Out in cyberspace, looking in

For 60 years, the Capitol Correspondents Association has been charged with deciding which reporters should be sanctioned to cover the California Legislature. But a new set of bylaws aimed at restricting the access of partisan bloggers has set off a mini-firestorm within the Capitol, as California aims to become the first state in the nation to set out specific rules over how and whether bloggers should be credentialed.

The new rules — the final decision was reached Wednesday following a 34-3 vote by the Association’s members — require that reporters must get at least half of their earned income from media jobs, including self-employment, and that those employers be identified on the credentialing application. There are conflict-of-interest provisions, and a deliberate falsehood on the application is grounds for revoking the credential. The Association believes the new rules dealing with the electronic media will ease professional bloggers’ Capitol access.

Membership does have it’s privileges. Reporters gain direct access to the floors of both houses, get face time with lawmakers, can mingle with the staffs of the legislators and the committees, and are on the inside watching in real time as policy and politics and power unfold–and unravel. Print and wire reporters, editorial writers, TV reporters, radio reporters, columnists, newsletter reporters, magazine writers, still and action photographers–all carry those laminated photo IDs authorized by the Legislature’s Joint Rules Committee, acting on the Association’s recommendations.

Traditionally dominated by print reporters, the Association gradually has absorbed other journalistic disciplines into its family. Radio, television, alternative magazines and newspapers, and newsletters all have joined the club over time as each new category was subjected to scrutiny as real newsies.

But the explosion of bloggers has left the association searching for a test of what makes a real journalist.

Like their predecessors, the credentialing dispute reflects tensions between the established media and the new media–of acceptance and credibility–as much as access to the Capitol. The clash is inevitable because the established media make the decision.

“We decided as a board that the Internet age was upon us, and it was long overdue to set some kind of criteria for bloggers,” said Steve Geissinger, the Association president and a reporter for MediaNews and the Oakland Tribune. The newly proposed rules are largely the same as the earlier ones, but the revised criteria include the income test, which some bloggers see simply as an exclusionary device to keep them at bay and protect the perks of old media.

“I applaud them for thinking that the electronic media is important, but I don’t think they wrote these rules with the goal of integrating bloggers into the Press Corps. If anything, they are more of an impediment than before,” said Jon Fleischman, the Republican author of the Flash Report political blog. As an official of the state Republican Party, Fleischman would not be eligible for credentialing under existing rules anyway.

Some 157 journalists are credentialed to cover the Legislature. About 235 journalists–including many who also have the legislative credential–are officially accredited by the governor’s office to cover Schwarzenegger, a process that includes a background and police check. The Senate does not have its own credential; it relies on the governor’s.

None are bloggers, except for those connected to newspaper sites such as the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others.

There wasn’t exactly a crush of bloggers seeking credentialing. But one who did was Oakland-based attorney Frank Russo, a Democrat and author of the California Progress Report. Russo was credentialed last year through the speaker’s office and sought to renew the credential for 2007, but he was unable to.

When asked why his application was rejected, Russo said: “It beats the heck out of me. When I submitted my application on January 3, I complied with the Joint Rules. I just don’t think it’s right that you should have to wait two months and then have the rules changed on you.” Russo says that few bloggers actually make money off their blogs, thus eliminating them in an income test.

“Frank Russo gets his butt out of the chair and goes out and reports,” said Robert Salladay, who runs the Los Angeles Times’ political blog, Political Muscle. “Our main task is news gathering. Legitimate bloggers should be engaged, which means picking up the phone, going to events and reporting.”

Geissinger declined to discuss Russo. He said, however, “that it all started with the application of a single blogger, and because of that the board decided to tackle the issue head-on.”

“There should be some mechanism that separates hobbyists from professionals. We look at income as one of those mechanisms,” said J Dale Debber, the head of Providence Publications, which publishes newsletters on worker safety and workers’ compensation insurance. “Left, right, blue, red–the political stripe is not the issue here. The issue is purely one of professional or not professional. We are making new rules here–this has never been done before,” added Debber, who is a member of the Association’s board. Debber also is a former employer of the author of this article.

The heavy lifting on the rules came from BNA Capitol reporter Laura Mahoney, the Association’s secretary-treasurer. “This is a way to make sure we get a credential to people who need access to do their jobs,” she said. “It goes together with the other rules dealing with who covers the Capitol. They exist through the Joint Rules Committee, the Association is an organization that is an advisory body under the Joint Rules Committee.”

The income threshold–a test that was adopted after others were considered and discarded–is intended to make sure that professional reporters get access, and others don’t.

“[Reporters] perceived some kind of a threat from people not affiliated with news organizations to cover the Legislature. We wanted to develop some kind of a standard,” said Steve Maviglio, a deputy chief of staff to Assembly Speaker Fabian N

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