Transcript of Online News Association: What Is News, and Why Does It Matter? from “Building Trust on the Web,” Consumer Reports WebWatch’s First National Summit on Web Credibility
- MJB: MJ Bear, Founder and Principal, MJBEAR.com
- LA: Len Apcar, Editor-in-Chief, New York Times on the Web
- SS: Sree Sreenivasan, Associate Professor of Professional Practice, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
- BM: Betsy Morgan, Vice President of Business Development, CBSNews.com
- DF: Doug Feaver, Executive Editor, Washingtonpost.com
- BA: Barry Abisch, Assistant Managing Editor, The Journal News
Note: This is an edited transcript of the proceedings.
MJB: Welcome. This is “What Is the News and Why Does It Matter?” My name is M.J. Baer. I’m not Bruce Koon. Bruce is the president of the Online News Association, and also national editor for online at Knight-Ridder.
I’m a founding board member of the Online News Association, thus the replacement slot. I currently am a full-time professor at American University. But I think those of us that have former titles may sometimes best be known by what we used to do in another lifetime, and I’m also known as the former vice president for online at National Public Radio.
I love news, I love online, and we have the best panel today. Let me quickly introduce them, set up what we’re going to talk about. They’re going to talk for a couple of minutes, and then we really want to answer your questions and find out what’s on your minds. We’re going to try to make this as interactive as we can in a conference room.
To my immediate left is Len Apcar. He’s the editor-in-chief of the New York Times on the Web. He’s been doing this job less than a year, so he’s probably the newest one in the position. But he’s been at the paper for 12 years, where he was an editor, and prior to that he spent 12 years as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal.
One of the things I said, “Len, what should I say that you don’t want to say?” But I had to qualify that. Otherwise one of our other panelists may challenge it. He said, “We’re the biggest newspaper Web site in the world.” Did I get that quote right? But one of the greatest things he also said was, they really spiked during the war with 2.5 million unique visitors in one day, setting an all-time record. And I assume that the traffic has stayed pretty high. So we welcome Len from the NYTimes.com.
To Len’s immediate left is Sree Sreenivasan. He’s an associate professor for Columbia University’s School of Journalism. He’s been doing that job for nine years. And, having just started in academia, we should all just give him a big round of applause for maintaining this long in that system.
He is the founding administrator of the Online Journalism Awards, and he has probably one of the best gigs, where he gets to go on TV and talk about online and news. Not bad. So, welcome, Sree, to give us that academic, unbiased perspective on what everyone’s doing right and wrong.
To Sree’s left is Betsy Morgan. She’s the vice president for CBS News, where she oversees CBSNews.com, TV ventures, and general strategy for the news division. Just three small little pieces of CBS. She’s been doing that job for four years.
Prior to that, she was in strategy for CBS Corporate, working directly with the CEO. She did that for three years. Prior to that, she was at Newscore. And prior to that she was an investment banker. So she brings a non-journalistic perspective to journalism. And, also, near and dear to my heart, a broadcast perspective to this online panel of mostly newspaper people. Thank you, Betsy, for bringing many things near and dear to my heart. And also the female touch.
To Betsy’s left is Doug Feaver. He’s the executive editor for the Washington.com, a job he has managed to hold onto for five years. Or they have kept him there, dragging and screaming, for five years.
Previous to that, he was the liaison between the paper and the online world. He lasted in that for six months and then they realized that they need him over on online full time. But Doug really is one of the best examples of convergence and longevity at an organization, having spent 33 years at the in all kinds of roles — reporter, editor, and all functions.
He is also a founding board member of Online News Association, and has been our treasurer for many years, and we thank him for his dedication, service and wisdom. Doug is not one for many words, but what he says is so insightful, so we look forward to those insights on this panel. Not that everyone else isn’t insightful. Just have to clarify that.
Our final and last, but not least, is Barry Abisch. He’s the assistant managing editor for online at the Journal News in White Plains [N.Y.]. It’s a Gannett newspaper. He’s been in his current job for three years, but the paper has been online since ’92, and Barry, having worked on the other side of the paper, started helping that convergence since 1992. He has been at the paper for 25 years in various editing capacities.
If you haven’t noticed a common thread between the three newspaper guys, I have. Each has been at their paper for more than 10 years, in some role on the paper, and then now running online. Which I think is very true to many people in the online news business, where we actually converge ourselves before we start telling online news.
The title of the panel is “What Is News? Why Does It Matter?” Did you know that of the 116 million American adults online, 71 percent go online looking for news? Which we all applaud and think is really great, and they can go to our sites many, many times a day.
For about 17 percent of those people, online is their principal source of news. And with those couple of little facts, I’ve teed off and I send the mike over to Len.
LA: I congratulate you all for figuring out that Internet news is the hottest panel to go to, even though the crowd is a little sparse. Actually, I think since the bubble burst a few years ago, the Internet has had its shakeout, and generally I think we’re all doing reasonably well.
That’s certainly been the case for us, in terms of readership. It’s also the case from the perspective of our advertising sales operation, as well as for people and companies that come and advertise with us.
We are growing just about across every category, and that’s very encouraging, given the long, hard slog that my predecessors went through two or three years ago.
MJ said that readership has been high, particularly during the war. There were times, I think, during those weeks where all of us probably could — Bruce Koon couldn’t be here, but I wish he could have sent some of his painkillers. It was a long war, but it probably was good for business, and good for readers and good for news.
Because it played off very nicely into our hands here as American-based Web sites. The war was anywhere from eight to nine hours ahead of the east coast in New York. I know that Washington did, we did, we had Web journalists on the ground in the Gulf. This was all to the good of producing news and producing a Web report.
The paper, in our case, closes roughly between 12 and 2:30 in the morning, New York time. And so much happened on the ground in Baghdad and in southern Iraq and even northern Iraq after the paper closed, that we really were the New York Times during the day, if you wanted war coverage and up-to-date coverage.
