More Turn to Web for News, But are Skeptical of Photos and Take ‘Blogs’ With a Handful of Salt: Transcript from “Trust or Consequence: The Web’s Reputation at Risk”
- Beau Brendler, Director, Consumer Reports WebWatch
- Robertson Barrett, General Manager, LATimes.com
- Fred Ritchin, Director, Pixel Press; Former Photo Editor, New York Times Magazine
- Gene Kimmelman, Senior Director, Public Policy & Advocacy, Consumers Union
- Rich Jaroslovsky, Executive Editor, Bloomberg; Founding President, Online News Association
- Steve Waldman, Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder, BeliefNet.com
- Jeff Gralnick, Special Consultant, Internet and New Media Technologies, NBC News
Carl Iseli, Washington Monthly Magazine
Note: This is an edited transcript of the proceedings.
Beau Brendler: So the way we’re going to do this panel, because I’m fortunate enough to know all the gentlemen here today, either professionally having worked with them before or working with them now, and am very honored about that – what I’m going to do is I’m just going to tell a brief anecdote to set a theme or discussion point for the panel. Then I’m going to ask each panelist to introduce themselves and answer the question I pose. So could I have my slide for this panel please?
It’s a little blurry, but that’s the picture of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – I’ll address later as to why it’s in color – and a P-40 Warhawk in the foreground there. Before I came to Consumer Reports, I used to work for ABC News and, in fact, ran the news Web site there. Rob Barrett – actually who’s on the panel – he and I together with a group of other people actually started it up in 1996. Shortly after I left, one event having nothing to do with another, an order came down from the folks on high to do a lot of Pearl Harbor coverage. It was the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, so the order came down to do stuff on the morning shows and do stuff on World News Tonight and all that kind of thing about the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
The problem was that it was all happening in May of 2001, and those of us who are interested in history know that Pearl Harbor actually happened in December, so it was six months earlier. I suppose you could say….
[CHANGE OF TAPE]:
Beau Brendler (continued): …was coming out Memorial Day weekend, so suddenly the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor became an event talked about in the news sense as something that somehow was being commemorated at a time when it didn’t actually technically happen. And at the time, the news Web site used stills from the movie to illustrate historical events, such as this. In essence, not making a particular argument one way or the other, but with the notion that the movie was crafted so technically according to blueprints and pictures and such that the CGI version of Pearl Harbor getting bombed is basically the same thing, right?
The question I want to ask everybody today is in the poll, as you heard this morning, news sites and online journalism in general came off very well, and this actually is not the first time that we’ve seen this in the poll results. In 2002, Americans who we questioned basically attributed the same sense of value, sense of trust, sense of credibility to the online version of a site that they did to its parent. In other words, people who trust CBS News have an equal stake or think equally of, or attribute as much credibility to, CBSNews.com as to the network itself.
And the question I wanted to ask all the panelists here today who, one way or another, have an interest and/or experience in these types of things, is: We saw very high poll numbers about Americans’ trust in online news and online journalism and online news sites. Not so well for blogs, but we’ll address that as the panel goes. But the question is: Is that trust valid or are there questions that Web users should have about online news sites that they may not necessarily have about their offline parents? We’ll start with Rob Barrett.
Robertson Barrett: Introduce myself?
Beau Brendler: Yes, if you would. Introduce yourself and tell us who you are and then the question.
Robertson Barrett: I am General Manager of Interactive at the LA Times, and that’s a business role. My history is that I actually came up through the editorial side, so I’m in a rare position of looking at a lot of these issues from both sides right now. I deal with the business pressures of serving online ads that are convenient to sell, and the editorial need to have content that our users can trust. The way I am trying to solve these issues is by thinking about usability and the consumer first, and letting the chips fall where they may. There’s a lot of work to do at the LA Times on this, especially if you look at the site right now.
In terms of questions about what’s offered online at the LA Timesversus what’s offered in print, these issues now daily come to the fore. The market demand now for information clearly seems to be for something that on the surface might be less trustworthy for blogs, for bias, for point of view. These are things that work very well in the online world, of course, and the offline content that we repurpose online tends to be consumed on the basis of a single story at a time. So a disproportionate amount of my traffic comes from sites like the Drudge Report, where the LA Times may have the story; it’s linked from another source, and people simply want to get it. It’s either time-shifted – it might be updated by our extended news desk –but it’s very similar to what the paper offers. Supposedly that story is very credible, having gone through a process of editorial checks and balances with at least two editors, often four.
Again, the issue is: What do we put on the site, and is it less credible? I’m launching a site next week focused on the award season for the entertainment industry, which is of great interest in LA and nationally for content from LA. Our lead content is coming from three established bloggers, none of whom have been subject to the checks and balances of the newspaper industry. We also have significant contributions from established LA Times writers who are writing in a new way on a faster basis, and will not have the same editorial checks that they usually do before something goes into print.
I’ve spent dozens of hours with editorial and legal folks on these questions, and in the end, the thing that we feel that we need to supply to people is something that has a different kind of check. It’s more of an agreement. It’s a pact with the user, with the reader, with the consumer, that we choose good people. We have general policies that are good, but we’re not going to subject them to minute-by-minute checks that are required for a print story. There’s no other way to do it.
My personal stand on this is that, in fact, what’s happening — and this is reflected, this is in work Fred [Ritchin] has done on photography — when we go online, the more transparent we make the process and the more accountable we make someone with an opinion, the easier it is for the consumer to understand. There are more sophisticated consumers now, whereas what went into the story that ran in print is actually obscure. The editorial process that may not be as clear to a user as what went into a blog. They don’t know who the four editors are that worked on a story. Whereas they have a much better sense in the call-and-response format of a blog of what happened, if there’s an instant correction.
