UpTake uproar: Citizen journalists get the cold shoulder

"This is about us being able to provide a faster service in a new media world than they're able to," says the UpTake's Jason Barnett
Jayme Halbritter

Let's start with a seemingly obvious question: What is a journalist?

Twenty years ago, the answer would have been easy. Not so in an era when the gates are open to anyone with a camera to wield and an ax to grind. More to the point: Who gets to decide? A recent dispute at the state Capitol has many wondering.

In one corner we have St. Paul-based watchdog website the UpTake. The all-volunteer staff pride themselves on being an invaluable, if untraditional, journalism outfit. Launched in early 2007 in anticipation of the Republican National Convention, the UpTake has carved out a niche as a sort of indie C-SPAN. The site's round-the-clock live streaming of the Coleman-Franken recount earned widespread praise.

So when the Minnesota Department of Administration asked if they'd like to lease a recently vacated space in the Capitol's pressroom, the crew jumped at the opportunity. They already had a storage unit in their name, and this gave them a chance to get closer to the action, improve their coverage, and bolster their credibility.

But their soon-to-be roommates were less than thrilled at the prospects of sharing their already cramped space. Behind the scenes, a backlash brewed.

Leading the charge was the Rochester Post-Bulletin. Its editor in chief, Mike Dougherty, wrote a letter urging bureaucrats to banish the UpTake from the press area. He argued that the UpTake's partisan progressive presence "compromises the efforts of all the media in that complex that have built their reputations over time" and worried that the UpTake rabble would steal his reporters' scoops and tweet them in real time.

"The media we represent are very different than the UpTake, and we hope you will address our concerns by not allowing them to lease space in our current office or within the current press corps complex," wrote Dougherty. "We believe our concerns are shared by other news media organizations."

On March 25, UpTake executive director Jason Barnett received a letter from the Department of Administration. He read it in stunned disbelief. The lease had been rescinded. The UpTake could either accept the amended terms or fight the decision and risk losing its storage space. What was particularly odd was the timing—Barnett had just signed the lease yesterday.

Jim Schwartz, the Department of Administration's communications director, says he's not in a position to define who constitutes the working press.

"It's difficult if not impossible for us to decide who's a legitimate journalist and who's not," he says. "We decided to proceed as it was previously."

Dougherty didn't return phone calls requesting comment, but Post-Bulletin managing editor Jay Furst downplays his paper's beef with the citizen journalists.

"I want to make clear that I think the UpTake is a fantastic organization," he says. "We just had questions about how that very limited space should be allocated.... Whether they're journalists or not is not something I'm prepared to debate."

It wasn't just the Post-Bulletin clamoring. Through a Data Practices Act request of emails to Capitol officials, Barnett and executive producer Mike McIntee discovered that others were demanding more clear-cut guidelines too, including Mary Lahammer, political reporter for Twin Cities Public Television and host of Almanac: At the Capitol.

It came as a revelation for Barnett and McIntee. They had to do a better job of ingratiating themselves with their colleagues. They arranged a meeting with the Capitol press corps in early April. In a small committee room, they explained the UpTake's mission to the assembled press. By and large, they won the room over, including Lahammer.

"I walked away from that meeting feeling that we needed to clarify our position," says Lahammer. "I wanted to make it clear, and management agreed, that we were neither opposing nor supporting the UpTake. There was a lot of confusion initially, with a brewing witch hunt, but that meeting really clarified things."

Soon after the meeting, the Department of Administration announced it would conduct a "policy review" of all press credentials, though Schwartz remains unforthcoming as to when the inquiry will conclude and what, if any, shake-ups could result.

Meanwhile, the Republican blog Minnesota Democrats Exposed announced it, too, will be applying for Capitol press credentials before the start of the next legislative session, which begins January 2011.

"The UpTake is a blatantly partisan organization," says Luke Hellier, the blog's main contributor. "We're all for free press, but if they're going to have it open to the UpTake, then they have to have it open for everybody."

Last week, rather than waging a protracted legal battle, Barnett and McIntee signed a lease accepting the old terms: no space in the pressroom, but they'll keep their storage cabinet. And while Barnett acknowledges the UpTake's left-leaning bent, he doesn't think that disqualifies them from doing good journalism.

"We're more interested in providing transparency than upholding some myth of objectivity," he says. "The First Amendment was designed to protect pamphleteers, not quote-unquote 'objective' news organizations."  

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