Monday, June 27, 2005

Into the Great Wide Open

Howdy, everybody. I’m back off of vacation, rested and tan and fired up … to put this little foray into blogging into RSS mothballs. That is to say: Your aggregator may occasionally find a new post here, but I expect they'll be rare.

The simple truth is, this six-month experiment has been so informative that I’ve now graduated to something new. That’s not to say that media is no longer a worthwhile topic, only that I have learned what I need to know from the current conversation.

Here’s how I described my thoughts on Sunday, writing to another media blogger (edited with my better judgment in mind):

*In the media blogging community, the emphasis is stuck on real-time critique rather than advancing new ideas. My experience: Write a snarky, off-the-hip slam, get lots of conversation; propose a novel solution to a problem, listen to crickets (ed note: in the original e-mail, I wrote ‘critics,’ proving once again that editors can be good to have around).

*Most media discussion threads eventually devolve into political arguments. My experience: There are right-wingers who camp out on these threads and make sure that all discussion is framed in terms of their grievances.

*Politics in the traditional sense is far too limiting a lens for viewing human interaction. It is quite literally a polarizing filter, creating opposition in all situations. Politics says "DECIDE!" and "PICK A SIDE!" and you don't have to observe people for too long to notice that such commands make most of us uncomfortable. My experience: Those who view the world from a political perspective see everything as conflict. They aren't WRONG, just hopelessly limited. (The Dude: "You're not WRONG, Walter, you're just an ASSHOLE").

*I started on this path about 18 months ago when I wrote the words "media bias" on a manilla folder and started printing out and collecting examples of media bias, writing on media bias, etc. I read books on the subject, started looking for blogs on the subject. I knew instinctively that the charge of "liberal media bias" was a distortion, but it wasn't a notion that I had really investigated. While examples of liberal bias aren’t difficult to find, the case for systemic “LBM” doesn’t bear up to critical scrutiny. My experience: I’ve wasted far too much of my time and energy arguing this subject, and to no effect. The people with whom I've argued reject my logic and evidence without seriously considering it, and their repetitive arguments have neither expanded nor illuminated my mind. So what's the point? I can either keep punching this tar baby, or I can walk on.

*'A-List Bloggers' are the popular kids in high school, the beautiful people on the beach, the rich people at the symphony gala. They are attractive to the hoi polloi bloggers because their approval represents an easy path to things that most of us want -- money, power, acceptance, status, etc. But the emphasis here is on "easy": One can acquire all those things without the “in” group’s approval, but going it alone means you have to work harder. My experience: I enjoy being linked by big-shot bloggers far more than I should, and if I'm not careful, I fall into their orbit. I start measuring my own value on their little subjective scales, and pretty soon other people are framing the context of my thoughts. Better to step out and make something new, something that isn't as easily turned into an intellectual commodity.

*Journalists v. bloggers is over (but the world doesn't know it). The same is true of the debates over the current administration's actions and motivations (guilty on all counts, but still in power). We can continue to debate these subjects with the intransigent and the late arrivals, or we can move on.

On the other hand, what will become of the media is NOT yet determined, and it bears watching and participation. Get the right media, create the right connective tissue between groups and individuals, and someday you won't even NEED government in the way we think of it today. Hand this amazing technology over to the corporate entities that run things now, and the future is fascist. No exaggeration on my part. Times are dark -- just as they usually are. My experience: When I can't see my way through the thicket to the place I have to go, it usually means it’s time to do a little recon.

Which is what I intend to do: Get out of the role that is expected of me, drop all the self-imposed limitations that come with the identity of "journalist," and try to find a way to use this medium to do something more constructive.

Psst... we don't get it, either
When I started this blog, I thought I could make a contribution by adding a voice from the working press to these discussions. But here’s the skinny: Working journalists are not talking about these subjects in my newsroom, not in any truly informed or inquisitive way, and based on conversations and correspondence with other journalists in other cities, their newsrooms aren’t talking, either.

So I figure, if the members of the “working press” don’t have anything more intelligent to add to the discussion of their future than the decade-old focus-group mantra “MORE LOCAL NEWS!” then we really don’t deserve saving. Screw us.