So we’re finding that the old definitions of what’s credible actually don’t apply, and that accounts for a lot of dissatisfaction that I think you see online with the public’s response to stories. The demand that the public can demand real-time corrections, can also be heard on a site like ours or The New York Times or WashingtonPost.com. That we don’t hold back and wait to publish something in the paper, and that the users’ voice is to be heard alongside the reporters’ at the same time the story is presented.
Beau Brendler: So before I introduce Fred — and thank you, Rob — or before Fred introduces himself and answers the question, I want to mention that we have a limited number of copies of Fred’s latest book here available for free for you to read, so just to alert you to that. They’re out at the front desk there.
Fred, what do you think? I know you’ve got some pretty strong thoughts on this topic.
Fred Ritchin: Just a slight correction – it’s not my latest book. It’s a book I wrote in 1990 on the coming revolution in photography in the digital world, which actually still is relevant to the discussion. The latest book is written but not published yet.
I’m Fred Ritchin. I was picture editor of the New York Times Sunday Magazine and worked at a lot of different publications – Time Magazine, Time Life, and so on – and then went on to start PixelPress.org., which is an online publication doing different kinds of journalism, documentary, and particular human rights work with all kinds of organizations.
To me, the statistic that’s being quoted in terms of the reader/consumer feeling a credibility to the news Web sites vis-à-vis the print or broadcast version, to me, it doesn’t go very far because I think that what we’re talking about is that if the digital mimics the analogue, then more or less people are happy in the camouflage. In this moment of transition, before the digital becomes something else — which it’s becoming — if the digital looks like the previous version, the New York Times online looks like the New York Times print version, then the reader is somewhat comfortable because it reminds them of what used to be that they’re used to for long periods of time, and so on and so forth.
So I want to recount a little story that has to do with this transition. In 1996, I went to the New York Times, where I worked for a number of years, to the Web people, and I asked if we could do a picture essay on something important that could only be done for the Web and couldn’t be done in print. Because I said as long as we’re coming up with kind of a new environment, a digital environment, why do exactly the same things in a digital environment that you do in an analogue environment?
I’d already worked for one year for the New York Times Business section, pre-Web. I had a one-year research project they hired me to do to show them how a daily newspaper could be different in multi-media, so I was very interested in those kinds of comparisons. So we decided to do a Web site on Bosnia, and instead of it being a photographic Web site, primarily photographic Web site on war, which is what photos are almost always used for — the casualties, the bombings, the gruesome, the ranking that Jonathan [Zittrain] was talking about, wanton violence and gratuitous violence and all that. We wanted to do one on peace; it was the [Dayton] Peace Accords had been signed, and so it was called “Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace.”
We made a Web assignment to photographers [Gil Perez] to work for I think it was six weeks in Bosnia in the mid-90s to photograph and to look at what was happening in terms of trying to make peace between people who’d been killing each other for the last four years. So the pictures — of which there were many, many pictures — would be almost exclusively non-violent images but about peace, about what were the possibilities for peace. In doing do, I remember he had an Apple II computer, that’s all he had at the time, so he hadn’t really seen what the Web could do. So the question was: How do you photograph differently for the Web than you do for print? What are the differences, technical, conceptual, journalistic — what are the differences?
So he went and he’d send me back film and contact sheets and I would edit them, but as I edited them, I couldn’t edit the way I edited for an analogue publication because I had to make links among all the images. I had to construct something that you could never do in print. In that case, for example, when we did the project — he did publish it in theNew York Times Magazine, I think it was an eight-page photo essay. That took about two days of editing for him to do and working with them to get it out, and it took probably about 20 minutes, 15 minutes for a reader to look at. When he came back after six weeks, it took us nine weeks of editing and constructing the essay because we didn’t know what we were doing – how do you link it, what text do you use, maps, video, and so on and so forth. A student of mine told me that it took her four hours to go through the Web site.
One of the differences in the Web site, for example, which was commented on was that in the Web site, the photographer was no longer the authority. He was no longer telling us what was going on in Bosnia, but he was raising questions of some of the ideas he had about what he thought might be going on in Bosnia. In doing so, this commentator in print magazine said he was asking the reader to engage him in a conversation about what might be going on in Bosnia, because he’s not going to pretend as a journalist to definitively know because how could he know in six weeks what’s really going on in Bosnia?
So he was taking the part of somebody opposing the questions, having some insights, but not somebody definitively saying what was happening. So for the reader/viewer/person to go through this site, they would click and go in different directions, depending what they clicked on, what they were interested in. We had a kind of a spine of a story in a linear way, but if you were not interested, you could go in all kinds of different directions. We had NPR Radio, we had video, we had New York Times articles, we had a bibliography, and we had hundreds of other sites that the New York Times recommended you might want to go through — right-wing, left-wing, all kinds of sites.
We had I think 14 discussion groups, which were initiated by Madeline Albright, who was the UN ambassador at the time, and Christiane Amanpour from CNN opening them, which were the most vitriolic, racist, horrific compilations of discussion that I had seen up to that point, where you had all kinds of readers/viewers who said, “I can now get to the New York Times and tell them that the fault was the other people were killing my people. It was all their fault.” Somebody blamed the New York Times for being owned by Saudi Arabia because it was so pro-Muslim. It got really, really intense, and I must say I learned more about the conflict in Bosnia from the readers than I did from anything I’d read in any professional place.
