There's an interesting discussion going on locally about who constitutes the press, and whether a blog with a readership of 10 people should have the same access to government meetings as a major newspaper with a readership of millions.
Over at Minnesota Independent, Paul Schmelzer breaks the story of House Majority Leader Tony Sertich's reluctance to grant bloggers access to the House floor. A local blogger argues that limiting access based on medium is unconstitutional:
"He's got a fundamental flaw in his understanding of the Bill of Rights," said Shawn Towle. "It's not for government to decide what is media ... [or] to in any way, shape or form try to limit, box in or impede anybody that wants to have the right to scrutinize, analyze and comment upon the activities of elected officials. They do have the ability to limit who has access to the floor of their body, ... but they should have a universal rule about the treatment of all press, whether it's print, broadcast or online. I'm fighting for equal treatment."
It's a passionate, well-written argument, but one that ignores certain practical realities. How many people can fit in the room? And what happens when the Star Tribune gets squeezed out by an agenda-driven news source with a limited, partisan audience?
David Brauer chimes in to note that the dailies themselves are cutting back on covering public meetings, so there may be extra room for some new faces. He also addresses the practical considerations:
So what's a good, rational standard that reasonably controls floor access and objectively discriminates? Stratify by audience size? Ban any whiff of partisan leanings? Mandate everyone sign in blood the Society for Professional Journalists' ethics code?
Brauer even invites his readers to vote on which of several local media organizations should be granted press credentials.
I think the answer can be simplified: Set the bar based on circulation, whether in print or online. Those organizations that serve the largest readerships are proxy to more citizens-- which is the purpose of the press in these meetings to begin with--and therefore should be given the most consideration.
This also eliminates the need to whack the hornet's nest by delving into partisanship and professionalism. The readers are the best judge, and websites that are skewing the facts out of partisanship or routinely violating the basic tenets of journalism will fail to muster the critical mass to cross the threshold and gain access (Fox News, excepted).
Now all that remains is to decide how low to set that threshold: 10,000 weekly pageviews? 100,000? The easiest way would be to see how many seats there are, and how many new orgs are vying for entry, and set the cutoff at the point that you run out of press passes. I would think this would be low enough to allow access for the Uptake and Minnpost, but high enough to disqualify the lone, ideologically driven whacko behind the fictional www.anybody.com, in the memorable language of House Majority Leader Tony Sertich.