That was a huge boost to the Web, because it brought people here looking for things they couldn’t get in the paper. And we tried to deliver not only the words and the text, but also deliver it in a way that you couldn’t get in the paper, even if the paper was printing in real time.
In other words, we had a multi-media briefing, we had pictures and slide shows. We made them bigger than we’ve ever made them. We brought more news into the site as fast as we could, and did things — you don’t see it now, but we even redesigned the homepage to encompass developments more quickly, and to make it easy to peel the site down layer by layer, depending on how much time you wanted to invest.
From our page views, as well as our traffic, we believe that we were generally successful in getting people news that they wanted, making it relatively easy to find what they needed, and keep up with the war, American policy, European policy, and all the other things that attended to this conflict.
Also I think was a moment for us to feel good about integration with the newsroom. As you heard, almost all of us have come from news backgrounds, hard news newspaper backgrounds. I came from the foreign desk, was my last stop before I came to the Web.
Many of my colleagues had done the same thing, either from business or from foreign or from metro. And I think that the Web is maturing to a point now where it’s not just the techies from the newsroom who have fallen in love with the coding and what can be done with the Web. It really is a product of the newsroom.
The newsroom’s war meetings at 11 o’clock were all about the paper and the Web. And, in our case, our early edition now, which is theInternational Herald Tribune.
I can go on and on talking about the war, but maybe that’ll come up more in questions. The short summary is, I think the last few months have been a high-water mark for Internet news. I think a lot of people came to us who don’t buy the paper. A lot of people came to us who buy the paper infrequently, and that’s all to a good thing.
Our audience overseas has been running at 15 to 20 percent, and we don’t have final numbers yet for March, but we have indications that our audience abroad picked up to the high end of that range.
I think probably my colleagues have a similar story to tell, but I think, overall, war is not fun to cover, but it was good for journalism and good for the Web.
BA: As MJ mentioned, the three of us have been doing print journalism for a long time. It’s one of those things. What is news? I know it when I see it; it’s like art. I’ve got next to my desk a 1937 Barnes & Noble journalism textbook. I was looking through that, and it had four definitions of news, which I’ll shorten here:
–“News may be defined as any accurate fact or idea that will interest a large number of readers.”
–“News is anything timely that is selected by the news staff, because it is of interest and significance to the readers, or because it can be made so.”
–“News may be defined as an accurate, unbiased account of significant facts of a timely happening that is of interest to the readers.”
–“News is the first report of significant events which are of interest to the public.”
The common thread here is interest. What this tells us is that, although we as journalists think we can define news, our readers, our viewers or our listeners or our visitors, are defining news themselves by what’s interesting to them. I think for the Web it has relevance, because now we have Web sites that are not founded, like ours are, in traditional news media, that are presenting news.
I was at a lunch yesterday and I heard a little news report on NPR [National Public Radio] that the World Health Organization had issued a traveler’s warning based on SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome]. If I was planning a trip, I may come back to the newsroom to my desk, and had no newspaper, I might want to go to a travel site. I was curious how travel sites were handling that story.
Consumer Reports Web site lists six most popular travel sites. One of them, Orbitz, about 3:30 in the afternoon, had the World Health Organization warning posted. Another one didn’t have that, but did have a link to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] page talking about SARS. Another one had a section called “Airline News,” and in there it did have a report on SARS, but it was dated April 16th. Another site did have the World Health Organization report, and two of the sites — these are travel sites — had no mention of SARS at all.
I understood this was interesting, because a travel consumer would probably be interested in that story.
My only point here is that I think whatever Web sites we have that are presenting news or news information, we think in terms of our audience and who’s reading us or visiting our site.
I’ll give you one more little thing I pulled out of my old textbook. Again, it gets back to interest. It’s something called “news arithmetic,” and it was actually written in 1932. It says things like this:
“One ordinary man plus one ordinary life of 79 years equals zero. One ordinary man plus one ordinary life of 100 years equals news.”
And here’s my favorite:
“One bank cashier plus one wife plus seven children equals zero. One bank president, plus one chorus girl, minus $100,000 equals news.”
News is defined, really, by the people who are our consumers of the news really help define the news. And that really hasn’t changed in 50 years, 60 years.
DF: The question, “What is news?” is one that every one of us has been addressing all of our lives, and I don’t think any of us have a final definition. We’re all editors for Google, and I guess maybe Google has developed this algorithm which takes the collective wisdom of those of us and many of you in this room, no doubt, and however many thousand others it is, and comes up with a report that looks an awful lot like the main homepages in terms of the first links that it’s got of most of a major news sites.
In fact, a colleague of Len’s told me today that Google has launched, and asked me what I thought of it, and I gave a careful founder’s answer. And this is something — and I’ve been a reporter long enough to know better than this — at the end of it, I said, “I’m not expecting this to drive me to the unemployment line.” That was the quote that theTimes used. And the Google guy said this morning, “If you were at the search engine panel, that takeaway editors, there isn’t very much there.”
What is news? War, we talked about the war. One of the unfortunate truths of journalism, and something I’ve actually wrestled with a good deal in my career is that, if it’s bad for people, it’s probably news, and that we profit from the misfortunes of others. It is a very sobering thought, it’s something that I really have wrestled with internally and ethically most of my professional career.
But then there’s also this “interest” issue, which Barry mentioned, that sometimes takes itself a little bit too seriously. We have this ponderous page with foreign policy and the latest political developments and all this kind of stuff going on.
I had a huge fight with several of the protectors of the prestige when Winona Ryder was convicted of shoplifting. And I insisted that that story appear not anywhere close to the top, but at least somewhere over the fold. Just so it could creep up to the top of the screen.