Which all leads me to say that I think the digital environment is finally going to be a reinvention of journalism, that it’s going to be a whole new kind of power relationships, with the subject having more power to respond to the way they’re depicted and so on and so forth. And so I think what we’re sort of doing is talking about the digital revolution in analogue terms, for the most part, which across the board, I think, happens in digital. But it’s going to get very, very interesting, as what Rob was talking about, as we start to say that the bloggers — all the various, various people, the Korean publication that Jonathan was talking about which is produced by people throughout Korea — it’s going to start to change what we mean by journalism.
In fact, to me, that might make it much more credible because the process is much more transparent. You understand that you’re a producer, you’re not just a consumer, as Jonathan stated. I think at that point, we’re going to start to see shifts in terms of what are we really talking about. So some of the ways we’re judging it now I think are still back to ways we’re used to it, but I think we have a chance for even greater credibility and much more interesting journalism, which is just something to put on the table in terms of the discussion.
Beau Brendler: Thank you. Before our next panelist, Gene Kimmelman of Consumers Union and Consumer Reports, I did want to just let everybody know that on page 25 of today’s poll, we did actually ask some survey questions about photographic trickery. Nearly half of Internet users, 47 percent, say they have come across such manipulated digital images as they have browsed the Web. An equal number of Internet users say they have not seen such images, 49 percent. In a remarkable statement of credibility, two-thirds of those who use the Internet, 67 percent, say they trust online news sites a lot or somewhat to use photographs that are genuine and have not been altered to change their meaning. So I just wanted to let everyone know as they’re reading the context of the poll and some of the issues that we keep talking about in regard to news sites and those poll numbers. Gene?
Gene Kimmelman: Well, I am Gene Kimmelman. I am a Senior Director for Public Policy with Consumers Union, which publishes the print and online version ofConsumer Reports. Thank you, Beau.
There’s so much to look at here, but I want to take — I could take the commercial lens, which you teed up with a question of what ABC was doing in conjunction with Disney. There are the issues of consumer trust. But I’d like to put it into a different paradigm for part of the discussion here, and that’s thinking about democracy. If you look at the trust issues and you look at the various players taking offline to online, think about this from the context of how we get news and information as a society, and how we debate Fred’s discussion of the conversation versus Rob’s teeing it up with the editorial process that goes into vetting what information gets out.
I think there are some very, very fundamental issues that we need to think about. Your poll results on the doctoring of the imagery remind me of people’s views of the coverage of the assassination of JFK. How many people at the same time as trusting the news media had views of whether the pictures were distorted, quite accurate, whether they told the real story, and whether there was something else going on, and ultimately a cover-up of that. That there is a lot of trust at the same time as distrust, and this is really part of the democratic process.
Your survey results show how much people rely on television still as a major source for news and information. But interestingly, when we went, looked, and surveyed last year, and segmented out the question for people — because most people when you say news information, they’re thinking nationally or internationally, they’re thinking of the big-picture news – if you ask people what’s your major source of news and information for local events, Rob may be interested to know that the numbers flip. It’s still newspapers, because cable doesn’t cover local events, the networks cover very little. Local TV stations cover quite a bit, they’re obviously an important news source. But it’s still print.
And so that editorial function and that vetting process plays an enormous role when people are thinking about who to vote for for mayor or city council, or what’s going on in the school system, what’s going on in their neighborhood. So it’s these traditional media that play this enormous role, and then it flips with really the visual image for national and international events. And when I think about it from a perspective of the citizen, you trust the media and yet, as you point out, each media company has a financial stake that goes far beyond its news gathering interests. It may be of concern that there’s cross-marketing of Disney products on ABC, GE with NBC, and you can go down the whole list of media conglomerates.
But probably, what’s more important is whether people are getting a full set of facts about what is happening. It seems to me the debate here about the role of the Web is that it is a medium for the same kind of sources of news and information that have been traditionally transmitted from word of mouth to television and print, and it has different ways of depicting things. But we need to ask the critical question of what’s the source of the information? And in this vast world of the Internet, what we’re finding is that many of the Web sources are the very same sources as they were in print and on television. So it’s important to look at who owns the media, not just because they’ll cross-promote product, but because they have an important role in defining what is news and what is information.
Not to carry on too long, but the dimension is critical in this respect. Fred described a very important process that goes on with the Web of a conversation developing, unfolding, that is a new form of journalism, and may be one of the deepest, richest developments in terms of democratization around the world. That people can see, debate, back and forth in real time, respond — it doesn’t have to be intelligentsia and professionals or government officials controlling it.
That’s a long process and blogs will play a role, Web sites of traditional media will play a role. But we also have to keep in mind that many of the decisions we’re asked to make as citizens are instantaneous decisions. They are: Vote today, decide tomorrow, pick a candidate, solidify your views about some important matter, and for those instantaneous actions, it is television and it is newspaper. It is the critical role of the editing process, the evaluative process, the ethic of presenting multiple viewpoints and letting people decide because they’re not going to debate it and discuss it for a month, unfortunately. They’re going to have to decide immediately.
That role is critical, and we have to make sure that that is reflected in the Web as more people use the traditional media for an online version of news and information. It’s also critical to make sure that we have enough separate companies owning those major media outlets so that there are varieties of points of view, and not just cross-promotion of the interest of one entity in a community.
Beau Brendler: Thank you, Gene. Before our next panelist speaks, you’ll see by his attribution up there, one thing you won’t see is that Rich Jaroslovsky was grappling with a lot of these issues in a very public way, a very noticeable way quite some time ago, as founding president of the Online News Association. That was back when he was with the WallStreetJournal.com. So I just wanted to make sure that that got into his introduction. Rich.
Rich Jaroslovsky: Thanks. First, I need to apologize in advance. Normally, when I’m doing something like this, I turn my cell phone off, but with the possibility, though unlikelihood, of indictments in the White House thing today, I’ve got it on vibrate. So if you see me flinch during the panel, that means Scooter Libby is in trouble. If you see me jump, it means Karl Rove is in trouble. And if I fall out of my chair, Dick Cheney is in very big trouble.
