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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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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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

“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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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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May 8, 1997

Ted Koppel: Will online news ‘bite us in the ass’?

The veteran ‘Nightline’ anchor has some words of warning for online reporters eager to reinvent the wheel of journalism

“If we are now moving into an era in which … speed is the main criteria of putting something online, then I think that’s dangerous.”

By J.D. Lasica

Immediacy has never been a strong suit of Web news among the mainstream media. But in the coming months, dozens of content providers — from giants like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to small-town weeklies and dailies — will team up with Netscape, Microsoft, PointCast and other push-news services to broadcast their own “channels” of breaking news right to a user’s desktop.

That promises to fundamentally reshape the online news landscape. What risks do these traditional print organizations face in moving toward a broadcast model of Net news? I posed the question to Ted Koppel, whose 1996 book “Nightline” dissects how television has reshaped news values in our lifetime. Koppel, who surfs the Web only infrequently, has some words of warning for online reporters eager to reinvent the wheel of journalism. This is his first interview on the subject of the Internet.

New forms of media like PointCast seem to be ushering in an age of instantaneous news on the Internet. What lessons do print journalists need to learn from their broadcast brethren?

Koppel: First of all, it’s not totally analogous to what I do or what my colleagues Peter Jennings or Dan Rather do. We have a deadline in the same way that my newspaper colleagues have a daily deadline. Going on live is not something we do most of the time. Now, let me ask you, is there such a thing as an online deadline?

Sure, it’s continual, around the clock.

The deadline is when you’re satisfied as a professional journalist that you’ve got the story, the facts have been verified, and then you go with it.

What I thought you were going to ask about was the issue of all the dubious news reports floating around on the Internet. One of the problems that I see — and not much has been made of it — is that the credibility of any news report depends on the reputation of the source. To the degree you don’t know the source of the material, that needs to be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. There is all manner of dubious information on the Web, and whether it ends up in the hands of Pierre Salinger, who gives it more credibility than it deserves, or whether it leaches into the public consciousness in some other manner, a journalist, as an editor, has a responsibility to ultimately separate truth from rumor.

The Internet’s immediacy seems to be one of its most attractive features. It gives people a greater sense of participation and immediacy —

Or a greater sense of paranoia about their government and the press and coverups and so on.

Some of the proponents of push media say that reporters shouldn’t report stories just once a day, they should break stories all day long by printing what they know when they know it and then updating it as additional information becomes available. Are there perils in reporting information the minute you get it?

Of course there are, and that goes back to making sure that we know who the reporter is. The main function of reporting lies in the sorting and assisting, the editing, the putting into context. Reporting is not really about, `Let’s see who can get the first information to the public as quickly as possible.’ It should be about `Let’s see who can get the first information to the public as quickly as possible — as soon as we have had a chance to make sure the information is accurate, to weigh it against what we know, to put it in some sort of context.’ Only after all that is done, then, when one of us goes on the air live with a breaking news story, we try to do that in an ad lib form with whatever reservoir of information we have on a particular story.

Take an example from a few years ago, a plane hijacking in the Middle East. Peter Jennings happens to have had a long history of reporting on events from the Middle East, and he is able to tap into that well of knowledge to provide viewers with context and perspective. Now, if we are now moving into an era in which reporters are pressured to get it online before we have a chance to check and edit the material — if speed is the main criteria of putting something online — then I think that’s dangerous.

Whether you have one or 78 deadlines a day in your online organization, I’ve got no problem with updating the news continually. But where we need to be cautious is that we don’t get pushed beyond that point into what I call ‘McThought,’ or the journalistic equivalent of fast food. There has been a tendency in network television for certain news executives to be watching a bank of television screens and seeing a news report on a competing news program and saying, `Let’s go with that,’ even though we haven’t had a chance to verify the information. Now, that’s probably not applicable to the online world.

Perhaps it’s too early to tell. I wanted to ask about the suggestion I’ve heard from some broadcast journalists that the news is alive, that no story is ever finally written —

That’s a colossal copout.

Why do you say that?

Well, it suggests that all we have to do is put any information we collect on the air because we can never hope to have it all anyway. No, there are several thresholds you have to cross before you put it on the line and go with it.

Such as?

Like getting your facts straight. Let’s take an example. A bulletin breaks on the wire. All you know is that a plane has gone down over Pittsburgh. Do you go on the air with that?

I’ve seen those kinds of news bulletins.

I don’t think you have enough information to go on the air with it yet. I have no right to terrify every person who has a family or a friend flying in the Eastern corridor. You need to at least narrow it down. What is the airline? What is the embarkation point? What is the destination? And even then, I’d like to know, are there any survivors?

ABCnews.com just recently launched on the Net. As more and more news organizations join the fray, isn’t it inevitable that Net news will become ratings-driven, with a kind of tabloid mindset where the premium is on getting the story first rather than getting it right?

That depends on what you’re buying. I don’t think that `Inside Edition,’ or any of the lighter, frothier so-called news and entertainment shows on the air has much to do with `Nightline.’ It’s a different audience. We’re looking for different things. But there’s always going to be room for the outlet that says, `We’re not worried about getting it first, we’re about getting it right.’

As a news consumer, I’m more interested in the quality of the information I’m receiving. Whether you’re the New York Times, or Wall Street Journal, or Washington Post, or Los Angeles Times — or whatever your particular news organization — you have to maintain your quality while you’re being faster and better than the other guy on the block. But if your competition reaches the point where you’re willing to sacrifice quality and context and completeness, I think that’s going to rear up and bite us in the ass.

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