As I Lay Clicking

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By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, July 25, 2005; 8:57 AM

Sometimes when I report a story, I call a source and ask for a quote, only to have the source reply, "Will this run in The Washington Post or only on the Internet?"

A few, usually guard dogs for the political power elite, decide that it's not worth their boss's time when I say the story will be "online-only."

Come back with a dead tree and we'll talk, in other words.

This August marks the seven-year anniversary of my career as an Internet journalist. Some of the stories I wrote ran in The Washington Post newspaper, but most were exclusive to washingtonpost.com.

I don't pretend to be a Bob Woodward, or a Gene Weingarten, but working for The Post imprimatur, print or otherwise, means that pretty much the same audience will read all our work. So what's the difference?

Sorry, folks, I can't answer that question. But I can tie it to the most interesting feature story I read all weekend. Some of you might have heard about it already: United Airlines, sponsor of the annual Faux Faulkner (and Faux Hemingway) competition, decided that it won't run the short story by this year's winner in its in-flight magazine "Hemispheres."

The winning entry in question was submitted by Sam Apple, a 29-year-old writer for Nerve magazine in New York. He wrote a parody a la William Faulkner of the Bush White House called "The Administration and the Fury," which the Associated Press explained this way: "The story portrays President Bush in the role of Benjy, the mentally challenged son -- or, as Faulkner himself said, the 'idiot' -- in his 1929 novel ["The Sound and the Fury"] about the wreckage of a Southern family."

The story will run online, but that hasn't prevented the project's organizer (and husband of William Faulkner's niece) from accusing United of censorship. Check this quote from the AP:

"One of the things they asked was that we didn't have profanity or any obvious sexual content. We watch for that. But anything else, like a political subject, was funny, it was parody. ... We felt that that shouldn't be censored," said Larry Wells, who organizes the contest with his wife, Dean Faulkner Wells, Faulkner's niece.

Hemispheres editor Randy Johnson saved me the trouble of rebuttal: "The magazine published The Administration and the Fury only online, he said, because Hemispheres is trying to bring more attention to its Web site. Plus, he said, Apple's parody already had been published earlier this year in the online magazine Slate. 'The number of people who are able to see the Web site completely stands on its head any charge of censorship,' Johnson said. 'We are making it available to millions of people.'"

I can't speak for the magazine's decision to run the story only on the Internet. The reasons that the AP cites sound fishy to me because they don't preclude running the story in the print magazine. I also don't believe that an airline magazine is about to start siphoning the irony-laden intelligentsia away from Salon or the Village Voice Web site.

On the other hand, clever marketing and free press mean that Hemispheres stands a good a chance as any other Web site to see a spike in readership. I hope that happens with the Faulkner competition.


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