I just wanted to make a couple of quick points, some of which do date back to my time at WSJ.com. The fundamental point I want to make is that – while all the things we’ve talked about in terms of the enriching of the dialogue, the greater transparency of the editorial process, the nature of the Internet as a conversation, are all things that will have, and are having, a profound effect on journalism as we understand it – the one thing that all of us in the business know and have to constantly remind ourselves of when we’re making decisions is that the fundamental thing that we bring to the table, if we as media organizations have a role in the future, is our good name. Anything that damages or that calls into question the credibility of that good name, in whatever medium, will invariably have an impact across the board in all media in which we’re involved.
The incident that I found myself flashing back to was something that had happened during the Clinton scandals, during the Lewinsky investigation, where there was a Wall Street Journal story — a story that was reported and written and edited by the print Wall Street Journal staff, and it was deadline time for the early edition of the Wall Street Journal, which of course wouldn’t be on the stands for several hours.
The story had to do — I can’t remember all the details, but it was basically that I believe a White House steward had told the grand jury that he had seen Clinton and Lewinsky alone together, which contradicted something Clinton had said. Big story. The print editors came to me — and this was the print editors at the highest level —we’ve got this story and we’re going to publish it, we’re going to press with it right now. But we hear that ABC News, I believe, is going with the same story tonight on the Peter Jennings Report, and we want to put it out now. And we sat there, and I went through with the senior levels, the Washington bureau chief, the managing editor of the print journal. This story has met every standard that the print Wall Street Journalrequires of its journalism. The story is going to press right now. And so we made the decision, we’ll put it out on the Web. Well, it was a classic screw-up. It turned out that the story appeared, and immediately the lawyer for the steward issued a denial. The story is false, it’s not true, without specifying what wasn’t true. And it was the classic journalist mistake, where he had told this to investigators but he hadn’t been asked it in front of the grand jury, he hadn’t told it to the grand jury, and that was actually the part, though, it was unclear at the time, but that was the part that was being denied and disputed.
This episode – we pulled the story back, we corrected, we did everything, I did multiple public mea culpas without going into what was going on behind the scenes and for the next couple months was one of the poster boys for the Internet and what it’s doing to credibility. I didn’t feel the need because it would invariably have come off as whining to explain to people this whole thing about, Now this was really the print guys. But the fact is, what it drove home to me — two things; Number one, and most importantly, it drove home to me that when you have your good name out there, no matter where it is, it is your good name that is your stock in trade, and anything that damages it, damages everything.
So you can’t really have separate rules. Yes, you can do things differently and maybe you can’t have separate rules, but you can have separate standards. And the other thing is that I do believe this was the first reported and recorded incidence in history where print damaged the credibility of the Internet, and I suspect strongly that going forward, it will not be the last. It is one rule, it is one standard.
In terms of photos, what I found myself flashing back to was the magazine cover — I want to say it was Newsweek, though I hope I’m not doing them an injustice — that tweaked the photo of O.J. Simpson to make him look more — it was Time that did it? – to make him look more menacing than he was. And what the Net makes possible is to do that not just on a one-off basis, but on a grade scale and in a way that is impossible to police, except by people who are defending their own credibility. In some ways, you need to be more zealous about it online, I think, than you need to be in traditional media.
Beau Brendler: Thank you, Rich. Jeff?
Jeff Gralnick: I’m Jeff Gralnick. I’m part of the original ABCNews.com mafia. I feel like it’s a reunion here.
When I look at the question for us, it comes down to two things. Distrust. Where is it coming from, and what are we going to do about it? And where it’s coming from is in large part the democracy that the Web has created. Everybody’s a publisher, there’s all that information out there. When it comes to news in Washington, do you believe Wonkette or do you believe the Washington Post? When it comes to media news, do you believe News Blues or do you believe Howard Kurtz, just to keep it Washington-centric?
So there are all of those sources out there competing for the attention of the user, and all of those sources are saying that they are right. Is Drudge a good thing or a bad thing? As we, the traditional media, attack Drudge as a bad thing, are we further fostering that distrust?
So there is the multiplicity of sources, many of which don’t have the controls that in traditional media exist. And then there’s the speed and accessibility of it. The picture from 9/11 of the 757 flying into one of the World Trade towers taken from the World Trade tower. That picture made its way around the Internet [snaps fingers] like that, and onto the front pages of many newspapers because it was on the Internet, before people sat back and said, “Wait a minute, that’s impossible!” So we can be, in the interest of being first, we can be our own worst enemies.
But we learned no lessons. Same thing happened with the tsunamis. How many pictures of all of that tsunami damage were published that turned out to be made up? So that’s the root of it, and that’s what produces these numbers, which are distressing but are not surprising.
So what do we do about it? Well, the first thing we do about it at MSNBC.com is it’s the old rule: You’ve got to be right before you’re first. So that’s rule one. But what we found in Internet terms is transparency is going to set us free, and we are experimenting with transparency in a number of different ways.
A Brian Williams blog, which is basically an invitation to the user into the process of NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. How are decisions made? How are they arguing over whether decisions are going to be made? What do people feel about the stories they’re covering? That blog – which will probably run, we annualize, at 26 million page views for its first year – is a great tool in saying to the user of MSNBC.com: We want you to understand our process. Now, I tried it with the [space] shuttle as an experiment. Take the user into the process of the story and the process of coverage, and the more we can do that, the more I think we’re going to damp down distrust.