It happened fairly late in the afternoon, East Coast Time, and it blew away every other story that we had on the site that day, in terms of what people wanted to read. It was an AP story; it didn’t have Washington branding. There was nothing special about it. But still, names, a little bit of, makes it.
I think the other point I’ll make just going in was to follow a little bit on what Len said about the war. We all worked very hard, I think, across the site, every news site. We were all looking at each other all the time while trying to stay awake and continue to deal with it.
But it was a great Internet moment. Certainly the biggest one since 9/11, which was another extraordinary day for the Internet. Again, in terms of the development of a print-based newsroom, and having it begin to think of the Web as a platform on which it can be very functional, it was an extraordinary experience for us at the, as well as at the Times, in watching what they were doing in terms of getting people who really — you know, the biorhythms of a print journalist are pretty much you kind of wander in at 10 o’clock in the morning, you have a cup of coffee, you read the other papers that you worry about. You talk to your editors. But serious work begins around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Panic sets in somewhat later in the day.
Meanwhile, we’re dealing with a situation that is eight or nine hours — we had a situation for a while where Baghdad changed Daylight Savings Time — what was it? Two weeks or a week or something earlier than the rest of the world. And that confused everybody’s biorhythms for a minute or two.
All of this stuff has happened since the paper was delivered. It ran off the press and was dumped on your front porch or in the newsstand. And the Web had to be fully competitive. The newspaper-based sites had to be fully competitive with the broadcast sites, and all that sort of thing. It was an extraordinary moment, I think, for the development of this medium.
Like Len said, we have a lot of people who don’t take the paper who were looking at it. We have a large audience, approximately the same percentage — I was interested in that percentage — of international users.
We skew much younger. The gold standard since I’ve been in this business, which is a very long time, is the 18-34-year-old. When I started working at a little paper in central Oklahoma we were worried — and this was when I was in my twenties — we were worried about losing the 18-34-year-olds. So something’s happened over the intervening years, but we continue to be worrying about that, and they seem to be getting their news from the Internet.
BM: The war was pretty extraordinary for CBSNews.com as well. Some people say that this war did for broadband what the Gulf War did for cable. And I guess to some extent that’s probably true.
We encoded over 1,000 on-demand clips over the 28 days of the war. We streamed the Pentagon briefings, the White House briefings and a live Baghdad cam. So if you were at work and you didn’t have access to a television or radio, which most people don’t have access to, you had a way to access what was going on outside your cubicle or outside your office.
There’s a quote that I pulled from our CBS News standards book that I just want to read to you, because it’s so meaningful to us, and it’s something that everyone on this panel, I’m sure, thinks about every day: “One of the wondrous things about the practice of journalism is that it cannot be done by rote. And each new days presents challenging and difficult issues calling for decent judgments.”
That’s a really hard mandate to live up to on the Web. It’s harder than in television, and it’s harder than newspapers, because the Internet is a media that doesn’t rest. Being in the business of 24/7 news, each new minute of each new day presents that challenge of adhering to our guiding principles of accuracy and fairness.
The Web rewards speed, I think, before accuracy. There’s not a lot of time to have that second cup of coffee and reflect before you publish that article. But we can’t call ourselves journalists if we fail to live up to those standards of fairness and accuracy.
Beating the competition on a breaking news story is important, but publishing a story based on fact and not rumor is even more important. Just to end by one of the guiding principles for CBSNews.com — and I daresay since we are all in a business, for everyone else on this panel – is: We have to do good. We have to provide a service. And we have to do well. We have to meet our financial goals. We are a business, and we are held to the same standards as other businesses in our corporation. In a new medium, that’s challenging.
I remember a year and a half ago, American Airlines was a big advertiser on ABCNews.com. And you knew it was going to happen, and it did happen, where there was a plane crash, and there was a picture of a plane in parts, next to a banner from American Airlines.
We face a lot of really amazing, interesting challenges that our newspaper and our television and our radio counterparts don’t face. But that’s, I guess, what makes things exciting.
SS: I thought I would just talk as, technically, the academic on this list, I’d talk about some of the things that we haven’t touched upon. My colleagues have already done a good job on highlighting the main things that were being done online.
I wanted to show you a couple of Web sites that I think a lot of people were more aware of this time around than might have been. But I want to start by telling you that, over at Columbia just two days ago, we had a presentation by Mike Moran, who many of you know is the foreign editor of MSNBC.
He made a presentation about war coverage in the Internet age. His predecessor in his role, the Hearst New Media fellow was Rich Jaroslovsky, who’s sitting right in the back there. And the founder of the ONA. There was obviously a lot about the kind of things we’re talking about. If you get a chance, you should, by the way, read Rich’s very prescient piece. Now it’s about two years old, right, Rich? A year and a half, two years, but still very good. And you can get that off the J-school homepage.
Mike was talking about an unusual thing. He made a statement where he said, “Our standards on MSNBC.com are in some ways different from NBC News.” He was implying that in some ways it’s also not just different, but the kinds of things you can go with on the Web are not what you can go with on television news, and vice versa.
We’re used to hearing that the old media partners of ours are the better, more storied, with higher standards. But what he pointed out was, you might remember that on Tuesday there was, for a fleeting moment, some kind of biological threat in Tacoma, Washington. There was a perfect TV story, where CNN, NBC all went to it, if you remember, and there was some kind of building and security personnel outside. That was perfect; you can have the helicopter circling. They ran with it for many minutes. But MSNBC.com did not carry that story.
They were getting calls from all over saying, “Take it, take it, take it,” and he insisted that that not be there. The reason was that he was pointing out that, on television, whatever you do gets done and it’s over. It’s in the ether being examined by Martians someday somewhere, but not — there is no accountability, in a way, for television the way there is online. As soon as you do something on your Web site, it’s printed out, it’s photocopied, it’s distributed, it’s e-mailed. It’s with Explorer, it’s “file: save as: complete,” and it’s there; it exists.
