Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
(08-19) 18:27 PDT -- After Josh Wolf took a job as a general assignment reporter at the Palo Alto Daily Post last month, he had some choice words for critics who've questioned his claim of being a journalist.
"If the haters who said I wasn't a real journalist, are still lurking," Wolf wrote on his blog, "I hope you don't have too much indigestion after eating your words.' "
Wolf, 26, is the San Francisco video blogger who in 2006 began a 226-day stint in federal prison for contempt after refusing to testify before a grand jury and hand over a videotape of a protest against a G-8 summit he filmed in the Mission District in which a police officer was injured.
At the time, Wolf was harshly criticized by some mainstream journalists who suspected that the self-described "anarchist and activist" was a participant rather than an impartial news gatherer. In a court filing, U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan dismissed Wolf as someone who needed "to come to grips with the fact that he was simply a person with a video camera who happened to record some public events."
The case helped fuel the debate over the definition of what constitutes journalism - in an age of blog posts and video uploads by noncredentialed amateurs - and who is entitled to press protections, specifically journalists' ability to maintain the confidentiality of an unnamed source or unpublished material. For now, Wolf said the debate concerning his professional status can be put to rest.
"I felt like it was an irrelevant argument before," Wolf said. "But it feels like it's much harder for them to make their point now that it's how I earn my paycheck."
From blog to print
The shift from only a blogger to a just-the-facts reporter at a 16,500-circulation newspaper may seem counterintuitive at a time when newspapers and their staffs are shrinking.Yet Wolf enjoys the lot of a small-town cub reporter at a traditional local newspaper, which doesn't even maintain a Web site. At the Palo Alto Daily Post, he files 10 to 15 stories a week written in standard newspaper style, devoid of personal analysis, and most of his stories are only a few hundred words long and fail to include what Wolf calls the "significant nuances" of his reporting."I could write 10,000 words on some stories," Wolf said. "But I think it's understood you're trying to get the facts of the story a reader can easily understand, and no story is free of minute details that are also important."
For the Aug. 7 edition of the Post, Wolf penned items for the police blotter ("First block of Embarcadero: Six windows were reported broken at 10:59 a.m."), wrote a lead-up to the county fair (Headline: "Cattle Drive Means it's County Fair Time") and a short item on a homeless woman who was charged with writing threats to a police officer. (Wolf had to use dashes in the family newspaper to convey the offensive word she used.)
Dave Price, the publisher and editor of the Post, said he first met Wolf after trying to dispatch a reporter for a prison interview with him in 2006. After Wolf's release in April 2006, Price said he wanted to meet "the legend among journalists" and, after a short trial period during which Wolf wrote a few stories, offered him a staff job.
Price said Wolf has displayed an ability to work as a traditional reporter, seeking out multiple sources and not allowing personal views to seep into his copy.
"That's how you have to operate in this business," Price said, who launched the paper in May to compete with Palo Alto Daily News, owned by the Denver chain MediaNews Group. "And he's shown he can do that."
Wolf got his first taste of reporting when he worked on his school paper at Serrano High School in Southern California. He wrote news briefs for the weekly Santa Barbara Independent during college and worked at Peralta Community College as a video producer before he collected his infamous video footage.
Activist or reporter?
Christine Tatum, former president of the Society of Professional Journalists, who led many of the discussions in 2006 about whether Wolf should receive the national group's support and financial backing, said debates centered on Wolf's description of himself on his blog as an anarchist and activist, not a reporter.
"We didn't see 'journalist' in that (description), and that made us wonder, 'Were we getting behind a guy who was not there to gather news but who was involved (in the protests)?' " Tatum said. "I can't speak for Josh, but there was this thinking going around at the time, 'Oh, man, down with the mainstream media.' Yet, it was the mainstream media who was right there to help Josh out."
Tatum said her group ultimately supported Wolf, making its largest donation ever of $31,000 to support his legal defense, after agreeing that his actions - gathering information for the intent to distribute it - constituted an act of journalism. "There are very few easy poster children for good causes of journalism," Tatum said, noting that every high-profile case, such as those involving Judith Miller and BALCO, has its areas of gray. "It's less important for people to debate who is a journalist and more important for people to consider: Is it journalism?"
Forging a new rep
Even though the debate played out in newspaper columns and blogs and continues at length on Wolf's Wikipedia discussion page where users haggle over his reputation - "If his only journalistic quality is that he runs around with a camera and films stuff, then a whole lot of teenagers can be considered journalists," wrote one anonymous user - the question of professional status was irrelevant in federal court, said David Greene of Oakland's First Amendment Project, one of Wolf's attorneys.
Because shield laws that protect journalists from being forced to submit to subpoena power and turn over sources do not exist at the federal level, Wolf's official job title was of little consequence.
To gain his release, Wolf and his attorneys eventually struck a deal in which he aired the entire videotape on his Web site but avoided testifying before a grand jury about his material. (He also had to declare he did not know who was involved in injuring the police officer.)
Since his release, Wolf has worked as a video producer and a volunteer reporter at the Berkeley radio station KPFA. He also unsuccessfully ran for mayor of San Francisco in 2007, though he said that was "to make a statement" against the status quo and Mayor Gavin Newsom.
He's also working on a side project, a live video news site called Local Live, where users will be alerted to updates via Twitter, a social networking site that limits exchanges to short posts, text messages or e-mail alerts. Wolf envisions Local Live cameramen will receive texts from viewers, who will then be able to relay the queries at a press conference or a breaking news event.
But for now, though still blogging, Wolf is honing his chops in a medium that began in 1605.
"The fact is that all journalism is based on solid writing," Wolf said. "And there is no better place to practice the fundamentals of journalism than at a local daily newspaper."
More on Josh Wolf
-- To follow Josh Wolf on Twitter: twitter.com/joshwolf
-- To visit his personal Web site: joshwolf.net
E-mail Justin Berton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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