But it comes down to transparency for me, and almost down the panel to me, everybody in one way or another has suggested transparency or used the word transparency. And that’s what we’ve got to do: We’ve got to be honest about our mistakes, we’ve got to be honest about our process, we’ve got to be honest about certain dishonesties in the stories we’re covering. And the more we allow the user to understand where we and the news is coming from, I think the more we will see these distrust numbers diminish. At least I hope so.
Beau Brendler: Now Steve [Waldman], on your site [BeliefNet], I mean it must be the whole notion of right and wrong, in a sense, or what’s truth or not, that must be something you debate constantly as your news day progresses, right? How does that sound to you?
Steve Waldman: Right. We can ultimately just say, Only He knows — so that gives us an out. I’m editor of BeliefNet, which is the largest spirituality and religion Web site. The thing that I notice when we’re talking about news sites is there’s really – to break down news sites into a few subcategories, which is news gathering sites, news presenting sites, and then news analysis sites. If you think about what’s going on on the Web now in terms of which news sites are the biggest news sites, and you compare it to other sectors of the Internet – so like in shopping, the biggest shopping site is something that didn’t exist before the Internet: Amazon, it’s a completely new creation. In auctions, something that didn’t exist, a complete creation of the Internet era is e-Bay.
And then when you look at what are the highest traffic news sites, it’s CNN.com and ABCNews.com and NBCNews.com, and it’s the brands, the old brands are the ones that are the ones that people are turning to and trust. So that, as Rich was saying, the good name is still very important.
And it reminds me, even though I’ve been doing Internet stuff now as long as you guys have, but for six years now that I still remember very vividly my first newspaper job, which was with the Duluth News Tribunein Duluth, Minn. One of my first assignments was to cover the big story of this group of three beavers that had managed to block up this little stream and create a lake where there hadn’t been one before, and it was causing all sorts of mayhem, and this was a big story for me. I wrote it out and it was a full feature thing, and I was very excited about it. And then the day after the thing ran, the city editor pulled me into this private office and closed the door, and he went through, with a red pen, my mistakes. I forget exactly what they were, but it was something that had to do with the kind of winter sleeping habits of beavers that I had gotten wrong. But it was a rather scarring experience.
I mention that simply by dint of saying that there is still something to this kind of weird idea of professionalism, and that there is actually a kind of a process and a professional creed and training that one goes through to be a journalist or an editor. Even though I’m a Web guy now, I still actually kind of think there’s something to that. I think with sites that are done not connected to people with journalistic ethos, you can see the difference.
Now, there are lots and lots of news sites that are very, very large traffic sites, like Drudge. For the most part, though, Drudge, except occasionally, is not breaking news. They’re picking which news they think is important; they’re filters. So it’s almost like there’s been this separation in functions between some Web sites being news gatherers and presenters, and then others being news interpreters and presenters. I think that’s not a bad division of labor actually because in some ways, what’s really happened is not so much that journalism is being revolutionized but media criticism is being revolutionized.
You have these old dinosaur media companies that it turns out are adapting quite well to the Web, but with the big difference being that they’re under constant scrutiny by all the pajama-wearing bloggers who in fact I think are having a positive effect on accountability of the mainstream media.
In terms of BeliefNet, the big challenge that I face in terms of credibility has to do less with the kind of almost epistemological questions that you end up with when you’re dealing with the religion side of what is true and what’s not, as the advertising issue. I was very interested that there was a pretty noticeable increase in the percentage of users who said that it’s very important to have a clear distinction between advertising and news — 69 percent said very important, this big number.
We’re advertising-dependent – that’s our business model. It hasn’t been that big a deal or that big a challenge up until now because in the early days, for us and for a lot of places, the ads that were going around tended to be these performance-based ads. They were banners, you put up your ad for e-diets and someone would click or not. There was never really any question of it influencing our coverage.
Beau Brendler: Did you do the X10 camera?
Steve Waldman: No.
Beau Brendler: No. Oh good.
Steven Waldman: So, but now the good news for our business and lots of other Web sites is that the big national brand advertisers are moving online. From a business point of view, that’s great. But they have a whole different approach to this, and the buzzword that I hear all the time now is “integrated sponsorships.” Well, what does integrated sponsorship mean? Very often, we are starting to get requests that we didn’t get a year ago of having the content be — blur the line of what’s advertising, what’s editorial, what’s not.
It worries me because, as I said, I think this is a problem that’s going to get worse, not better, because of the new breed of advertisers that are coming on with big dollars that are very hard to turn down, and with specific requests, and they all say the Web is different. You don’t have the same separation of church and state, which is a very confusing term to throw around in my office when you’re talking about advertising.
Male Speaker: God and Mammon perhaps?
Steven Waldman: That helps! It’s almost like you’re a sissy if you sort of adhere to this kind of old-fashioned view that these things are separate. You’ll get this, “Don’t you know that the Web has changed all that? Integrated media plays are where they’re at.” And I think largely the answer probably is transparency. We were just drafting a new policy for us that’s not in effect yet, and get some feedback on it, that literally would be any time there is any ambiguity about what the financial relationship is related to an ad or not, you have a link, and it goes somewhere and then it explains it. So it might say, “In this case, the publisher of this book didn’t give us any money to write this article. However, we get three dollars for each book we sell from the Amazon link over on the side” — or whatever it is we feel that people need to know. Other than that, I don’t know how else to deal with it, but it’s a big concern.
Jeff Gralnick: That’s a series of links that can go on forever, but if the user discovers after the fact that there’s connective tissue between sponsorship and content that you didn’t own up to, you’re going to pay the price somehow, and you’ve got to make it clear. At NBC News, there is a standards and practices book that is thicker than both wrists, and a large part of it deals with being honest with, in television terms, with the viewer and making sure that your advertising doesn’t seem to be supportive of your news content.