We have seen so many examples of journalism organizations that have gotten in trouble from that process, where a headline might be flashed and people get it. They remove it afterwards, but it lives on. We have the famous example of, “American Beats Kwan,” at the ’94 Olympics. Those kind of things, you have to really watch out for. So when he implied that there was maybe even a higher standard online, that was the first time anyone had articulated it, to me, anyway. I thought that was interesting.
Among the things that we saw with the war, apart from the partner organizations or the affiliated organizations that we’ve already talked about, we saw things like what Reuters did this year, as I’m sure you all know, about the Reuters raw video feed. Did many people look at this? Did you get a chance to see?
What was unusual about this was that you could go in here, and this was what you were hinting about the broadband, that you could actually — I guess now you have to register. I didn’t know — well, maybe not. I guess you don’t have to register; you could opt to register. You’re seeing broadband video being given away by Reuters here, and I thought that was an interesting thing that they did.
The other thing was, I think a lot of people, especially outside the world, got to see American journalism practiced, and paid more attention to American journalism than they had before. But also, without offending any of my colleagues, just to say that a lot of international viewers started going overseas, or even Americans started looking and comparing American journalism for the first time to strong coverage in places like the BBC, the Guardian.
And while nobody on here would, everybody here obviously has the highest standards, there was still some feeling that the casualty figures, the videos of dead Iraqis, those kinds of things were not being displayed prominently on American news sites. That was new, I think, for a lot of people in journalism to see that happening.
One of the phenomena that obviously got a lot of attention this time was the phenomenon of blogs. While I disagree with a lot of people that have bought into the blog hype, because they’re certainly popular, but are the numbers accurate? I think the blogs mostly talk to other bloggers and to people like us in this room. I don’t see everyday news consumers going and reading blogs, except for maybe “Baywatch” or whatever it is that they’re watching to see the blogs of those entertainment programs. “Survivor,” sorry, yes. CBS, “Survivor.”
What happens is that, I was pleasantly surprised, I saw sort of an affirmation in the Pew Internet Life Study that recently came out. Some of you may have seen it, where it said 4 percent of these news consumers went to blogs. And that’s 4 percent of Internet users, so if you look at the general population, it’s even smaller. I’m afraid that if I say this often enough, some blogger is going to get mad at me and put that on a blog, and then I’m in deep trouble. But that’s certainly something I’ve seen.
I would encourage those of you who haven’t already to see a Web site called Cyberjournalist.net. It’s run by friends of some of ours, a former student of mine. It’s now hosted at the American Press Institute, a guy named Jon Dube. He has done a very good job of highlighting online coverage, and doing all kinds of neat stuff on here that many of you have seen.
One of the problems I had was keeping track of the news. How do you decide which Web site to go to? I’d go to his site, and look at his great online Iraq War coverage gallery every day. I would go to Google News. Google News became my news homepage, and I would just refresh that all day, instead of trying to bounce around to all the other places.
He also has a nice thing that I won’t put on here called Cyber Slip-ups, where he tracks every single mistake that online Web sites make, including, you saw the very recent, very public pre-obits published by one of the Web sites. Those are the kind of thing that will happen more and more as we’re all linked together.
I thought the event that happened yesterday, the [unintelligible] even where Dennis Organ of the Hartford Courant, whom many of you might know. You know this case where his site got — he used to be a columnist at the Hartford Courant, then became the travel editor. When he stopped writing columns, he decided to set up a sort of a blog, but his own Web site. Yesterday he was shut down by the editor of theCourant. So he’s gone on here. He’s not sure what he’s going to do, but I felt as long as he hadn’t set up HartfordCourantsucks.com, he was actually just giving his opinion. He said something about why can he not just talk about the Sox online, the Red Sox? That’s why he did this. But I know different news organizations have different standards about this. Just wanted to show you some of these things, and I’m sure we’ll get into other issues as we go along.
MJB: And we won’t put on the management hat to talk about that. But if you go back to cyber journalists for one second, I have one question and then I promise we’re going to open it up to the audience.
You see the item below the newspaper shutting down the Web site: “Soldier Writes War Blog for WCPO.com.” That brings up, to me, an interesting point. Here’s someone who is obviously not a journalist. They are a soldier, and that’s their job at that moment. We don’t know if this guy has journalism training or not.
But yet, a credible, branded news establishment has decided to help publish or draw traffic over to this Web site. You all come from branded, credible news sources. How can you, and how does the audience distinguish between news content that you have vetted, you have edited, or editors have edited? People with journalism training, who, what, where, when, why? All the facts, fact-checking. How do you distinguish or help the audience distinguish between that and what a soldier writes on the war field?
DF: I think you start with labeling. If you’re going to do this, if you’re going go this road, and you particularly see it in sports sections during football seasons, and there are papers across the country that sign up the right guard, because he’s the one who can write, usually, to write a column on what’s going on with the football team.
And it’s often even ghostwritten, even at that. I think the labeling is the whole thing. I doubt that the viewers of that site have any question that there’s a difference. I’m sure they know that there’s a difference between that, based on what it said, and you get this guy’s impressions. Which are valuable. I think this is a useful look at something, and I see no particular problem with it, as long as you label it properly and it’s clearly distinguished from the basic news product that’s also there.
LA: I agree with what Doug said. I think this is the kind of boutique feature that the Web actually can be pretty good with. The broader point is, I think this is where editing and design play a huge role on the Web, even moreso than in the paper.
When I talked about layers at the beginning, if you want the news, the overview, the lead-all, as we call it, we’ll give you that. If you want to lead-all and a little more, we’ll give you that. If you want the lead-all and even more than two or three pieces, we’ll give you that.