Because it boils down to this: I’m no longer interested in talking about the media as a subject unto itself. I’m interested in the media as it relates to a culture I live in, to a republic I love, to a city where I’m raising children. I want a media that is worthy of all three, and I want it not only as a journalist, but as a participant in that culture, a citizen of that republic and a resident of that city. I’d love to participate in reforming the practice of journalism, but to imagine that one could do such a thing in a vacuum is not only silly, but pointless. To what end do we improve journalism? To more efficiently and profitably deliver the same old intellectual pollution, regardless of its affect? Are we just designing a better cigarette here?

Many of us came to journalism from the idea that reporting was a way for Misfit Toys (like me) to give something of value back to the community. But at some point, reporters must start acknowledging that what we do – the act of journalism -- cannot heal a culture. Reporting is an essential function, yes, but the best it can do is to chronicle political and cultural pathology. Healing requires something else, something non-materialistic. And journalism, being fundamentally materialistic, is ill-suited to the job.

Politics isn't the answer, either. Politics isn't about ideas, and never has been: Politics is where you go to ratify the temporary power of one idea over another, but as a field it has never created a new idea or facilitated a meaningful discussion. Politics is great at killing things, terrible at nuturing them, which is one reason why conservatives like politics more than the rest of us. Conservatives, by their very definition, favor protecting the old over allowing the new, so they take to politics like pigs to slop.

No, if we want to resolve our political problems, rather than profiting short-term by preserving them, we have to do it through the culture, and that's the province of art. Art is to culture as journalism is to politics: Each creates and sustains the other. Journalism doesn't produce the ideas that drive culture -- journalism merely tells people about those ideas.

Now, it is a peculiar trait of journos that we act as if none of this is true. We treat artists as flakey, scientists and scholars as eggheads. Holy men weird us out, but we'll kiss some serious church ass if it will keep some nun from calling us up and rapping our knuckles.

Our only true affinity is for the politician, whom we treat with a glib mixture of condesension, admiration and distrust, as if the issues of democracy are just this private game that they play, with us tagging along as the refs. We act as if we're so far above this game that its outcomes are unimportant, and it really pisses us off if anyone questions one of our calls.

We do this as a profession because, deep down, we're shallow.

Politics as I see it
Americans hate politics, and that's OK by me. It says that we have better things to do with our time.

Our social contract works like this: So long as things are going well and most people are pretty happy, we'll give the government the keys to the barn. Congressmen, lobbyists, defense contractors, trial lawyers, asbestos manufacturers and all manner of creepy crawlies can slurp at the public trough so long as they don't screw things up so badly that we get pissed and start paying attention again.

In theory, the corrective anger of the American people comes along and puts the ship of state back on course after episodes of excess arrogance, but this is not generally what occurs. Two classes of people -- journos and politicos -- work together to make participation in public life so absurdly and unnecessarily unpleasant that nobody with their priorities in order would rationally choose to get involved. Excluding people from participation is an essential function of both groups.

I mean, have you ever dealt with a persnickety editorial page editor? Ten minutes around the average know-it-all-defender-of-community-propriety and a regular guy would be chewing his leg off. Same with the kind of deeply conflicted control freaks who tend to run county-level political parties. Neither is interested in new ideas, new voices, fresh perspectives or -- heaven forbid -- blunt truth. They hate surprises and generally despise smart-ass punks like me... and, most likely, you.

When real people are disconnected from real democracy, bad things happen. They are happening right now. As a journalist, it's my job to view these bad things with as much dispassion and cold-eyed logic as I can muster. As a citizen, I'm furious, and more than a little frightened. I'm also tired of pretending otherwise during my off-time.

I can't engage in a serious discussion about the sins of Dan Rather at a time when a cabal of bald-faced liars is throwing billions of dollars of "defense" money into a "War on Terror" in a country that wasn't involved in terrorism before we invaded it. I can't talk about the relative patriotism of Eason Jordan while the White House "disassembles" on its own torture memos and blames enlisted soldiers for Abu Ghraib. I can't seriously engage in a discussion of Newsweek's screw up while the neoconservatives thugs in Washington pursue illegal policies that are destroying my country's standing in the world, not to mention spitting on the grave of every American who ever gave his life for the idea of a country based on something more noble than the will to power.