Beau Brendler: But I want to ask, though, is that structure of the standards and practices, and the time-honored practices that are in place with television networks or at a newspaper necessarily always filtered down to the Web staff? Because I remember back when money was a little bit more scarce, I remember there was somebody coming in every week wanting to know if we could run a bunch of stories about how great Lexus cars were sponsored by Lexus — I don’t mean to take anything away from Lexus; that’s completely hypothetical and wasn’t about them. No, seriously.
Maybe you can see this today in the way that some of the larger news organizations, especially the papers, I think, are beginning to move their online staff out, and the newspaper staff — not move their staffs up, but the newspaper staff begins to have more oversight over the entire operation as a whole, as opposed to having the newspaper with a small Web staff appended on. Sometimes that Web staff isn’t necessarily trained or brought up on the culture of what it means to really work for the Los Angeles Times and pay attention to the guidelines. Is that a fair assessment, Robert? Jeff?
Jeff Gralnick: Well, insofar as NBC is concerned, I can’t speak for anybody else now, but insofar as NBC is concerned, we are a child of GE, which is a company that lives and dies by accountability. So everybody in news has to sign on the dotted line: I read the standards and practices book and I understand it and I will adhere to it. And that is — and even though the Web employees are part of a joint venture and MSNBC.com and they’re paid half by — because of the joint venture — half by Microsoft and half by NBC. Everybody in Redmond [Wash.] has signed on the dotted line.
Male Speaker: It also applied [inaudible] to the news gathering.
Steve Waldman: But you have this tradition in journalism that you’re all reflecting on, which is admirable and important, and you’re talking about the tensions and pressures working against it constantly, from the advertising model to the immediacy concern about getting things out. And how that tension gets worked out is very important.
I believe the credibility of the traditional media Web sites reflected in the survey clearly, clearly, clearly emanates from the credibility of the original source and all the work that goes into producing the content that goes under a brand name of NBC or the Los Angeles Times. I mean, I can’t think of any time over 20 years of doing public policy where a TV crew did not come in my office to interview me without the newspaper in their hand that was the original source of at least some of the information that will go into the TV story that comes out of it. There is this cross-pollination and careful process here of combining the work that goes into print with the work that goes into television.
However, after saying that, I think as you have embedded advertising and further pressures to bring a commercial perspective into the presentation of news and information, you run the risk of losing that trust and credibility with however number of links you have. You already have an American public who at the same time both trusts you and believes most news stories are biased in one way or another. So I think what’s actually important for the business across all media – from print to Web – is to make sure you know that there is the competition in the difference of points of view put out there, so that it doesn’t just come down to whether people think you’re biased or not. Because however much they trust in general, they do think that there is a point of view presented from every print and visual and, therefore, Internet news source.
Beau Brendler: I want to make sure, by the way, does anybody have any questions out there and want to jump in and make sure we’re interactive?
Female Speaker: I’d like to know how the current Judith Miller/New York Timesdevelopments have affected your own practices in ethics and editorial movements?
Jeff Gralnick: There’s a question to get into trouble with. Again, speaking for NBC News, I don’t think that kind of circumstance could have happened in our news organization. If you read [Bill] Keller lately, what you take away from that is they had a circumstance that they allowed to run out of control. And what happened, happened as a result of their own internal workings. Those don’t exist at NBC News.
That said, seeing what happened to an organization as stable as theNew York Times is cautionary and, at some point, all of those lessons learned will become part of our standards and practices book, which is a great, living, breathing document.
Speaker: I think also to the extent, as we’ve talked about, that the Web and that the online medium breeds transparency, you may have — and it’s sort of devoutly to be wished — that transparency not only helps the credibility of online, but the culture of transparency helps the credibility of offline media. The notion that — I can’t think of anything less transparent than the editor and publisher haven’t seen the notes, don’t know who the sources are, the way that some sources were identified. That’s practically the textbook definition of opaqueness, and to the extent that the Web fosters a greater openness about the process, which I think it does, that could wind up, and hopefully will wind up, boosting the credibility of our finding.
Beau Brendler: I want to give Rob Barrett a quick chance to jump in and then we’ll go to questions.
Robertson Barrett: I was going to jump in in the prior subject. What’s interesting also to me on the Judy Miller case is that a lot of the questions and observations that have come out of knowing the facts were — many of those things were raised in the blogosphere before. I think Bill Keller, by making the choices that he did, left some of those questions unanswered, and they remain firmly in the realm of opinion, couldn’t be verified until we now know what we know. In that case, though, if you wanted to follow the real story in a rebut of what we going on with Judy Miller, what her reputation was and what various people thought rightly or wrongly about her and her coverage of WMD [weapons of mass destruction], a lot of that was out there in the blogosphere.
So in the end, if you really want to know what’s going on, it’s the same as sort of “The Daily Show”; it’s essentially a blog format. The conversation going on about the news is contained within a show like that; the conversation about Judy Miller was contained on the Internet and, in fact, in other traditional publications before it became official at the New York Times. So the question is: Did the New York Times hurt itself by waiting and not coming clean or not pushing and being more aggressive with what it could have done?
The other quick thing I wanted to add on the advertising. All the previous comments on [inaudible] advertising have all come to the fore for me. Really, my whole tenure this year at the LA Times, but quite recently, there is constant demand – especially in the work that I’m doing now – for new kinds of advertising formats, especially from the entertainment industry. That’s a big strategic concern for me in that it’s our own backyard – it’s in the federal government, Washington Post, entertainment industry, LA Times.