And if you want to get really down into it, we’ll give you the expert Q&A from the Council on Foreign Relations, or we’ll give you a soldier’s blog. It’s just his narrow little view of the war, and that’s kind of interesting. Ernie Pyle made a great business and a great mark in journalism by telling little stories in the midst of a big war.
I thought that was fun. I doubt it got a lot of takers, frankly. I think people who are coming to the Web tend to go for a couple of quick things, and they’re out and come back. Some stay a long time, and those will go to something like this.
DF: In some ways, this is also the discussion about embeds. CentCom was always complaining about the fact that they’re seeing this little piece of the war from wherever, and they didn’t have a larger picture that we can give you only from Kuwait City right here. Those pictures are all real. They happened. They saw in the eyes of that particular beholder, and we have to look at that.
BA: I don’t think this is too different. We might just as well send a reporter out to interview that soldier and taken a few quotes out of that raw feed. The labeling is crucial. A couple of times what we’ve done is, we’ve put transcripts up of full interviews a reporter has done. It’s kind of the same thing.
We’re not vetting the accuracy of what this person’s saying. We’re saying this is a person we interviewed; here’s his or her credentials. We haven’t done any fact-checking on this, but this is everything that was said. Because if you’re really interested in the story, you might want to read this. That fits in that mold, I think.
MJB: Betsy, for you is it labeling? Let’s talk about the “Survivor” blogs.
BM: I think you’ve got to be careful. I think we watch our message boards really carefully. We watch anything that anybody does in the field. We had a lot of on-the-scene reporting from our embeds, from journalist-trained journalists in the field. And there are a number of editors in our Web newsroom that looked at every single word of those on-the-scene reports before they were published.
Again, I think if it’s labeled, if it’s clear what the source is, who the source is, there’s a lot of different Web-defined things so much differently than traditional media. But you’ve really got to take a good editor’s look at everything that you publish on your site. Because it does live in infinity.
MJB: Sree, what do you teach those kids who are graduating in three our four weeks —
SS: And who don’t have jobs.
MJB: But you know they’re going to get that first job, and they’re going to be on some overnight shift at some news site. Hopefully they’ll all get jobs. And they’re going to have to make decisions. What do you tell them about how to deal with information that comes across their desk? Or someone calls the newsroom?
SS: It goes back to just traditional good print reporting, which is: Verify facts. My favorite example in recent days, or in the last couple of months, was: You saw the story about the blonde gene disappearing. Does anybody remember this, watching TV? It was carried in almost every major news site and television show, about how the blonde gene would disappear in 200 years, according to a WHO study. My wife and I are watching the morning news, and we actually discussed this: “Well, what an interesting piece.” And the only real blondes, non-bottle blondes that would be left would be in Iceland, as you might recall.
It was nice, and I saw it reported all over the Web. It turned out, of course, that it was a fake story from a German Web site, and WHO had never run this. It was because the BBC carried this, everybody said, “Wow, well, it’s the BBC. These people walk on water. So it must be perfect.” But nobody checked.
When journalists then went to the WHO afterwards to sort of cover their behinds, and they said, “Why didn’t you dispute this when the story was released?” They said, “That’s not our job to sit around and correct journalists all day long. We have lives to save.”
The point is, mistakes do obviously happen. But it’s getting harder and harder to be able to tell what’s real and what isn’t. One specific problem that I have seen recently is the ability to click and send pages. Because now you teach people to look at the URL, right? Well, when you click and send a page off and it’s an entire HTML page, the URL isn’t there. So I could send you, create in PhotoShop a changed page of this and send it out, and then people would just virally market it all over the Web. And I’ve seen news organizations burned by that.
DF: I would just jump in on one point here, and I think this is an advertisement for all of us. I think that Web journalism is harder in many cases, because it is so real-time and so permanent. Even after all a few years now, technology has the veneer of sophistication and authority.
Tom Friedman tells this story of which, I think it’s in one of his books as well. He frequently says you can feed a lot of hatred, anger and misinformation by people sitting there with a laptop logging onto some Web site that says that the American West hates Islam, and here’s all these things to back this up. And it just goes on and on and on like this. And because it’s coming off an Internet Web site that looks authoritative, and because it’s coming on a fairly modern laptop computer, you’d be surprised how many people fall for this stuff.
That’s where I think our role comes in as serious news-gathering organizations and news editing organizations. And it behooves all of us to take this responsibly.
I’m sometimes shocked at what CNN sometimes does, but I shouldn’t just finger them. Cable will, like the Tacoma powder — it was a post office, right? You sit there and you say, and suddenly they just say, “Well, I guess they just say it didn’t happen. I guess it’s not a story anymore.” And they just vanish.
I remember during the sniper case in Maryland and Virginia, suddenly everybody was converged, all these cameras were trained on a phone booth, and then all of a sudden it turned out to be a guy getting out of a white van making a phone call.
BA: Two guys having a bad day, and every cop in Central Virginia was on top of them.
DF: We’re not infallible. There are times we’ve made mistakes. But I look at that and I say: If there’s a role for the Web in sorting out this, it’s got to be something like this. Because technology gives it a sense of authority.
The immediacy of our world today, the borderless nature of our world, all of these things plays into a world in which everything moves so quickly that misinformation and blogging — blogging scares the bejeesus out of me, because I think it can be very, very dangerous.
BM: Another offender is e-mail alerts. Breaking news e-mail alerts. And certainly during the war, when everyone wanted to attract [users]: “Come to my site. Come to my site! I’ve got the latest!” That it’s very easy, with a couple of clicks to send out an e-mail alert on something that, five minutes later, turned out to be a false rumor.
SS: Just on that point of why CNN does that, and why MSNBC has a little more leeway, it’s because MSNBC is a partnership, while CNN has to follow what its television parent is doing. That’s why.
MJB: We have a question from the audience. I’m going to get to you in one second. Just to sum it up briefly: That really goes to the very nature of the difference of the mediums.
