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New Ethics for Local News Sites

SOC Rules of the Road J-lab report

Local news entrepreneurs are confronting daily ethical challenges involving the power of search engines, use of social media, competition over publishing police reports, and the separation of business and editorial functions at their community news sites, according to a new J-Lab report released today.

"'Rules of the Road: Navigating the New Ethics of Local Journalism' unpacks specifically how 15 local news site operators have crafted tough ethical decisions in a landscape where standard journalistic codes of ethics often don't suffice," said J-Lab director Jan Schaffer.

These news entrepreneurs must adapt their ethics to new realities where the threshold for news is lower, search-engine juice is powerful, competition for micro news is heating up, stories unravel in real time, and local news consumers don't hesitate to hold their local news sites accountable.

"Where a bright ethical line once separated a newsroom from its business operations, one news entrepreneur now often wears multiple hats – as editor, business manager and grants writer," Schaffer said.

"Rules of the Road" was written for J-Lab by Scott Rosenberg, co-founder of Salon.com and founder of MediaBugs.org, a service for correcting problems and errors in media coverage. "The pioneers of the new local news online space grapple with tensions between running a business and serving the public, telling collective truths and protecting individual privacy, witnessing events and advocating causes," Rosenberg said. "But on the web, they're operating with few traditions and rules and more confusingly blurred boundaries."

Fifteen site operators and one digital ethicist candidly discuss dilemmas they've confronted and they solutions they've reached. The good news, Schaffer said, is that the internal compasses of community news site founders are working well. Indeed, many actually draw more stringent rules for behavior than traditional news organizations do.

J-Lab commissioned the report based on its deep experience in funding and observing the rise of local community news sites. "Rules of the Road" was funded by the Ethics and Excellence Journalism Foundation. It is available online at j-lab.org/ethics, where users are invited to share their ethical problems and solutions. Hard copies can be purchased for $10 at rulesoftheroad.eventbrite.com.

J-Lab, a center of American University's School of Communication, is a journalism catalyst for igniting news ideas that work. It funds pilot projects, awards innovations and shares practical insights from years of working with news creators and evolving news ecosystems.