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A Victory for Online Journalism

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Mayor Mike Bloomberg has finally done the right -- and democratic -- thing in reversing a previous boneheaded decision by the New York Police Department to deny official 'working press' passes to reporters from online or nontraditional news outlets - such as this one!

The turnabout came as a result of a lawsuit filed by three such reporters; Rafael Martinez Alequin, Ralph E. Smith and David Wallis. There was never any real doubt that all were "legitimate" reporters. Wallis, for example, had been issued a valid NYPD press identification card for many years, beginning in 1994. He is a noted journalist whose articles have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and numerous other prominent publications, and is also well known as the founder of featurewell.com, a professional syndication service that provides news coverage to 1,500 publications worldwide. (Disclosure: Featurewell has syndicated many of my blog posts and articles in the past.) Smith is publisher of The Guardian Chronicle, a Web site for black law enforcement workers, and Martinez Alequin published The Brooklyn Free Press for years, followed by the online New York City Free Press and then the blog Your Free Press. All were credentialed as working journalists by the NYPD until 2007, when they were suddenly deemed illegitimate and denied press passes without explanation. As a direct result, their ability to engage in professional activities was hampered, which may well have been the aim. The New York Times has identified Martinez Alequin, for example, as "a longtime City Hall gadfly" and "persona non grata in City Hall."

As I wrote in November 2008:

"the decision to hold back official recognition of his role as a journalist is blatantly stupid... Why is the Mayor opening himself up to charges that police permits are denied to journalists who may have viewpoints considered controversial? Is the problem perhaps that Martinez Alequin has been insufficiently reverential of powerful politicians? (He once angered [Mayor Rudy] Giuliani by noting that the NYPD was "trigger-happy when it comes to blacks and Latinos," and was later publicly chastised by the current mayor for referring to his autobiography "Bloomberg by Bloomberg" as "Bloomberg on Bloomberg." Whatever!) In any event, Martinez Alequin has it right when he says, "There are many questions that have to be asked to the mayor or to any elected official that I think the mainstream media very seldom asks."

After exhausting other means of appeal, the "New York Three" literally made a federal case out of it, filing a lawsuit asserting that the NYPD violated their constitutional rights and contending that the city's regulations governing press credentialing were "unconstitutionally vague."

This week they won. The City of New York settled with them and announced proposed new rules for issuing press passes to members of the media. If adopted by the Police Department, as is likely, the new rules will modernize the City's credentialing system to reflect the recent seismic changes to the media industry and, for the first time, will expressly include online-only media such as blogs.

"This is a press credentialing system for the online age that can serve as a model for governments around the country," said Administrative Law Division Chief Gabriel Taussig. "The rules were drafted in a collaborative process with input from numerous interested participants."

Chief among those "interested participants," of course, are Wallis, Smith and Martinez Alequin. "We have streamlined and improved New York City's Rules for press credentials," said Norman Siegel, their attorney in the lawsuit. "The new rules will enable journalists to gather and report news in a more successful manner than before. Online journalists will now be considered as 21st century journalists and be treated equally to print, television and radio journalists."

Perhaps this decision will finally put an end to one of the longest running (and frankly dumbest) debates in the history of modern media: "Are bloggers journalists?" There can be no doubt that people like David Wallis, Rafael Martinez Alequin, and Ralph E. Smith are practicing journalism -- and that makes them, de facto, practicing journalists. Nuff said?

Note: A public comment period on the proposed new rules extends through April 7, 2010. On that day, a hearing on the rules, open to the public, will be held at Police Headquarters in Lower Manhattan.