The other side calls this "Bush-bashing." But we're not talking about one man here. We're talking about a confluence of interests and ambitions who have joined together in their common greed to manipulate both our fears and our higher aspirations. The most onerous result so far: Thousands of people have died in a fake war designed to keep the American electorate in line while funnelling money borrowed against our children's tax returns directly to the Halliburton Corp.

And we're not supposed to get notice. Or get mad. That's "extreme." So when some moron who thinks that it's "just a matter of time" before we find Saddam's buried WMDs writes some flame post blaming "liberal media elites who hate America," for the disaster in Iraq, we're supposed to engage him with respect, rather than instructing the hateful bastard to tell his story walking. How messed up is that?

But the tide has now turned, and it is only a matter of time now before a majority of Americans agrees with the following unpleasant truths: George W. Bush is an unprincipled, pathetic, lying sock puppet; the Religious Right is wrong; the "War on Terror" is a sham; the neo-cons are attempting to turn their temporary political gains into a permanent political dominion. The current ruling class treats Americans with contempt and serves only the interests of wealthy elites: Dubya's "Have Mores."

Now, did that little rant improve anything? Not a damned thing. But it did answer one question that Fox News loves to ask of any reporter who isn't in lock step with The Party: Are you a journalist first, or an American? And the answer for me is, I'm an American first, and I want my country back, dammit.

Taking back the culture first
The most ironic thing George W. Bush ever said was "I'm a uniter, not a divider." Or maybe it was just the most laughable. We can decide later. There's no rush.

But despite all his efforts to the contrary, Americans still have more in common than the current level of discourse would indicate. Plus, our post-9/11 experience taught us something that we need to point out every now and again: We LIKED feeling united and communal. Give us a chance to work together for the common good instead of pitting us against each other and we'll be happy.

So where I'm going now, I'm going to try to find ways to relate those experiences across the Red/Blue border. I ought to be pretty good at it: Those lines crisscross my personality.

Rather than trying to convert my opponents, rather than trying to repackage obvious truths that people simply don't want to accept, I'm going to bypass those oxbows and move ahead to ideas that haven't been chewed over yet. I'm going to tell the morons to get off my property, and I'm going to look for people with similar notions about things and I'm going to see what we can build together.

Will I still talk about politics and media? Sure. But I'll also be talking about art and movies and novels, about sex and religion and technology, about quantum physics and archaeology, the poetry of Hafiz and the future of human evolution. I'm not going to worry about the predictably offended, because I'm no longer interested in the predictably offended. Hell, they already have every newspaper in the country sucking up to them, why do they need to put their thumb on my little website, too? So if they try to crash my party, I'm not going to appease them with bland words: I'm going to kick them out the door.

The answer to what ails us cannot be found by sitting around negotiating over trivia with the bitter people who hate change. We have to go out and create, and we have to trust that the ideas we produce will come around, eventually, indirectly, and help everyone we left behind see things differently. I hope they make it out, but they're not my responsibility.

Will I be doing this under my own name? Not exactly, but I'm not going to be hiding my identity on my new site, either. And I'll still post here as myself, when I post here. For anyone who cares, I don't plan on commenting anonymously on other people's sites.

Anyway, that's it. Thanks for the feedback and education that you, my readers, have given me here over the past six months. Life's an adventure, and I hope we find each other down the road again.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Simply appalling

Money talks. It always has.

Here's a story demonstrates the way government works: It does what lobbyists, contributors and powerful men tell it to do. I'm not saying this is a new development. I'm saying it's happening right now, and the story below makes that apparent.

The question is, where's the outrage? Where's the accountability? How is it that the White House doesn't even make a sincere effort to conceal the fact that it is lying?

But the White House will win on this, because this story is too complex for people to follow. It's too detailed for TV soundbites. It can be rendered irrelevant by FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt).

