April 26, 1999

Online News: An Evolving Medium

Online News Industry
The Internet news industry has undergone some major changes over the last five years.

To discuss these changes is JD Lasica, new media columnist for the American Journalism Review and the Online Journalism Review. In addition to writing about online ethics for the Industry Standard newsweekly, Mr. Lasica is also managing editor of BabyCenter, an online resource for new and expectant parents.

The following are Mr. Lasica’s answers to 5 questions asked by the Online NewsHour.

How has the online news industry evolved over the last 5 years? Where is it going? Five years ago, most people were just beginning to discover the Web, and the online news industry took notice not long after that. Early efforts were embarrassing, to put it kindly, with few publications that had even an inkling of understanding about the nature of Net culture. For the most part, old media was content to pour yesterday’s news, aptly called shovelware, into the digital abyss. Nobody read it — and deservedly so.

In the past two years, but the past year in particular, there’s been a turnaround. Some of traditional media’s biggest powerhouses, such as the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, now do a lot of original reporting on the Web. (Thankfully, we’re seeing an end to the nonsensical drivel about online news organizations “scooping themselves” with their online editions.) CNN Interactive and newcomer MSNBC are fighting it out for supremacy in traffic, drawing millions of visitors each month. And refreshingly, young online publications like Salon have provided important new voices to the news dialogue.

How has the Internet changed the way people get their news? Today news consumers have information flooding them from all directions. If television displaced newspapers as the medium people turn to for breaking news, the Net is the medium people turn to in order to get a richer news experience. That richness may come from the Net’s immediacy, which rivals broadcast’s; from its depth, for the news hole on the Net is limitless; and from its most powerful feature, interactivity, which online news organizations still haven’t grasped, much less exploited. On election night, I’ll have the TV turned to election coverage, but I’ll also be surfing the Web, accessing the races and results most important to me.

The Net, coupled with cable, talk radio, interview shows and the like, has created a 24-hour news cycle. It’s a cycle that’s increasingly out of the hands of the politicians, the spinmeisters, the PR professionals, and the news media themselves. Instead, amateur armchair journalists are sometimes calling the shots, and that’s a scary thing for professional journalists. It also imposes on the public a greater responsibility to be aware of and educated about the source of the news it receives. Not all news purveyors are trustworthy, and it’s critical that as news consumers we make distinctions about the sources of the news and information we come upon. Otherwise we’ll live in a news universe where bad information drives out the good.

How have Internet-only publications fared (Salon, Slate, etc.)? We’re still fairly early in this grand experiment. I think Salon has proved to be one of the singular success stories of the Web, for the breadth of its coverage, quality of its content, and the likelihood that it will succeed as a business. Slate had that opening, too, but has largely frittered away its chances by hewing too closely to the old media heritage of its editors and founders. (I worked for Microsoft as a journalist at the time Slate went to its subscription model and could only shake my head at the Redmond giant’s bumbling missteps.)

What’s disappointing is the lack of other new and vibrant voices on the Web. Feed is a good chronicler of social issues, Suck provides an occasional diversion, Wired News is still plugging away, ZDNet and CNet do a good job covering technology news. But we need to see more original voices.

How has the Internet affected journalism as a whole? It’s transformed our craft in new and extraordinary ways. We’re no longer the gatekeepers of information. The floodgates are open, and it’s up to us to try to make sense of it all. The Net is forcing us to be more relevant to our readers and viewers, more open and accessible, more trusting in the audience’s judgment, and more accountable — it’s much easier to ferret out deception, plagiarism and deceit in an interactive medium. I think the Net has also infused the profession with new excitement and vigor. Young people who are turned off by old media’s hierarchical, closed-to-new-ideas corporate culture are joining new media, whether it’s for the online arm of a traditional news organization, like Time Digital or Tampa Bay Online, or for a niche online publication like SonicNet or BabyCenter. It’s healthy and invigorating for journalism.

Is there a discrepancy in editorial standards between Internet news and other mediums? I truly believe that we can no more make a sweeping generalization about “Internet news” than we can about “print news” or “broadcast news.” Standards run the gamut in all media. I’m relieved and gladdened that traditionial media organizations like the NewsHour, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and the like have transferred their timeless values and standards onto the Web. And when Web upstarts like Salon or Wired News buck the conventional wisdom, sometimes it’s the status quo that needs reexamination.

As far as Matt Drudge, the conspiracy theorists and others are concerned, the Net is a big enough medium to accommodate all shades of reportage. Print has its tabloids, gossip columnists and anonymous sources. Broadcast has its invasive cameramen, live car chases and honoraria-taking talking heads. The Net has its share of abuses, too. But the democratizing of the news process will ultimately prove to be healthy not just for news consumers but for journalism as well.

