March 8, 2001

Behind closed dot-com doors

Balancing business interests and journalistic credibility at BabyCenter

This column appeared March 8, 2001, in the Online Journalism Review. Here’s the version on the OJR site. See the related story, The fuzzy world of sponsored content.

By J.D. Lasica

For those of us who still believe in the promise of online content sites, the March 2 sale of BabyCenter from online toy retailer eToys to the baby goods manufacturer Johnson & Johnson was significant on a number of levels:

• If you’re pregnant or a new parent, there’s simply no other site on the Web that comes close to offering the breadth of trustworthy editorial content, expert advice and baby products that BabyCenter offers to its 2.2 million visitors each month. (Its nearest competitors draw only one-fourth the traffic.) The 4-year-old site, which faced the prospect of shutting down alongside its ailing corporate parent, can now not only grow but thrive.

• The sale sends another strong signal that even the most successful pure-play content and commerce sites may not be able to survive without the support of a deep-pockets parent or brick-and-mortar partner. The site has won three straight Webby awards, but has still not achieved profitability.

• The sale also rekindles the debate over a corporate owner’s effects on journalistic standards. Simply put: Can a content site retain its independent editorial voice when placed under the control of a corporation with a stake in the site’s core offerings?

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February 2, 1998

Marvin Kalb on journalism in the Internet age

The former CBS and NBC News correspondent decries the news media’s feeding frenzy over Clinton-Lewinsky — and the effect that Matt Drudge has had on news coverage

kalb
“Editors, anchors, producers and news executives can summon up the courage to say no to stories without proper credentials and sources.”

By J.D. Lasica

Marvin Kalb is director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He spoke by phone on Feb. 2, 1998, about 12 days after the White House sex scandal broke with a fury in the media.

How do you see the impact of the Internet and all the new forms of media on coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky story.

In the last year or two, the Internet has come on very strong, with a kind of compelling presence. More and more people are now dependent on the Internet for mass communication, even for narrow-banded communication, from one university to another, and across oceans. It’s become extremely convenient and it’s becoming more and more a part of the lives of an expanding elite.

I imagine in a year or two or three, the number of people using the Internet will grow dramatically. In this particular case, the very fact that Newsweek chose not to run with a story that then somehow found itself in Matt Drudge’s clutches, and he put it out on his Web page, and many reporters now find themselves looking at his Web page because the controversy itself obliges reporters to check it out, and lo and behold they find this information and have to decide what to do with it. He has no inhibition about posting the information because he doesn’t care about its accuracy, only about its attractiveness. And suddenly within 48 hours it becomes a major news story in the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.

That strikes me as a new and graphic power of the Internet to influence mainstream journalism. And I suspect that over the next couple of years that impact will grow to the point where it will damage journalism’s ability to do its job professionally, to check out information before publication, to be mindful of the necessity to publish and broadcast reliable, substantiated information. Those traditional impulses have already been damaged, and I fear that will only grow.

Michael Kinsley in this week’s Time magazine defended Drudge and said that it would be impossible for publications like the Washington Post to maintain a firewall that prevents this sort of information from seeping into the mainstream media. It seems you’re saying the same thing, that it’s almost impossible to maintain that firewall. Why?

The report we’re talking about has served as a match thrown into a barrel of gasoline. It served to ignite unreliable, unsubstantiated, gossipy information. The journalistic environment today is affected in a number of ways by the expanding new technologies and the new economic underpinnings — news organizations being owned by giant corporations where news is simply a commodity to be sold like any other products. And this new combination has led to a collapsing of journalistic standards of behavior.

The need to be competitive and to be mindful of the bottom line is so overwhelming that it becomes almost impossible for editors to say no. They’re now driven by such pressures that when they see the information is already out there in the mainstream press, they feel they have to go with it, even though, deep in their guts, they know it’s wrong.

I’ve spent the last two weeks thinking about the Lewinsky story nonstop, and I just wrote an op-ed piece for Newsday, and I’ve been wrestling with the question, Does that mean there’s no way out? I hope the editors prove all the skeptics and critics wrong, and that they can summon up the courage to say no to stories based on rumors and hearsay and innuendo, but I don’t think it will be done. I’m extremely pessimistic.

If you were running one of those major papers, what would you do? What prescriptions do you suggest to the mainstream press?

Let me read to you from the conclusion of my essay:

Can journalism resist the tide? Or is it too late? My analysis suggests that it may be too late, but journalists still have the power to improve their performance and prove the critics wrong. How?

Editors, anchors, producers and news executives can summon up the courage to say no to stories without proper credentials and sources. They can decide to publish or broadcast no fact simply because it’s “out there.” They can reverse James Baker’s sarcastic description of press practices: “report first, check later.” They can end the use of hidden cameras. They can remember that along with press freedom comes press responsibility.


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