A couple of week’s ago, PJnet pointed out the new experiment from the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times. In essence, the paper is attempting to ride the wave of “particpatory journalism” whose boundaries may or may not include blogging by inviting readers to join the ranks of the published. This is how Dave Russell, an editorial page editor, put it:

The AC-T is about halfway through our year with this round of citizen journalists (we call them local columnists), and so far, I’d have to say it has been an overwhelming success. Selecting them was wonderfully grueling; one of the hardest things Editorial Page Editor Joy Franklin has ever asked me to be part of.

About 40 people submitted material to us. All four of us here in the editorial corner read each piece and picked eight, then we got together and talked and talked about it. I think we had so many good candidates that we could have picked eight different people out of that 40 and still had a group with similar talent.

Interesting concept, I thought. But the paper is still acting as a gatekeeper — deciding which columnists see print. I suggested, in a comment on the PJnet board, that the paper publish all 40 entries on their Web site and let readers decide which ones should make newsprint. In an email to Dave, I expanded my thoughts:

Most of the bloggers I read believe that the media carefully shape the message that they deliver and they (the bloggers) resent this power. As for a former newspaperman, I know that I have used (and even abused, honestly) this power myself. By embracing these changes, you’d be the first newspaper to take this criticism seriously and actually do something about it.

He promptly responded:

The answer is “time.” The eight local columnists (there are 10, actually; two were hand-picked by by our publisher) we selected submit items that we must fact-check, work to AP style, etc. Just as in print, we are liable for slander and libel on our Web site … My editor holds everything we put on the Web site to the same standards as our 150-year-old print product. We just wouldn’t have time to wade through that much type.

An understandable reason for trepidation. I suggested that perhaps the 40 local columnists could be located behind a firewall and disclaimer that would release the publisher from liability — although that sounds like a murky legal area. (I’m taking a graduate-level media law class in the fall, perhaps we’ll discuss this subject.) Dave’s response:

Eventually, I want to establish a “blog ring” around our editorial pages that we would link to from our Web site to allow differing opinions on our content. My editors are older than me and you (probably much older than you; not-so-older than me) and are very cautious about these sorts of things. We’ll see.

That sounds like a great idea. Wouldn’t take much for a newspaper to add a few blog links to their pages — except the tacit admission that they no longer hold the monopoly on the printed word. That’s a tough sell for many in the business.