The rapid growth of the Internet has changed the way we receive and read news. And, as former Vice-President Al Gore says in a new book, the Internet may be the path to saving American democracy.
We are pleased to have been part of the Internet revolution and how information is provided to federal employees. I have been writing for the federal community for a couple of decades and, since 1997, using the Internet as a way of distributing information – initially with a government human resources company and with FedSmith.com for the past several years.
When I went to work for the federal government, there were several publications I read to keep informed of news for the federal employee. Newsletters and documents such as the Government Employee Relations Report or Mike Causey’s Federal Diary in each daily issue of the Washington Post were automatic reading for most feds living in the Washington, DC area.
With FedSmith.com, our concept was to publish a range of news that captured interesting news items about the federal community.
News can now be provided to the federal workforce without using weekly newsletters that come in the mail. FedSmith delivers a daily newsletter to tens of thousands of readers each business day by e-mail. My agency employers used to pay thousands of dollars a year for subscriptions. That same information is now delivered quicker, often has more depth, it’s faster and it is free to the user.
But people get used to new things. Faster, cheaper, free and easier was unique and we have continued to evolve beyond these initial advantages. Our brilliant, talented webmaster (a completely objective analysis as any parent will tell you) wrote a program several years ago to allow readers to comment on our articles. It has become one of the most popular features of FedSmith.com. As anyone who reads the comments can see, the comments section is a hotbed of democracy as readers can (and do) comment and complain about some issue within most articles that are posted on our site.
It has also been a learning experience. Having been a federal employee for about 15 years and then as a federal contractor, I have a high regard for federal employees and their contributions to society. And, having worked as a co-founder and CEO of a private company, I have experienced the stress of putting my house on the line with a bank to meet a regular payroll and learned how working with federal agency contracts functions in the “real world” as opposed to what you may read in books and manuals.
One of our goals at FedSmith was to avoid becoming a company that survives on government contracts. We are an organization of volunteers. Our goal is to provide daily news items of interest to the federal community without worrying about publishing an article that may offend paying customers. Our site is completely free. Earlier in my career, I quickly learned that a company that lives on government contracts and hopes to stay in business would be foolish to bite the hand that feeds it. An agency is not obligated to contract with a particular company and memories can be long and revenge can be sweet – even within a large, impersonal bureaucracy – when an individual has read a negative news story about his agency.
A critical story about an agency can interest readers but can also cost a company millions of dollars in lost government contracts. It is much more prudent to ignore critical stories. No harm, no foul as the saying goes.
Perhaps because of this philosophy and the different approach used by other publications, we get frequent comments such as: “Why do you run stories that portray federal employees in a negative way?” or “Why does FedSmith run articles that you have to know will irritate your readers because it contains news that you know (or should know) that we don’t like?”
We run news items from local or regional papers you are unlikely to see elsewhere. Federal employees get in trouble. Some of them go to jail. They will occasionally take bribes. They will come up with ways to make money that involve illegal activity. They award contracts to friends or relatives by avoiding legal requirements. Some of them take free public transportation funds and sell them on the Internet. Some are pedophiles.
In other words, federal employees are often no better or worse than the rest of the American taxpayers. I like to think that federal employees commit ethics or legal violations less often than the average American but they also have a greater responsibility to the public and should be held to a higher standard.
In my view, the federal employee who gets in legal trouble is the one who is making the federal workforce look bad. FedSmith may make many people aware of the miscreant’s behavior when we report news for and about the federal workforce. If a child molester is apprehended after running away to Europe to get away from the long arm of the law, and that person is a federal employee (or a former fed by the time the law catches up with him), we will run the story. We don’t worry about losing a government contract or irritating an official who could bankrupt our company by cancelling a big contract.
Another occasional complaint from readers is that we sometimes publish articles “we know our readers will not like.” An example that inevitably brings out this response is any article that discusses federal salary figures with any point of view other than “federal employees are underpaid.”
We think it is desirable to present our readers with points of view that may not be able to read in other trade publications. We are not a cheerleader for the federal workforce and do not function as a union with a primary mission of expanding pay or benefits for a particular group. We do not follow a philosophy of providing only news articles that conform to a point of view likely to be popular with readers. Many taxpayers are not in favor of higher salaries or benefits for federal employees, nor do they favor increasing the size of the federal workforce. Our philosophy is that it is beneficial for those working for Uncle Sam to be aware of these differing views since, in theory at least, federal employees work for all Americans.
In my years as a government employee, I never read many negatives stories about my colleagues throughout government. Very few news items would regularly appear that would portray individual employees getting into various types of trouble. Similarly, while there are often stories in large daily newspapers quoting from union press releases, there are not many articles that are critical of federal employee unions or their actions.
Perhaps the reason is that when such articles appear, a publisher can count on large numbers of vitriolic comments as an automatic response. We don’t publish those that call authors (or other readers) pejorative names. We also avoid publishing comments where the sole purpose of a comment appears to be to denigrate someone else’s point of view. This means some comments do not get published on our site. Our preference is to publish comments that reflect some thought on the part of the writer and those that state their view in a professional way (although clearly there some we let through that do not do this). We will publish an article we think is relevant to the federal community even if it will not be popular with many readers as a way to enable readers to see a point of view they may not read elsewhere.
As the Internet continues to expand, FedSmith.com will expand with it. Our site has grown from an initial size of about 10,000 hits in a year to over 40 million hits in a year. We will strive to continue offering new services and features we think will be useful and to publish articles to keep our readers up-to-date with events that may impact their federal career.
And, for those readers who may be inclined to skirt the law or ethics requirements for any rationale that the human brain is capable of devising, we hope that the stories about federal employees ruining a career, going to jail or missing a few paychecks will make you stop and think.
We do read all comments sent to us by readers. We appreciate the readers who read our site on a regular basis and who take the time to send in their views and who have helped to make this site a success. We attempt to provide a quick summary of all articles so that if a reader chooses not to read about a point of view that may be unpopular, you can avoid doing so. We also encourage readers to continue to express their opinion in our comments section while still taking into account the desirability of respecting the views of others and the rights of others to also express their views.