We are launching new sites; we have very close advertiser relationships in the paper, as does the New York Times, with the movie industry. There have been requests to do something that actually theNew York Times does, which the LA Times currently does not do. If you look — I think it’s currently on the site — there is a sponsored Web site that uses New York Times reviews and articles in the past about Truman Capote, and it is a Web site dedicated to the new Capote film. It has a clear disclaimer that says this is created by the advertiser, by the movie studio, uses New York Times stories about Truman Capote, exists on the New York Times digital, NYTimes.com. There is a disclaimer that says that this site was not created by the New York Times digital. You could argue with that because physically there had to be some help there. The distinction they’re trying to make is that theNew York Times editorial staff did not pick the lineup of these stories, and this is a very interesting thing.
I have immediate financial opportunities to do the same thing. However, the LA Times editorial staff is very concerned about these issues, that once we start blurring the lines, that using editorial material at all in an advertising context is going to confuse people. The answer to this — this is an unresolved debate right now — the answer to this from the other side I think is very interesting.
Consumers are very sophisticated now. With the disclaimer, can people make their own decisions? And, in fact, we’re creating a masthead position now for someone over in interactive so that we’re constantly looking at this with the print staff, and they are trying to preserve their good name. They’re trying to make sure that if it happens on the Web, if editorial is mixed in an advertising contest, and then a member of the public or a journalist writes, “This mixture is confusing,” it reflects immediately on the Los Angeles Times brand. So there’s a lot of resistance to going there.
However, I think there’s a business argument with some merit that allows us to present things in a very clear way and let people decide. I don’t know that what the New York Times is doing now is in fact wrong if it’s clearly laid out. It’s how much faith can we place in the judgment of the consumer? And some executions of this will be completely valid and some will be confusing and very, very damaging. This is the kind of thing happening now with all the national advertiser money coming online. The question’s not going to go away, it’s not always as clear-cut as can we mix editorial and advertising into “advertorial.” It’s going to be, “Can I own a piece of your site, even if it’s separate?”
Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the LA Times, put it this way in our debate: Nightline is currently sponsored by someone; newspapers tend not to — the NYTimes.com uses “Sponsored by.” We currently don’t. That language is used for advertorials for the LA Times. If we start mixing them, we’ve given them two different cuts at the same thing, with the same language. The dictionary definition of sponsored, according toLA Times lawyers, means there is a degree of control from the advertiser over that. So what we have now is potential double standard. We could sponsor a section of LATimes.com with an advertiser exclusively, but would you have the Metro section of the LA Times be sponsored by Nextel and there’s the story of the Nextel CEO quitting next to it? Nobody knows the right answer to this.
Beau Brendler: Do you want to jump in? You’ve had a question.
Carl Iseli: Carl Iseli with the Washington Monthly magazine and Web site. Going back to Rob’s initial statement about the necessary different levels of controls and level of editing between the printed version and what’s on the Web, is the audience to assume this? How do you inform the audience of this in a way that makes sense and is not overbearing? Also, you mentioned the legal, and I’m curious about how this impacts like your special media coverage?
Robertson Barrett: Right. It comes down, I think, to a very simple question. If we hire a blogger, and in this case an established blogger, and let them continue working the way they have worked, we have I think one of two choices. We either come up with a — we let them do what they did, or we assign a couple of editors to monitor every single posting that they make, which is impractical and really not what they want and not what the public wants.
So it comes back in my mind to: Is this a credible person, or are they going to make errors? Yes. We have to look into the liability issues. We’re more prone to make an error because we’re publishing in real time, but we have to be 10 times as careful as to whom we hire. And the issue of trust is out there on an hour-by-hour basis. We’re very much at risk of something happening where we get a story wrong and the Los Angeles Times name is dragged down with that. However, we feel we have to start taking these risks, so we’re only launching with people that we believe have very good track records and have a following. At the same time, we’re trying to look at unknown people and come up with certain subjects that aren’t prone to — for example, we’re launching six blogs in the next few weeks. Some of them are entertainment industry, one is on travel. Can we take more risks with a travel blogger than with someone blogging about national security? Arguably, yes, but in the grand scheme, no, so we’ll see. We’re just trying to be a bit bolder now and be very careful.
Male Speaker: Do you think [inaudible]?
Robertson Barrett: I think we have to be — we are labeling these quite carefully. We’re discussing publishing the background of the people, the kind of things they’ve done, the purpose of the feature, and a feature that is a blog feature is labeled quite differently than — we essentially are labeling what kind of process, you know, something’s that been repurposed from the Los Angeles Times print is clearly to be labeled that way, and something that came from a different process will have a description of that process.
Beau Brendler: I wanted just to ask a question real quickly about blogs and Wikis because there’s so much data in the poll about blogs, and the LA Timesis experimenting and that’s great.
One of the things that’s interesting to me regards the Consumer Reports model of publishing is that the idea of citizen-created, or expert-in-the-field-created, journalism is sort of at a counterbalance to what Consumer Reports does, which is do scientific testing and really state on that, which is difficult to duplicate in an atmosphere like a Wiki. So what did you come away with from the Los Angeles Times with the experiment in which you did a Wiki and it kind of wasn’t what you expected?
Robertson Barrett: I’ll give you the brief version: I regret nothing. Je ne regrette rien. Very briefly, the intention in doing something with Wiki was actually not to go try something with Wiki. It was to try out an idea for an open source editorial. And Mike Kinsley’s idea was to publish in the paper at some point soon an editorial that was the work of a larger group of people. It could be a larger group of experts, and it could be a group of interested members of the public.
