Layoffs.com: A Report on the Internet News Industry

J.D. Lasica is a new media columnist for the Online Journalism Review, a Web-based journal produced at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. He recently published a four-part story on the state of online publishing. He welcomes your comments at [email protected].

The following are his responses to questions asked by The Online NewsHour.

Two years ago, you said the Internet was becoming the place people turned to in order to get a richer news experience. Is that still the case?
Not long ago I read a study that found the typical user spends a total of seven seconds on any given Web page. Seven seconds! So online journalists need to understand that underlying truth about the medium: To many people, the Web is Short Attention Span Theater. You need to grab the reader by the collar with news that’s summarized quickly and cleanly, stripped of anecdotal leads or clever, prosaic approaches more suitable to another medium and another era.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Web journalism begins and ends with snappy headlines and terse writing. Today, headline news sites are a dime a dozen. Some, like Yahoo News, do a great job of rounding up the top stories from credible sources and transporting users to news sites with the best coverage. Other headline news services draw no distinctions between trustworthy news providers, tabloid stories, and thinly disguised PR material masquerading as journalism.

Online news outfits need to offer more than headline roundups of breaking news, or shovelware [recycled news] from this morning’s print edition. They need to commit editors and writers to reporting news that’s breaking in their community during the day. And they need to provide depth, context and perspective to the news by digging beneath the surface to explore not just what happened but how and why, and to report their findings through text, photos, audio, video, informational graphics and scanned source documents.

Major news organizations like CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, USAToday and others understand this, and that’s why the public turns to them during big stories like the presidential election aftermath. Unfortunately, we’re now beginning to see cutbacks in online news staffs — the Miami Herald, for example, just laid off its only Web reporter.


Also in 1999, you said many online news organizations hadn’t gotten a good grasp on the concept of interactivity. Is that still the case? What kind of interactivity seems to appeal to visitors most?
Last year I wrote a 52-week series for the parenting site BabyCenter about the birth and development of our first child, and the resulting interactivity with the readers each week was staggering: hundreds and hundreds of e-mails and forum postings from expectant mothers and new fathers, offering advice about feeding and weaning, sharing their own heartfelt experiences, and basically just wanting to have their voices heard. More than a few were surprised and grateful when I took the time to respond to their comments, as if it were somehow remarkable for a journalist to deign to climb down from Mount Olympus and interact with ordinary mortals.

That’s the challenge our profession faces: Too often we give in to the institutional ivory-tower conceit that says: We’re the expert news gatherers who decide what’s important, you’re the passive recipients — end of discussion. That’s pure arrogance, and it’s antithetical to the Internet’s core ethos. I think the folks working in news organizations’ new media units understand this, but they’re still a small minority — and that’s the problem. Everybody in most news organizations, from the interns to the executive editor, ought to be online and plugged into a two-way dialogue with the public, not just a designated handful. But interactivity still scares the daylights out of old-school journalists.

Still, some points of light have begun to pierce the darkness. Last week I spoke with the editor in charge of interactive media at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who said, “More and more of the newsroom’s reporters are asking to have their e-mail addresses printed in the paper because they love the feedback.” Other papers are also trying to change the newsroom culture. Reporters and columnists who spend a lot of time online invariably say they get their best story ideas, and the most rewarding feedback, directly from readers over the Internet.

What do you think is in the cards for Internet-only publications in today’s Web climate?
I hope they can hang on. With online advertising shrinking and Wall Street putting the squeeze on content sites, Net publications are sailing in rough seas. The grandiose visions of a few years ago — city guides brimming with rich content, product-comparison sites steeped in consumer journalism, ad-supported finance and sports startups — are giving way to the realization that producing high-quality content is both really expensive and really hard to pull off. Some Web-based publications with questionable business models, like the crime news site APBNews.com, won’t be around for long.

I’m more hopeful that Salon, Slate and the entertainment-news site Inside.com will make a go of it. They won’t be profitable this year but they’re savvy enough to weather the storm. America Online, of course, is another online publication that reports the news, and they’re going to be with us for a very long time.

Is Internet news doomed by its nature to be a profitless venture? Are there any business models that seem to be working?
The challenge facing online news organizations is: How do you make money in a medium where information is ubiquitous? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. The Star Tribune‘s operation is profitable because the tech staff builds Web sites for local businesses. WSJ.com is close to profitability because users value the breadth and depth of their financial coverage. Other papers may find similar niches by becoming the paper of record for newsworthy activities and events in their back yards.

Eventually, as news sites’ online work intersects with the print and broadcast operations of their corporate siblings, we may stop thinking about Internet news as a separate entity. This month CNN and the News Corp., owner of FoxNews.com and FoxSports.com, scuttled their Internet divisions and merged their online staffs into their broadcast divisions. The Tribune Co., one of the smarter media companies around, has a long-term strategy of combining their print, broadcast and Internet assets all under one roof.

Online news sites may or may not become profitable, but the Web is only one medium. Farther out on the horizon, digital news ventures are likely to make money from wireless applications, interactive TV services, broadband, portable tablet-like devices, and personalized newspapers that come rolling out of a printer in the home.

How do you see wireless technology and digital television playing into the future of news on the Web?
We’ve already begun to see Internet startups show off the latest gizmos: handheld wireless units connected to the Net that call up not just stock quotes and sports scores but headlines, stories and news alerts. The McClatchy Co., publisher of the Sacramento Bee, is working with a partner on a venture where you’d be able to get tailored news updates when you drive to work — on your timetable, not the radio station’s. The technology’s getting there, now it’s just a matter of forming the right partnerships and finding out just how much real-time news consumers actually want. Early indications suggest there may not be as much demand for wireless news as originally thought and what people really want is to send and receive short text messages on cell phones.

Digital television could become a huge deal. Not the wide-screen, high-definition TV, which faces a lot of technical obstacles, but the kinds of services we’re already seeing with Tivo, Microsoft’s Ultimate TV and other digital video recorders and set-top boxes. Last election night, a partnership between the NewsHour and WebTV allowed thousands of viewers to get a more personalized election experience by letting them click on candidates’ victory and concession speeches and follow local returns. That only scratches the surface. We’ll see more of this, on a much larger scale, on all the major networks before the decade is out.

After this new media reorganization is over, will there be a resurgence of Internet news or will the consolidation of the past few months continue?
We’re likely to see more online news layoffs and cutbacks in the months ahead, but the worst is probably behind us. The downturn should be over by fall, and next year we’ll likely see small incremental growth rather than big expansion plans. It may not be until 2003 that online news ventures take off again in a significant way, though we won’t see a return to the spasmodic expansions of the past two years. Analysts say traditional retailers should start advertising on the Web in a big way starting late this year. I hope that’s true. It’s amazing how much journalism is still at the mercy of market forces outside our control.

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JD Lasica
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