All I ask is, read these excerpts, particularly McClellan's sorry excuse for an evasion, and ask yourself: Is this what I signed on for? Is this the America I want? Do I want this kind of behavior in my name?

From Jefferey Smith's June 7 story in The Washington Post:

For the past three years, the Air Force has described its $30 billion proposal to convert passenger planes into military refueling tankers and lease them from Boeing Co. as an efficient way to obtain aircraft the military urgently needs.

But a very different account of the deal is shown in an August 2002 internal e-mail exchange among four senior Pentagon officials.

"We all know that this is a bailout for Boeing," Ronald G. Garant, an official of the Pentagon comptroller's office, said in a message to two others in his office and then-Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Wayne A. Schroeder. "Why don't we just bite the bullet," he asked, and handle the acquisition like the procurement of a 1970s-era aircraft -- by squeezing the manufacturer to provide a better tanker at a decent cost?

"We didn't need those aircraft either, but we didn't screw the taxpayer in the process," Garant added, referring to widespread sentiment at the Pentagon that the proposed lease of Boeing 767s would cost too much for a plane with serious shortcomings.

Garant's candid advice, which top Air Force officials did not follow, is disclosed for the first time in a new 256-page report by the Pentagon's inspector general. It provides an extraordinary glimpse of how the Air Force worked hand-in-glove with one of its chief contractors -- the financially ailing Boeing -- to help it try to obtain the most costly government lease ever.

And then, later on, this paragraph:
In the copy of the report obtained by The Washington Post, 45 sections were deleted by the White House counsel's office to obscure what several sources described as references to White House involvement in the lease negotiations and its interaction with Boeing. The Pentagon separately blacked out 64 names and many e-mails. It also omitted the names of members of Congress, including some who pressured the Pentagon to back the deal.
You don't have to be a J-school grad to know what that means. The administration made sure that Boeing got a good deal, and it did so at our expense.

So let's go to today's White House press conference, shall we?
Q Scott, a question about this Inspector General's report, involving the lease deal between the Air Force and Boeing. In that report, there are 45 references to White House officials that have been deleted in the Inspector General's report. And that has to do with White House officials' involvement in this particular deal as it was being negotiated and then became more controversial. The question is, would the White House object to these names -- the names of the White House officials in this report being unredacted, being made public? And, if not, would it, in fact, invoke executive privilege to keep those names -- the names of those officials secret?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think it was understood going in that this is a jurisdictional matter. The Inspector General for any department only has jurisdiction over that particular department.

Q So what?

Q I'm sorry, I guess I don't understand -- what does that have to do with --

MR. McCLELLAN: It's the Inspector General for the Department of Defense, in this instance. They only have jurisdiction over their particular agency. We worked to help facilitate the investigation by the Inspector General, but this is a jurisdictional matter.

Q Is that to say that the White House will not allow those names to be made public?

MR. McCLELLAN: It's a jurisdictional matter, and like I said, it was understood. I mean, I think it --

Q Is that a "yes" or a "no," Scott?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think it was understood --

Q How is it a jurisdictional matter, for god's sake?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- that that information would not be part of the report. But the Inspector General had access to the information he needed to complete his report.

Q So who in the White House was involved in putting pressure to make sure this deal went through? The Washington Post reports and names Andy Card as having some conversations about it, perhaps pushing for the deal. Is that accurate? Were other officials within the White House involved in pushing the deal forward?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I wouldn't describe your characterization as accurate. In terms of Andy Card's involvement, I've talked to that previously. He served, as he does on a host of issues, simply as an honest broker to make sure that all views were represented and to make sure that it was completed in a timely matter, because it was relating to a national security need that was pressing. And that was the extent of his role.

Q Would the White House invoke executive privilege to keep these names, the names of White House officials -- and I don't know how many we're talking about, you could tell us -- to keep those names from becoming public?

MR. McCLELLAN: Look, a couple of points. I think, as I said, it was understood the jurisdictional matter that is involved here, that that information would not be part of the report. The Inspector General had access to the information. Now, in terms of this issue, there was wrongdoing, and the people who were involved in that wrongdoing are being held to account; people are serving jail time because of what they did and others are being held to account for what they did in other ways. The Pentagon canceled the project, they canceled the contract. There are oversight measures that are in place when it comes to issues like this, and in this instance, those oversight measures worked to catch this and it enabled the Pentagon to cancel the contract.

