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Friday, April 27, 2007

The story behind the Swanson post

Since our blog is new, I thought I would provide you with a little of the back story on our post asking for comments on the two deputies leaving at Attorney General Lori Swanson's office.

Around the start of April or so, the Minnesota Lawyer staff began hearing ruminations about potential morale issues at both the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Attorney General's Office. We started looking into both of these potential stories, but U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose's three deputies stepped down from their leadership positions before we were able to do anything about those reports -- and a blitz of media coverage on that story ensued.

We heard rumors of a unionization attempt, a large number of departures and personnel-related issues at the AG's Office. However, no one in the office would step forward. The only information we could get on the AG's staff issues was not anything even near being on the record. Minnesota Lawyer staff reporter Dan Heilman spearheaded the investigation, trying to quietly get confirmation of the story and substantiate the facts through various sources. However, he kept running into a wall. Although we knew it would be a tip off to the AG's Office that he was working on something, Dan ultimately decided to make a Data Practices Act request to get information on all the staff departures that had occurred since Swanson became AG. That request is still pending.

Meanwhile, with the launch of our blog, I decided to try to grease the wheels a bit by putting up a post that might encourage some folks to come forward if they had verifiable information about the issues at the AG's Office. For the same reason we could not run the story in Minnesota Lawyer, I did not want to put any of the unverified rumors that we heard into our post. I felt this would be irresponsible reporting. Instead, I devised a post using the one verified fact that we had -- i.e. that Swanson's two deputies had left.

In the post ("A Double Standard?"), I queried why "nary a word" had been said in the general media about Swanson's deputies departing while Paulose was the subject of a barrage of coverage. Adding controversy into the mix, I asked if their differing political persuasions might have had a role in the disparate coverage. (Swanson is a DFLer; Paulose is a Republican.) I figured we would get four or five posts out of it, but that one might be a strong enough lead to verify the story for our newspaper.

But the conservative blogs such as Power Line and Minnesota Democrats Exposed loved the angle of the media pursuing a Republican U.S. attorney over a managerial situation, but not evidencing any interest in a possible managerial situation at the office of an AG who happened to be a DFLer. The conservative blogs gave the post prominent play and out it went all over the blogosphere. Meanwhile, CJ at the Star Tribune became aware of the posting and gave me a call. CJ ran a little item in her column about the post. I mentioned in CJ's column that we wanted comments about the transition at the AG's Office. (Kudos to CJ for being the only person in the general media to pick up on this! A move over to news, perhaps?)

Once it became known through these various sources we were looking for information on our blog, we got a slew of anonymous comments. Several were addressed at me accusing me of having a political agenda (presumably conservative) and of trying to do a hatchet job on Swanson. Then many more anonymous comments repeating some of the rumors that we had already heard about the AG's Office, but giving us no more information than we already had. None of the comments gave us verifiable information.

Suddenly we started getting a bunch of posts from assistant AGs affirming their support of Swanson. It looked like some of these posts were being orchestrated. We wondered why anyone would bother orchestrating a campaign for a simple blog debate. The posts were coming in fast and furious at a rate I never would have anticipated. However, they began getting repetitive and were providing no useful information. Once we passed 40 or so on Thursday morning, we closed the post to further comments.

A few hours later during a routine press conference on another matter, Swanson suddenly found herself fielding unrelated questions from reporters about some of the very concerns that had been raised by posters on this blog. It was then that she confirmed that at least 25 employees had left her office since January. The fact that employees at the AG's Office are trying to unionize also was confirmed. (Follow-up reports are confirming a major morale issue exists in the office.) The Pioneer Press reporter who contacted me was kind enough to let me know that our blog was all the buzz at the press conference.

We are happy for what assistance we offered in bringing this to light so that the situation can be properly addressed. The entire Minnesota Lawyer editorial staff had a hand and input into this unique collaboration between print and electronic journalism, so kudos to Dan, associate editors Barbara Jones and Michelle Lore and Special Sections editor Michael Krieger.

Thanks to all the posters on this blog. We are sorry that we could only give you limited information about why we were seeking your input, but it would not have been responsible journalism for us to have reported unsubstantiated rumors on such important issues.

In any event, we look forward to continuing to serve you with this blog and our regular print publication, Minnesota Lawyer, in the future. We hope you make this -- our new blog -- a regular destination.

1 comment:

Ed Kohler said...

Great job leveraging the wisdom of crowds.