The means by which to execute that is the question and, in a way, it’s too bad the other shoe hasn’t dropped on that yet. As many know, Mike is not at the LA Times, although we are carrying on with the idea. It really was a practical issue. We knew beforehand that somebody would probably post pornography of some kind. The degree and the intensity and the speed by which something could become a phenomenon where it’s communicated around a slash dot of LA Times makes something a target. It got to a point that we weren’t comfortable, but we didn’t actually decide not to go forward with the idea. In fact, there was a very interesting run-up to when someone finally started posting pornography at a pace that we felt we couldn’t keep blocking it.
The other part of that that hasn’t been talked about publicly because we haven’t followed through quickly enough, in my opinion, is that we worked with Jimbo Wales, who is essentially the founder of Wiki, and one way to get around the problem of vandalism there and have the debate be somewhat productive is to have a lot of white hats out there. The idea was to allow any number of people to come in and do that. We had a good number of them, but we agreed with Jimbo to try to do this on any number of sites, not necessarily LA Times.com, and publish the results potentially in the Los Angeles Times online and print. And if we had a thousand people and not a hundred, maybe would it have worked?
But the big issue for me was that you have to accept some level of imperfection, and in the aggregate, these sort of group-created, open-source approaches tend to work. That’s why many of the articles in Wiki, in fact if not most of them, tend to be fairly valid, tend to be fairly interesting and add something. But in the short run, somebody could have vandalized it. In the space of an hour, it could be terrible. Over the course of weeks, you’ll tend to find a lot of value in Wiki, and if we can go ahead and do that, it could be by either some other software means, by more frequent monitoring. But the principle that we would edit something for content other than vandalism was there at the beginning. We would not go that, and I think we intend to go forward and find a way to do it that’s more practical.
Beau Brendler: Steve, you wanted to jump in, and then I think we had another question.
Steve Waldman: Yeah, a point related to the blogs. One is – to follow up on that – there’s almost a concept of ultimate truth as opposed to momentary truth. One of the things that blogs do, or good bloggers do anyway, is they acknowledge that their opinion about something is speculative and related to what they know at that moment, and then they correct it. And in the long run, you get the accurate view. Not all bloggers do that, obviously. I think that one of the distinctions between a good blogger and a bad blogger is the understanding that they’re transparent about their own thought process and when it works and when it doesn’t work.
The other thing I wanted to point out was to your question which is the data in the survey says that a lot of people use blogs, but a lot of people don’t view them as credible. That seems to me to indicate that the public pretty much has it right. That they use blogs, they’re entertaining, they’re interesting, they make them think, and they probably get some information from there, but they’re not viewing it exactly the same way as a traditional news source. It’s something new and it’s a little bit different, and the public is making that distinction.
Beau Brendler: I know we’re cutting into lunch here, so, yes?
Male Speaker: I want to go back to the Judith Miller point and also to the—
Beau Brendler: Well, we need to kind of keep it about the Web. I mean, Judith Miller’s a huge—
Male Speaker: Yeah, yeah, it’s about the Web, it’s about the Web. And also to the comment about the photo of the plane coming into the World Trade Center, because I think both are attributable what I guess I’ll call viral news as opposed to viral marketing. It’s part of an epidemic — it might start out in a blog or it might start out in an e-mail that gets circulated around, and all of a sudden it becomes this big story.
How can a news organization – probably the Web arm of the news organization which will report on something like this, or the print arm or the television arm –prevent or inoculate yourself against a viral news item? And, assuming that you get infected, what can you do to correct public perception? Because the perception that comes out from something like this is overwhelming.
Beau Brendler: I don’t want to cut you off, but we’re running into lunch.
Speaker from Panel: Very briefly. You need human beings in the process, yet we are trying to design all kinds of algorithms that would allow us to let blogs be open source and read for all of those words that shouldn’t be there and keeps pornography out. We haven’t figured that out yet, so it’s going to take human beings.
In the rush of 9/11, someone looked at that picture and believed for a moment that it was true, and all it takes on the Internet now is a moment for something to become globally accessible. So human beings have to do in this information form what they have done ever since movable type was invented. They have to exercise judgment, and the people you have hired to exercise judgment have to be smart enough to do it. It’s an old, old rule, but even in this nine-year-old medium — and that’s basically all it is — that rule is immutable.
Beau Brendler: Fred, the last word?
Fred Ritchin: No, it’s just—I think it’s really complicated. I’m just referring back to the Kerry/Fonda non-photograph.
[END OF TAPE]:
Fred Ritchin (continued): …about the economic influence, but there’s also a political influence that we’re not talking about. There’s a perception, I think, that lots of publications are ready for anything that will prove their point of view. Kerry and Fonda were in bed together, basically. And a major — going back to the democracy question – would be if that picture appeared a day before the election, could it skew the election? One election was won by 600 votes. What do we do about that? And I think it’s a kind of — I’m working with Beau and Jorgen [Wouters] trying to come up with credibility standards, particularly for photographs sponsored by Consumers Union, so we could check off, This is credible, This is credible, This is the way you do it.
But the other side is that there’s a credibility issue with anybody in power, with the government, with celebrities, and so on who set up these photo opportunities which we’re supposed to believe is true. That’s also a viral kind of reporting in which they’re inflicting upon us a sense of reality which is paid for by lots and lots of money on their side to make it look real.
That the president is with certain people for 20 seconds — we photograph it, publish it, but he doesn’t know them — it’s all set up. So I think that there’s a lot of onus on us, and I think there’s also something we’re saying: That there’s lots of digital tools and digital strategies.
Like one thing I work with a lot is if there’s a photo opportunity underneath that picture, run a second picture from the side of what it actually looked like — the whole set-up with the backdrops and all that stuff so that people would see that it’s all set up; there’d be a double image. You can’t do that in print as easily, you can do it digitally.