Q So you deny any -- any -- improper interference in this negotiation on the part of any White House official?

MR. McCLELLAN: There has not been any suggestion of that whatsoever.

Q Then in the interest of transparency, why not make all those names public?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we have worked to provide Congress with information. We worked to facilitate the DOD investigation and congressional leaders have been looking at this, as well. As I said, those who were involved in wrongdoing are being held accountable.

Q But if White House officials were also involved in the conversation, by making the names public you could then assure everyone that no White House officials were involved in trying to persuade people to push this deal through.

MR. McCLELLAN: That's what oversight measures are for. There are oversight protections in place to look at all these issues, both from Congress, as well as internally, with the Department of Defense. And in terms of this issue, it's not related to anything that you're bringing up, it's related simply to a jurisdictional matter.

Q No, but if you fall back on the excuse that jurisdictional concerns prevent those names from being made public, you let us wonder whether there was any connection between any of the White House names in that report and any of the wrongdoing.

MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, that's all been looked into and continues to be looked into by members of Congress. It was looked into by the Inspector General. The Inspector General, as I pointed out, had access to this information so that he could look at it, and look at it in the overall context, as well.

Q You're suggesting that jurisdictional matters would have prevented him from doing any of that.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, maybe if you have something to bring to my attention, you ought to bring it to my attention, but --

Q I'm asking you why you don't want to be more transparent.

MR. McCLELLAN: The people who were involved in wrongdoing are being held to account.

And then he moves on. He's counting on the rest of us moving on, too.

What we're seeing is a government that is run on the -- so far successful -- assumption that the American people suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder. And those of us in the media just keep dishing out the sugar.

Spoletoblog: Howzitdoing?

Editor's note: I've been on something of a hiatus from this blog since the start of the Spoleto festival on May 27. Also, I'm in the middle of an e-mail blackout: I haven't received an e-mail at my home account since May 23, so if you're wondering why I haven't written back, that's why. Here's a field report from "our little experiment," working towards the memo I will eventually write on what I've learned ...

I'm dragging some serious ass this morning (hint: it's now noon), a natural side-effect of a weird daily schedule that's based around the demands of running a blog for a newspaper.

First thing each morning, I check the blog to make sure that nobody has posted a comment with, say, the word "shit" in it... then check to see if the newspaper website has posted the electronic copies of our reviews and stories... then read those reviews, looking for a passage of critical thought or flourish to paste into the daily Spoletoblog coverage summary... then check every link to make sure none of them take you to a porn site... then check the stats... study the referers and pings .... then run a couple of Technorati watchlists in Sage to check for diffusion... then read the competition's Spoleto blog... then edit the other posts and make my morning posts.

And then I usually go to work.

I try to keep up with the stats during the day, because I want to develop as good a mental picture as I can of our audience. And this week, since I've finished all the assigned stories I wrote for the paper, I've had nothing to do but blog stuff. That's a good thing, because some days the only original material that goes up comes from me and one other writer on the staff.

I write longer posts in the afternoon/evening, typically after attending some events or riding around town on my bike, checking things out from street level, taking pictures with my digital. Yesterday I wrote a 1,500-word post on criticism (typepad makes it easy to do extended comments without junking up your blog) before a 5 p.m. event, then came back and wrote a 900-word report on the event, which wound up being about criticism.

Before I leave for the day (or, while working from home) I put together an 8 to 10 inch (375-word) "Buzz From the Blog" column for the paper, just excerpting comments and posts. Last night, I didn't get home until almost 9.

Back home, I check the stats and comments around midnight, then pull the plug on the day.

Weekends are more hectic: I try to get scene and color, and I attend multiple performances. In most cases, I'll post several times a day, including photos.

So here's one thing I'm learning: Blogging doesn't HAVE to be a full-time job, but it sure can be.