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March 5, 1999

Attracting young talent to your online staff

Step #1: Start with your newsroom’s corporate culture

This column appeared in the May 1999 issue of The American Journalism Review.

By J.D. Lasica

Web journalists today face a choice: work at the online division of an old media company, like Tampa Bay Online or Time Digital, or dive headlong into a new media company that exists only in cyberspace. More and more, they’re choosing the latter.

Consider Janelle Brown. When she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1995, she knew she wanted to be a journalist, but the traditional route of ladder-climbing at a newsroom didn’t appeal to her. “The idea of working at some really dry or dull newspaper didn’t interest me,” she says. “Old media seemed so hierarchical, while new media seemed so exciting and vibrant and starving for talent.”

She took her first job as an editorial assistant at HotWired, quickly became a low-level editor, moved to Wired News as a reporter, and then joined Salon last year as a technology correspondent. “In old media, I could never have gone from an editorial assistant to a journalist writing nationally recognized stories in the space of three years. Here you have more room to grow as a writer and person.”

Most of her journalist friends have either joined or begun freelancing for Web sites like SonicNet, Suck, Wired or Citysearch. “It’s a chance to get in the door and build up your clips pretty quickly,” she says.

Brown is in the vanguard of a new phenomenon: journalists who forsake old media for new media. Young people, especially, are eager to head straight to a Web content business.

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January 7, 1999

Newsweek arrives on the Web

Editor and General Manager Michael Rogers discusses Newsweek’s online strategy

This column appeared in the January 1999 issue of The American Journalism Review.

By J.D. Lasica

Newsweek has joined the future.

Newsweek.com arrived on the Web Oct. 4 [1998], and unlike the first wave of mainstream media news sites that reinvented themselves every five minutes, these folks don’t seem to have an identity crisis.

The streamlined site has a spare, minimalist look, featuring all the content of the print magazine alongside a handful of daily features and breaking news provided by others. With a 10-person editorial staff, the Web site has both a modest agenda and realistic goals.

In short, Newsweek.com doesn’t pretend to be all things to all Webheads.

“What we’ve seen with Web news is a rush for everyone to become a wire service,” says Michael Rogers, the site’s editor and general manager. “As the first blush of enthusiasm over immediacy begins to fade, we think people will find more value in a newsweekly that serves as a smart guide to the Web.”

Since the early ’90s, Newsweek has had a long run on Prodigy and America Online, where its staff gained experience in interacting with users and dealing with the demands of daily journalism. Why, then, was it so late in coming to the Web party? Because its parent corporation, The Washington Post Co., considered the Web to be “a more immediate threat” to the Post than to Newsweek, Rogers says. (An added inducement may have been the Matt Drudge imbroglio, which prompted Newsweek to post Michael Isikoff’s blockbuster story about Ken Starr’s expanded investigation on the Post’s Web site.)

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December 7, 1997

Preserving old ethics in a new medium

To avert ethical problems in cyberspace, cling to traditional journalism values

This column appeared in the December 1997 issue of The American Journalism Review. I was interviewed on the topic of Internet news sources’ trustworthiness by Bloomberg Radio on April 4, 1998.

By J.D. Lasica

If ethics are rarely debated during the daily miracle of churning out a newspaper, the subject is rarer still in the whiz-bang, techno-toy-driven realm of new media.

While all the old ethical rules surely still apply in new media, the Internet also presents dilemmas that never existed in a print world: reporters lurking invisibly in chat rooms; ad links embedded into editorial copy; the posting of private tragedies in news archives until the end of time; tracking users’ habits and sharing that data with advertisers; putting the tools of publishing into the hands of little league coaches and others who aren’t trained journalists.

But the ethical issue that may soon dwarf all others centers on what I call transaction journalism: the quid pro quo between a Web publication and outside interests such as advertisers or business allies. To the degree that it blurs the line between editorial and commercial interests, it poses a threat to the integrity of Web journalism.

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November 7, 1997

So you want to be an online journalist

Some tips on how to prepare for a fast-changing field

This column appeared in the November 1997 issue of The American Journalism Review. This column also appeared as a chapter in the book “Writing.com: Creative Internet Strategies to Advance Your Writing Career,” by Moira Anderson Allen (Allworth Press, August 1999).

By J.D. Lasica

A good portion of the e-mail I receive these days is from young people who ask: How do I break into online journalism?

I’m always gladdened by the question, because it suggests that new media have become permanent fixtures in our news and information galaxy. Increasingly, young people see the Internet as a taken-for-granted part of their daily routine — and more relevant to their lives than one-way big media like newspapers and TV.

Net journalism is here to stay. Following are some tips on how to break into the field — and how to last:

• Bring a passion for Web journalism. Talent isn’t enough. Desire, drive — a willingness to work long hours, often at modest wages, for the sheer love of it — can’t be underestimated. The best online journalism sites attract team players with an upbeat attitude and good people skills.

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