“Our terms of service clearly say that bloggers are not allowed to use their blogs for their financial, material, or political gain,” Ronzio said. “We do expect them to adhere to basic journalistic standards, but there is a line between what the bloggers do and what the BDN does, and yeah, it’s part of that new-media ecosystem, with non-traditional content for newspapers and that sort of thing. But there’s a net gain for us in hosting these bloggers. From time to time we have to make ‘em own up to what they do, and we do.”
Ronzio added that editors respond to complaints rather than actively policing the blogs, however, and that when it comes to enforcing the rules, they merely “suggest” a redemptive course of action rather than impose one.
Smith seemed to recognize the responsibility that comes with such leeway—“I don’t want to abuse the privilege of posting this blog on the BDN’s website, so I will be giving the issue of conflicts a lot of thought,” he wrote in his follow-up post. But this wasn’t the first time he’d been called out for failing to disclose a conflict.
In a post published before Smith’s mea culpa, local media critic Al Diamon pointed out that earlier admonitions had had no effect:
I’ve had some e-mail correspondence with Smith about this issue over the years, since I’ve pointed out his ethical shortcomings again and again and again. It’s plain from his responses that he doesn’t consider his business relationships with companies he writes about—several of them sponsor his website, in effect paying him to say nice things about them—to rise to the level of requiring disclosure.
The links in Diamon’s post lead to complaints he’s made over the last two years about conflicts of interest in Smith’s writing for Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel, none of which seem to have elicited any form of correction. Yet when I asked about Diamon’s latest criticism, Smith readily admitted, “He was right, and it’s not the first time he’s been on me about it.”
Smith said he tries to be attentive to the need for disclosure, not only in his articles about wind power, but also in his writing about policy issues related to fishing, hunting, and other forms of outdoor recreation in Maine. “I was a lobbyist at the legislature for 20 years, and I’m still very involved in covering the legislature, so I try to keep it in mind,” he said, referring to his time at the Sportsman’s Alliance.
Still, both he and Ronzio fell back on the argument that people in Maine “know” him and are familiar with his background. But the Web is flat, and with so much “non-traditional content” floating around, transparency is more important than ever.
*Clarification: The original version of this article referred to Michael Dowd as the editor-in-chief of Bangor Daily News because he is still listed as such on the paper’s website, and he did not clarify his position when first contacted about Smith.