Other lessons are more ambiguous. For starters, the typepad stats are less than reliable. The "hits today" is a gauge, not an actual count since midnight, and it's not always a stat based on the previous 24 hours. The typepad people won't really come out and say what it counts, saying instead that it's something they're working to improve.

The way I figure it (and I'm being conservative here), an average of about 500 to 600 people a day have been coming to our blog. Our peak day was last Wednesday (more than 1,700), but since Saturday we've been recording between 1,000 and 1,100 on the daily count. I don't trust those figures, and base my averages on the total hits count, subtracting the hits we had before we started promoting it and the festival began.

Now, is a readership of 500 worth the effort and expense? My answer is yes. This is no ordinary readership -- this is a wealthy, educated, arts-saavy readership that particular businesses and interests would find quite valuable. The overhead is negligible ($150 for an entire year of blog hosting), and so your only expense is my time for 17 days (and, in fairness, I was working on other stories for the paper throughout the first week of the festival), and a little bit of writing time for people who are already working on newspaper coverage.

The concept for Spoletoblog, by the way, was that we'd invite ALL our arts writers and editors to participate, and we did. Few of them have, with the majority pointedly shunning Spoletoblog. Of the more than 40 people who were invited to participate, only 16 have actually activated their author profiles. Of those 16, only six have actually contributed posts (plus one additional reviewer who simply could not get himself logged in, and so he sent me a post by e-mail).

Now, imagine if you had a team blog in which everyone who covered the festival for the paper also blogged on it. With that kind of coverage, nobody would have to do much, but the result would be tremendous. Imagine if you had 10 people blogging from different perspectives on the same festival. It wouldn't be hard to do, and the extra expense would be trivial.

Perhaps what news organizations should be thinking about is how to reward blogging. If a critic writes a review for the paper and then turns around and provides additional insight to the blog, what's that worth? Without that incentive, I don't know that you'll ever get people who are willing to participate.

Now, for me, the incentive is clear: It's my laboratory. The paper gets a blog, but it also gets the benefit of whatever I learn. What it does with that knowledge is up to managers (because i have no interest in becoming a "web editor," having just gotten free of editing for print), but thanks to this experiment we now have some institutional experience on which to draw for future web projects. That's a good thing.

But for other writers? I think some of the writers and critics just resent the blog. Some may resent me personally. I think some are just intimidated by the technology, and I think some simply don't want to do anything they aren't paid to do, and who can blame them?

But I was wrong at the beginning: I believed that no writer could stay away from an opportunity to write for an interested audience in a new medium. I believed that once the buzz got going, they would come over. There's plenty of buzz, but that hasn't happened, and I don't think it will. Some people just love a blank canvas. Others don't.

I said early on that the success of this blog would in capturing the audience that already exists for hard-core, inside-the-festival coverage. But what's the metric for that?

I don't know yet, but I'm starting to really look for it. The festival's largest venue seats just 2,734. Another seats about 750, a couple seat around 500. Sold-out shows are a rarity.

If I had to guess (and I've not been able to get any marketing figures from the festival yet to confirm this), I'd say that the core audience for Spoleto and Spoletoblog, including the artists themselves, is probably less than 2,000 people. To that I would add a small number of arts enthusiasts and arts management professionals who do not attend the festival, but might want to monitor it.

But how many of those 2,000 people are computer users? One of the striking lessons for me has been the difficulty people have had navigating the Typepad interface, even with my instructions. Not only that, but even people my own age have reported confusion when it comes to leaving comments. If you're used to blogging, these things are childish, but wake up: This is the experience of the people we're trying to reach and involve. And I don't know how you can make things easier without making them stupid.

Another good indicator of my audience's difficulty with the medium: It's not uncommon for me to have a "thousand-hit day" and collect only one or two outside comments... often left on the "wrong" post. It seems like they'll read one thing, want to comment on it, and then leave it on another post as if one is as good as another.

I attribute this to the average age of my audience, which is, basically, just about the average age of the newspaper reader... maybe a little bit older. My average readers are going to be retired, wealthier than average, educated and generally tentative when it comes to technology. Blogs and websites are not second-nature to this generation.

