Beware of blog

Louisville’s media odd couple splits, stirring an online controversy

Oct 7, 2009 at 5:00 am

Long before mainstream news organizations mentioned Robert Felner — the former University of Louisville dean now charged with money laundering — Page One Kentucky was doggedly reporting on the scandal. Under the editorial control of Jacob Payne, the online news blog probed university officials for answers and exposed hundreds of pages of documents related to the matter. Also helping shed light on what would eventually spiral into a full-blown federal investigation was Rick Redding, the man formerly behind The ’Ville Voice, the sister website to Page One.

Over the past three years, the two — doing business as Full Signal Media — built a formidable pair of news-commentary websites that uncovered stories in politics, media and business that other organizations, quite frankly, either missed or ignored. Though their blog posts were often dotted with the usual gruff associated with online commentary, they offered ample news in addition to being an entertaining read.

All seemed to be going well, that is until Redding abruptly left his post at The ’Ville Voice on Sept. 25 — apparently without talking to his business partner — to begin writing for Louisville Mojo, a social-networking site. Since Redding’s departure, Payne has tried to dodge anonymous criticisms on his own site and to calm at least one investor amid the brewing controversy.

As the business relationship of the two personalities crumbles, Payne — a sharp-tongued blogger who has never minced words when writing about others — finds himself embroiled in the type of controversy he usually is stirring.

Payne did not respond to several requests seeking comment, although he’s made it clear on Page One that he wants to put an end to any public speculation: “If anyone has questions about why Rick no longer writes for The ’Ville Voice, e-mail me privately and we’ll talk,” Payne wrote in a recent post. “I’ll make public comment when I’m good and ready — not before. I will not speak poorly about him.”

In an e-mail message leaked to LEO Weekly, however, Payne outlines several grievances with Redding for local businessman Gill Holland, a Full Signal Media investor. Chief among his complaints is the “childish behavior” he says his former partner exhibited during the split.

“(Rick has) also gone to advertisers and other supporters and been quite negative, which seriously will impact my basic ability to eat,” he writes. “This is my livelihood. It’s not something as simple as running away when things aren’t to one’s liking.”

It seems Payne was not aware that Redding was involved in any discussions with Louisville Mojo, a site trying to remake its image as a little more serious.

Apparently, the deal between Redding and his new employer happened in less than a day, according to Louisville Mojo CEO Keith Ringer. And when Redding publicly announced he was leaving The ’Ville Voice — which he did via Twitter and Facebook — he hadn’t informed Payne.

In a recent telephone interview, Redding told LEO the two still hadn’t spoken since the agreement with Mojo was reached.

“I don’t have any hard feelings,” Redding says about leaving The ’Ville Voice. “I just made a decision to leave that business and move on to something that is better and more exciting.”

It’s a decision he made literally overnight, and without notifying his partner.

“I’m going to be covering a lot of the same stuff I’ve been covering before,” Redding says, eager to talk about something other than his exit from The ’Ville Voice. “Basically (I’ll be covering) what the people who have followed me at The ’Ville Voice have come to expect, know and like. Obviously, I think that they were reading it because of me.”

In the mid-19th century, vocal citizens popularized penny press newspapers by plastering their views on lampposts, doors and billboards. In modern times, blogs have adopted the same technique of unfettered expression.

And although many blogs, like Page One and The ’Ville Voice, have uncovered stories missed by mainstream and other media, they sometimes resort to practices traditional journalists tend to avoid.

The harshest critics contend bloggers are reckless, posting tabloid-style gossip and juicy attacks to get heavier online traffic.

Unlike most blogs, mainstream news outlets are kept under moderate control through editing and strict editorial policies, says Ed Manassah, executive director of the Institute for Media, Culture and Ethics at Bellarmine University.

“I think that anytime you can have the freedom of speaking it adds considerably to the fiber and fabric of a community,” says Manassah, former publisher of The Courier-Journal. “The danger of it all is that if you believe everything that you read in the blog world you come away with a jaundiced view because you may not be seeing reality. But you are seeing expressions by individuals that represent their personal perspective and not institutions.”

Unlike media organizations with an editorial hierarchy, blogger ethics are bound only by the personal perspective of the webmaster in charge.

“I just write what I see as the truth and my opinion,” says Joe Sonka of Barefoot & Progressive, a Lexington-based blog that focuses on state politics. “If people don’t respect it, then they don’t respect it. I really don’t care if they don’t.”

Local and state blogs have gone through many phases over the years, with most failing due to a lack of time, money and energy, says Sonka, adding that Payne has been the only area blogger he knows to have built a truly independent online media business.

Like their penny press ancestors, the bloggers that thrive have captured an audience and produced reliable content. It is what has earned The ’Ville Voice and Page One the reputation as viable news sources, even though the sites sometimes serve as a platform for personal attacks.

Page One hasn’t shied away from lampooning public officials or jabbing other members of the media. Over the years Payne has thrown more than a few cheap shots, referring to opponents as “whiny ass titty babies” on more than one occasion. He has also published private e-mails from reporters and a city employee with whom he has clashed.

Observers question whether the media entrepreneur can trade in such acerbic commentary, which has certainly gained him notoriety while sometimes overshadowing real and substantial reporting. In the wake of this recent public split, Payne has promised the website will expand and be better in the end; if that’s the case, perhaps his online news- and-views outlet will survive.