Broadcast is a media outlet. The Web actually, while you think of it as a media outlet, it takes a while to actually get it up. It’s easier to fly up a camera and put up a microphone and start talking than to post a Web page. So that may be part of the reason for the time-lag.
Q: I was interested by the blonde gene story. It highlights even a more subtle problem, not just with online news, but news in general, which is the source for the news story itself, and the susceptibility to being manipulated by press releases, etc. I see this discussion of online news and what is news as a real opportunity to perhaps begin to address that for the entire news media, and that is, getting at the disclosure first.
I run a health Web site, and we had a session on it this morning. If I want to get accredited, I’ve got to have my sources. But newspapers are exempt from that. News media is relatively exempt from that. You run your headline, and I see the sources. You include who you’re quoting there. But did that story originate with a press release from a corporation? Where did that story come from and how did it evolve? That’s what my sourcing on my health Web site has to have.
DF: I would just say that that’s something that journalism should do, regardless of whether it’s a health Web site or not. That blonde story was attributed to a WHO report. Now, the question is, where it got out. And I honestly can’t remember what we did with it, if anything.
SS: If you did anything. It’s still up there.
DF: It’s still on the BBC. What our practice should be, and what it is supposed to be is, if we’d seen this on the Internet and we’re in a situation where we felt we needed to get it onto the site right away, we would need to check with the reporter who covers health matters, who would have sources and would call WHO, presumably, or whatever.
Both the and the Times site a few minutes ago, we’re leading with WHO and SARS. And those stories, I suspect, were fairly carefully checked.
Attributing sources is, I think, crucial in terms of credibility in the general public. And just picking up a large service port or a company press release, that can be valid, as long as it’s very clear that what you’re telling your users that this is a company press release, and this is what the company said.
Q: That does not happen. If this story evolved from a corporate press release. So instead —
DF: No, this was a successful journalistic hoax. No question about it.
Q: Yeah, and an extreme case.
DF: And those things do happen. In fact, there’s some very funny ones that have happened. Rich, who’s sitting right behind you, can probably tell you three or four stories.
Q: My concern, though, is that by presenting a corporate press release, even though the news organization may supplement it — and I hope they supplement it — but by presenting that as “news” rather than identifying it as “originating from,” perhaps, while you may have vetted the information, maybe not, as it turned out, you open the media to manipulation.
And the public is aware of this, the consumer is aware of this. And that’s why the media is maybe not the most trusted entity.
DF: Oh, I understand the problem, I think.
Q: I’m just wondering if some step toward disclosure on that. “This story originated as…”
DF: I think the Times and CBS and others that are represented at this table are pretty careful about attributing where it comes from.
BM: We resource all our stories.
LA: Something else would be “the company announced today,” or if we indicate–.
SS: But one of the things just to be careful about is that — and I don’t know if the wire services —
DF: Just because we say it isn’t a story.
SS: And also just in the AP and Reuters makes as many mistakes or can, is as susceptible as anyone else. So just because they got the story, it’s always good to follow up. And I just wanted to follow up on Barry’s point.
If you look at this Orbitz page on SARS, I would suggest that it’s very similar to what almost any newsroom would have. It’s got the AP story, a photograph, very timely. It’s got a time stamp. And it’s got the related headlines. In fact, it might be even more useful than some news Web sites, and they’ve got the other headlines. It’s very good.
MJB: But it’s also clearly branded AP. And I think the public has been educated enough in the past five years to understand what that means.
Q: I’d just like to respond to what you said, because to say that “This company announced today” is different than saying “This story originated at…”– there is a difference there, in terms of ownership.
DF: You have a good point. There’s stories and there’s stories. The quarterly earnings report that comes out from the XYZ Corporation, that’s going to come out in a press release, and you’re going to say, “This is the press release from the XYZ Corporation, and they report the following earnings…” That’s one sort of information.
On the other hand, if you find out because your reporter is…
[END OF SIDE A OF TAPE]
DF: …powerful new product is being developed that’s going to blow away the market in this particular sector, that would be a very different kind of thing.
I think, again, I’d like to look at the news organizations represented at this table, I think we’re pretty careful about drawing those distinctions, in terms of what we do on the site. Now maybe I’m wrong, but I think we do indicate where this information comes from.
Q: And I think in general there’s that attribution. I guess I’m just seeing that there’s a difference — and then I’ll stop — there’s a difference in citing those sources as the work of the reporter, and the idea for this story originating with the reporter or the paper, versus the story idea originating with the corporation trying to disseminate it.
DF: There are lots of interest groups that are trying to disseminate stories all the time.
Q: That’s exactly it.
BM: Sometimes it’s hard to remember how it originated.
Q: That’s why I was suggesting that there be some mechanism for identifying that.
Q: It’s interesting. You’re all sort of online representatives of very traditional news organizations with standards that are similar. I would be interested to know if there are problems that you run into online that you don’t run into in traditional newspaper journalism or TV journalism.
But the new beast is something like Orbitz News, where you’re getting news from a commercial site, but it’s AP news. It’s not just Orbitz writing the news. What other kinds of publishers are out there that you guys are competing with?
You seem to be the winners. I think that over time the traditional news organizations are winning out. But what about this other stuff out there? How much of it is problematic and how much of it, like Orbitz is pretty good, they run an AP story, it’s better.
DF: Yahoo News keeps climbing [TALKOVER].
LA: Yeah, although I take great satisfaction. One of Yahoo’s business executives called me during the first night of bombing of Baghdad and called me up. Oh, they had a prisoner of war, apparently, and there were these pictures. He called me up at home and he said, “What are you doing? Are you going to publish those photos?” I said, “No. We’ve chosen not to, and here’s our reasons.”
There’s a difference between what we do and what Yahoo, Google, Orbitz, on and on and on. There’s a difference, I think, even among broadcasters.