But that doesn't mean they aren't a great audience. This is an audience you want to find, attract, encourage and nourish. I don't give up on this generation as blog readers because I think they're interested in topics that work well on blogs. The trick will be in helping them negotiate the move to a new medium. And maybe that's a change that newspaper publishers aren't interested in encouraging.

Janet also pointed out that many of the people who are the audience for Spoleto are out-of-towners, people staying in hotels. How many of them brought laptops? How many will pay of highspeed access? How many have built-in wifi and know where the hotspots are?

In the future, I think the way we deal with the out-of-town audience is to market the blog as essential reading before they come to Charleston. For instance, if you live in Greenville and don't read the Charleston paper, you don't know to check Spoletoblog for coverage before you drive down, and while you're here, you don't have a computer.

Once I've factored all of this in, our traffic starts to look pretty healthy.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Spoletoblog does something cool...

Spoletoblog has been building a nice little audience over the past five days (more than 1,000 hits a day since Saturday). But what makes me happy about it is that we're already demonstrating the medium's natural ability to tackle the kinds of issues that tend to choke traditional newspapers.

For instance: Our print edition has chosen not to address the controversy over a risque scene in Mabou Mines "DollHouse," director Lee Breuer's avant-garde adaptation of Ibsen's "A Doll's House." Breuer cast "little people" in the domineering male roles and 6-footers for the female parts, an obvious political pun which drew all sorts of interest.when the play premiered in New York.

What drew not a mention from the New York press was that Breuer also included a simulated fellatio scene that, though short, was also funny and appropriate in the context of the absurdist staging and adult themes.

When word got out about the scene down here, editors assigned one of our reporters to investigate it. The reporter filed a story, but editors chose not to run it. I invited two separate editors to blog on the topic or the decision; they didn't.

After an unsuccessful preview performance of the play on Thursday, the Spoleto festival's director (Nigel Redden) received critical phone calls about the fellatio scene. He related this to Breuer, his good friend, but made it clear he was not asking for the scene to be removed. Breuer, however, removed the scene on his own, out of respect for Redden.

This caused quite a bit of buzz around town... which showed up not only in our blog, but also in our competitor's blog. One of our contributors wrote an impassioned post about it. None of this appeared in newsprint. (June 1, 15:55 Editor's note: This is incorrect. The print edition publishes a daily "Buzz from the Blog" column, which I compile every evening. I'd run short excerpts from posts and comments about the controversy on the 30th and 31st, so while the print edition had not assigned or published any stories on the issue, it had been mentioned in print via a summary of blog coverage. dc)

This morning, one of our blog authors (Mindy Spar) told me that she had run into Breuer at the theater before last night's performance and asked him "Why?" He laid it out for her (as explained above). Then, the news: "Lee next told me that he had heard that there was a blog saying to put the scene back in and that people had been commenting here and other places that the play should not be tampered with so in last night's performance it was back in."

And voila.

It didn't require the involvement of the print edition, which is -- to be absolutely blunt about it -- hamstrung by the sensibilities and expectations of its readers. It didn't require the mobilization of a huge online audience. It didn't require meetings and phone calls to lawyers, and nobody had to set any profound policies.

As Mindy and I discussed, you unlock the power of this medium by breaking down the traditional walls dividing subject, observer and audience. It wasn't necessary that the audience be a mass audience -- the mass audience isn't interested in Spoleto in the first place and wouldn't care about "DollHouse" EXCEPT for the fact that it would want to argue over the appropriateness of simulated fellatio on stage. The two local festival blogs opened this up to the people who actually cared, and let them have their say. In the end, this word reached the artists, and a mistake was corrected.

Because Spoletoblog is linked to the paper's website and its print edition, it must be respectful of the print edition's limitations and standards. We reflect them in everything we do. But we would be missing the boat if we applied the same policies and approaches to our blog content that editors apply to the print edition. Different mediums require different ways of thinking, as broadcast learned when television emerged out of radio in the 1940s and 1950s.

This will be a tricky road to walk, and each outfit will have to walk it to learn it. But I think that success begins in the same place that it began for our print edition forebears: Understand your audience, and serve it.