lazy column on the spirit of the season" and added that "the spirit of this column is entirely that of the liberal shame culture."

Coleman's retort followed on Dec. 29, when he ripped his online critics, saying, "Extreme bloggers are so hip and cool they can make fun of the poor and disadvantaged while working out of paneled bank offices." This last part was a dig at Scott Johnson, a Powerline co-founder who is an attorney at TCF Bank, a major Twin Cities finance company.

In that same piece, Coleman called the bloggers everything from "rottweilers in sheep's clothing" to "reliable partisan hacks." He claimed that the site and others like it "are dominated by the right and are only interested in being a megaphone without oversight, disclosure of conflicts of interest, or professional standards," adding that the blog was "the biggest link in a daisy chain of right-wing blogs that is assaulting mainstream media."

This tirade, he says, was not only in reaction to the December postings, but what he claimed were nearly two years of attacks on him. But Johnson, and his partner, attorney John Hinderaker, maintain that Coleman was mentioned on their site only twice in the two years prior to the December postings. "I find it to be an outrageous, personal attack devoid of substance and facts," Johnson said, referring to Coleman's column. The bloggers also shot back on their home field, placing a lengthy blog response that called Coleman the "Star-Tribune's worst columnist."

But Coleman's problems didn't end there. Shortly after the New Year, TCF Bank Chairman and CEO Bill Cooper wrote an angry letter to the Star-Tribune vowing never to buy advertising in the paper again. Cooper was incensed that Coleman's column had attempted to link the blog to TCF, while allegedly hinting that some readers should withdraw their money from the finance company. "I have nothing to do with that blog and Coleman never talked to me," Cooper says now. "It's 'Dan Rather' journalism."

The bloggers also complained to Star-Tribune Reader Representative Kate Parry, who reviewed their charges and eventually put a clarification in the paper related to the Dec. 29 Coleman column. The blog's only revenue source, the paper clarified, was its advertising.

So is this the future of blog-newspaper relations in 2005 and beyond? According to Coleman, yes, and not in a good way. He says traditional news outlets need to keep tabs on the blogs and shoot back when necessary. "Editors and writers in mainstream media are very naive," he says. "Readership and power of the blogs is increasing." He also claims that the blogs are dangerous because they are not under the same ethical restrictions as mainstream media and seek to stay on the attack, facts be damned. He contends "the mainstream media is under assault."

But Powerline's Hinderaker argues that blogs are actually more accountable because they receive immediate reaction from readers and can be criticized by other blogs, many of which are read by the same people. "Mainstream media doesn't have the checks and balances you have on a blog," he says. "If a blogger makes a mistake, the e-mail is packed with responses and other bloggers jump on it. Newspapers don't have the same relationship with their readers."

Johnson, his colleague, agrees, adding that the growing blog power is good for the news consumer. "I think we have had a very productive interaction with mainstream media and they are paying attention," he says. "I think Nick Coleman's attitude reflects more on him than us."

For ombud Parry, both sides should be warned to be careful dealing with the effects of blog-newsprint battles. "I have yet to find anywhere in the mainstream media anyone who really has a handle on bloggers," she asserts. "We are dealing with a relatively new phenomenon."

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