MJB: Except, as a Yahoo partner — are you guys still Yahoo partners?
BM: As a Yahoo partner, then your content is up there as part of the Yahoo offering. So what Yahoo News does affects you. When I was at Imperial, it was a huge issue of tarnishing our brand, God forbid.
Q: Because at Yahoo, you’re trying to get it right.
LA: Yahoo was trying to get it right, but Yahoo in our case — we are reasonably comfortable with Yahoo, because we are compartmentalized. In fact, we’re so compartmentalized that having us on Yahoo’s site does not bring us a lot of traffic.
Yahoo, just to clarify, Yahoo puts us over in a corner, as it does some other partners. Maybe you, maybe some others. It says: Here’s theNew York Times, here’s five headlines. And they really don’t do much with it during, say, a 24-hour cycle.
That’s okay. In the earlier days, it did bring a lot of traffic to us and, not surprisingly, we get more traffic from Drudge than we do from Yahoo. And I think almost everybody does. Drudge is a huge site. [TALKOVER] We get a fair amount of traffic from Drudge. We also have been experimenting with a partnership with CNN.com, and we’ve been getting some traffic that way as well.
Q: What worries you the most out there? Something that you think is masquerading as news but isn’t. Or is there not much?
BA: I don’t think it worries us. The whole purpose of this conference is educating the consumer. A travel site can have legitimate news — what we would call legitimate news. The importance is that the consumer know how to identify that.
You’d expect a travel site to present travel news with a focus from the industry. And I think it’s important to educate the consumer. To say: Okay, this is how they got the news. What am I looking for? Are the sources listed? Who wrote it? Is it tied to advertising?
I think that’s important, not so much for us, but for the consumer, is to be able to go to a site and know this is news, this is just a company press release, this is an apology for the industry. I think it’s important for the consumers to understand that. Because, as you said, people can do news now. You don’t need a printing press, you don’t need a broadcasting transmitter. It’s a lot easier.
LA: I would just say this: People are very savvy about who’s providing the news. I guess in this very cynical society that we’re all a part of, they ascribe all sorts of motives to just about anything that they see.
And so they’re looking for, they oftentimes are trying to find any trusted place to come and say: Well, I may not agree with the Times’ editorial point of view, or I may not agree with the Times, on everything, or I don’t even like some of the things the Times does. But I know I can come here, or I can go to the Washington Post, or I can go to Time, Inc., and I’m going to get a fairly reliable account of what happened. I’m not necessarily going to get that from the commodity portals like Yahoo or AP or, name any of the others.
On the commerce side, I think there’s a huge opportunity here for newspapers. We just finished redesigning our automotive side. Now, we have a motive. There’s a business motive from the business side of my shop. But there’s also a journalism motive as well.
If there’s anything on the Internet that is heavily commercial and heavily influenced by advertising dollars and dealers and manufacturers and all that stuff, it’s trying to get straight automotive information — if you want to sell a car or buy a car, trade a car, negotiate for a car.
And we thought: Well, there is a little channel here where we may be able to cut through and say: Come to us, because we can be objective. Or as objective as you possibly can be here, and let you decide what you want to do. We’re not a dealer site. We’re not a manufacturer’s site. We’re not interested, really, in selling you a car. We’re interested in just providing pretty straight journalism, and to do it well we had to go out and work with a partner who more information and data than a newspaper like the Times would have. And our partner is Edmonds.com.
But, even there, yes. is there a commercial backdrop to this? Yes. There is a little bit of that. But there’s also a helluva lot of good journalism there, too. And I don’t think we’re unique.
Q: I want to get back to blogs, and the role of blogs as kind of fraud or [INAUDIBLE] or just pain in the neck. Once upon a time, if you had a gripe, maybe the only thing you could do is write a letter to the editor. Or maybe if you happened to know a reporter, talk to a reporter. Now I guess the ability is to put it on your blog, it’s picked up by 500 other blogs, and sometimes the mainstream media picks it up.
BM: Sometimes Matt Drudge picks it up.
Q: Yeah. Is that a good thing?
SS: That’s sort of what I was hinting at, was that the value of being written about in a blog is that, if you’re a source, and you talk to one of these guys, the idea is not that you’re going to reach a wide audience through that person. But through that person, he’s going to be picked up by so many other places, that you will then influence journalists, as opposed to influencing the consumers directly. It’s kind of talking to a large convention of middlemen, basically. That’s how I see it.
DF: I share Len’s feeling about blogs. I couldn’t have said it better. I really don’t like them. The closest thing we have to a blog is Howie Kurtz’s sort of daily commentary, mostly on political news. That’s one columnist with very strong journalistic credentials in his satchel, talking about a specific story, usually, and looking around the Web.
Q: Why is it one of the main topics of blogs seems to be criticizing? There seem to be 87,000 sites on how the New York Times is a bad left-wing conspiracy.
SS: I think it’s the talk radio of the Web.
LA: Would you want to read a site that put us on a pedestal? “The New York Times is a great newspaper, and let me show you all these links”?
DF: The Washington Post is part of the great left-wing conspiracy, too, and frankly, we couldn’t have been a harder, pro-war, major newspaper in the country on the subject of going into Iraq. It’s very interesting.
MJB: It goes to the essence of what the Web is, and that’s to allow people to express their opinions and to gather other people that express their opinions, and to all integrate together.
“Survivor” — I hate to keep coming back to that, but it’s a really great example of a community of sorts of lay people coming together to talk about something. But is that news, is it information? Is it sanctioned by CBS? Do people understand on the site?
BM: I absolutely think people understand. And I also think, you go back to the Web as a business. I don’t have a business in linking to a bunch of griping blogs. There’s not a business in that. There is a business in, if I, CBS, on the entertainment side, have created a community around “Survivor,” a community of message boards or a place for people to share their opinions about who gets kicked off tonight on “Survivor,” well then I actually have something that I can take out to Proctor & Gamble or Doritos or GM and make an ad-buy on.
Much harder to do that with, again, a bunch of people sort of griping about the war, or about coverage of whatever.
LA: If I could, let me make a point about what I call — I don’t even know if it’s a moderated blog. But Nick Kristof, who’s a former foreign correspondent for the Times, very intrepid, energetic guy, travels around now as an op-ed columnist for the paper.
He came to me, and he said, “I want to do a blog.” And I said, “No, you don’t. You don’t want to do this.” He said, “How can I interact?” And, bless his heart, our publisher commissioned Nick earlier this year as a full-time permanent columnist — he had been on a one-year assignment on the op-ed page — and said, “Don’t just limit yourself to writing twice a week for the op-ed page. Write whenever you feel like it. Len’ll publish it.”
So Nick called me up and he said, “How do you feel about this?” And I said, “Well, I’ve learned long ago not to argue with somebody who has more time stocked than I have.” But here’s what we did: I said, “You could certainly write a column, but if you have impressions…” He went to Kuwait early on, before the bombing of Baghdad. He went to Kuwait early on and poked around, and he found points he wanted to make.
We also created a e-mail box for him, where people could react directly to him, and he could read them, and he could respond in group rather than respond to hundreds and hundreds of e-mails that he was getting. This is Nick’s journal. We couldn’t quite figure out a better name for it, but on the Web I’m learning, that if you just are pretty literal, people get it. If you came up with a funny name, or a cute little name about it, people would say, “Oh, what’s that?”
So we just said, for now let’s call it Kristof Responds. And when Nick was moved to say something, either prompted by e-mail letters, notes, memos, complaints, people pointing out inaccuracies when he went to Troy, he responded. Or when he was moved, after a journalist was killed in Iraq, he wrote a few paragraphs. And he just kind of kept running this all along.
We like this. We think this is a way to build a community. We think this is a way for people to correspond with our correspondents in a little more intimate way than just a forum. And we also think it’s a way for him to come to the readers as well.
We intend to refine this in a certain way. I haven’t really figured out exactly what we’re going to do to improve it, but we intend to cross-pollinate across the op-ed site.
In a nice way, people not just Nick, but other columnists — in fact, our op-ed editor has come to me and said, “How can we create more of a dialogue between our outside columnists, who come in to the page once, maybe once for the whole year, maybe once forever? And yet they may say something, as they did on Venezuela and Hugo Chavez, and there’s a tremendous response to what the column was about, and they want to come in and create a dialogue back and forth. How do we do that and channel it in a certain way beyond the forum?” This is something we’re looking at that’s not quite a blog, but not quite a forum, but is something uniquely Web-like to our journalists.
Q: One of the columnists talked about how exciting it was to have several people [INAUDIBLE]. And we just saw it in the New York Times registration screen that said it’s free. Is that a business in continuing to allow it to be free? Or will it be more like [INAUDIBLE] partnership?
BM: We are a big believer in the Web being an ad-supported medium. In terms of video, of which we offer a lot on CBSNews.com, we are a little bit alone in the space. CNN has taken all their video behind a subscription wall. ABCNews.com has done the same.
MSNBC has talked about doing it; they haven’t yet. They’ve shrunken their window to actually watch video to a very small window, because they lost so much money in bandwidth charges after September 11th when they were streaming the cable channel.
One of our distinguishing features is live, free video. And we believe financially we can afford to do it. We have a lot of interest out in the advertising community as we go into our up-front network television buying season and the Web goes into its network up-front buying season with them. A lot of advertisers have been very interested in sponsoring our video. So we will keep our video free onsite.
Q: Can someone on the panel just try and speak to that? Because of your presence by a TV station, just like CNN and ESPN Web sites.
BM: No, our Web site is actually supported by itself. It is a profitable business as a standalone.
Q: But it gets on-air permission.
BM: It does get permission, absolutely. It gets promotion.
Q: The Washington [TALKOVER] regular on-air permission [INAUDIBLE].
MJB: It gets promotion in the paper.
BM: Taking your parent and leveraging your parent, whatever medium that is.
DF: We get a lot of on-air promotion on MSNBC cable, particularly from reporters, any number of whom talked from Iraq during that situation, and from the newsroom regularly. Then Washington.com’s logo always is on there.
I’d have to say we look at the question of should we start charging for this probably every week. And we cannot find a business model that makes that work. We think advertising is going to be it. There are some other modest revenue streams that are available, but that is the way it will go.
And, to echo what Len said earlier, the numbers in terms of Internet advertising are looking — our first quarter was very strong, and up significantly from the first quarter of last year, where we had a good year in what was a dead-on year for advertising generally.
We think that that will work [INAUDIBLE]. We don’t stream anywhere nearly as much video as CBS does, but we’re streaming a lot. We’ve streamed all the CentCom briefings. We streamed a lot of other stuff during this, and we’re not putting that behind a screen.
Now, the subscription screen that Sree ran into before he remembered what his password was, the registration screen, we are now requiring, if you go beyond our homepage, that you tell us at least three things about yourself. I suspect we’ll be asking for more.
That gives us an opportunity, as I’m sure everybody in this room understands, to target advertising, frankly. Zip codes or certain demographics and that kind of thing. That’s an important part of making the advertising model work.
SS: Can I ask a question about what Salon’s doing? Have folks seen this, where they’ll give you free access if you sit through 30 seconds of ads or something? Is that something that people in the room have sat through? Or think this was worth doing?
MJB: Would you pay? Would you go to Salon in general?
DF: No, I wouldn’t.
BM: The content is not that valuable to pay $9.95 a month for it. Or to sit through a ad, or both.
LA: I would sit through the ad. [TALKOVER]