Winter 2000

Web Journalism Crosses Many Traditional Lines

‘Why shouldn’t journalists help create a new model for financing our work?’

By David Weir
As journalists have migrated to the Web in recent years, we’ve tried to bring our traditional working values with us.
  • Do original work; advance the story.
  • Be timely and relevant.
  • Be accurate; supply attribution.
  • Be fair; remain independent; try to understand all sides.
  • Maintain confidentiality; protect sources.
  • Penetrate secrecy; keep power accountable.
This is just a partial list, of course, and not necessarily representative. But what has been intriguing to me has been how these and similar values are faring in the new interactive media.

The record is decidedly mixed.

One of the first things many journalists notice when they start working online is that somehow the tables have been turned. We have long believed we Every Web journalist—with stock options as part of the compensation package—faces the prospect of frequent meetings with those from what used to be known, in newsrooms, as the ‘dark side.’have a broad mandate to act as the “fourth estate”—as a watchdog on the powerful institutions of government and the private sector. On the Web, however, it is often we who seem to be under scrutiny.

A case in point was what happened to CNN and Time magazine when they published their “Tailwind” story. Veterans outraged by the report started organizing a response. Within days, they had located former servicemen and were able to undermine the story’s credibility. At first, CNN-Time tried to stonewall the vets, who were lobbying angrily for a retraction. Within days, however, the media empire raised a white flag, issued a rare public retraction, and apologized to those military personnel, past and present, who had been offended by the report.

Forget for a moment that the producers of the story apparently violated core values like accuracy and attribution; what was remarkable in this case was the speed with which CNN-Time was brought to its knees. No long, drawn out court challenge, boycott, or citizen’s campaign was necessary—just the instant backlash via e-mail lists on the Internet. Prior to the emergence of online, networked communities, this simply could not have happened.

Indeed, it is the overall speed of new media that differentiates it most from the old media. Speed is its most attractive yet frightening quality. It is possible to post stories anytime, day or night, on a Web site. This flexibility helped launch the 24/7 news environment, triggering, in turn, a direct challenge to most of our core journalism values.

How can any of us maintain our customary degree of care for accuracy when we are rushing our stories to publication so quickly? The Lewinsky scandal afforded almost every reporting organization an opportunity to embarrass itself—and plenty did.

There were public retractions by newspapers like The Dallas Morning News and The Wall Street Journal; poorly sourced reports by the television networks, and questionable ethical calls by rumor-hungry Web-based publications.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of ways in which the Web is opening up new possibilities for journalists. The writing style online is less formal, allowing reporters to mix and match forms that previously had to be kept separate. Although critics find fault with the mixture of factual reporting, opinion, interpretation, analysis and personal anecdote that characterizes much of the best online writing, there’s no denying that this kind of work allows writers to connect with their audiences in new ways.

In fact, at the core of the new media experience is an evolving shift in our relationship with our audiences. Users copy, cut and paste, and e-mail our stories around their own networks after we post them. Many readers take advantage of our linked byline slugs to tell us exactly what they think of our efforts and us. While some of this is flaming, other responses come from would-be sources or informers interested in adding new information to whatever it is we are covering. Tipsters have always approached us, of course, but not in the volume nor at the speed that the Internet facilitates. People who would not be inclined to write a letter or place a phone call may now send a quick e-mail on impulse after reading one of our stories.

This can create a time management problem for some reporters, since reading and sending responses to all those e-mail messages cuts into time they’d otherwise be spending on reporting and writing. On the other hand, a journalist can never have too many sources or too solid a grounding in the community. Indeed, it is our awareness of a networked community that is closely following our work that is one of the unique features of Web-based media.

As more journalism goes digital, a giant, though disorganized, sortable electronic archive is being created, and it extends throughout the world via hypertext links. This means that anyone (including other journalists) can copy or adapt our work to their own purposes, often without our knowledge. How copyright law applies is not entirely clear in new media. Who owns what work remains murky. In the process, the collective commitment to originality among media organizations might be at risk.

Part of this erosion in the value of original work might be generational, as the first journalists working entirely in an “always on” media environment create their own set of relevant values. Large Web-based media tend toward aggregating news content from feeds as opposed to investing in the expensive process of gathering original material. That, in turn, places a greater premium on selection, presentation and interpretation of the facts. Critics often observe that Web reporters seem much more interested in repackaging and interpreting information they pick up from other sources than in developing their own. Although I’ve seen plenty of original digging at places like Salon, I’d have to agree that on the Web that is the exception, not the rule. There is simply no proven model yet in which original content Web publications can be brought to scale and to profitability; thus, for now, content aggregators will predominate.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing journalists online is the broad assault on the church-state line. Unlike newspapers, magazines, radio or television, where the issues involving standards and formats are long since settled, the Web is an open frontier from the perspective of marketers, salespeople, sponsors and business development folks. Every Web journalist—with stock options as part of the compensation package—faces the prospect of frequent meetings with those from what used to be known, in newsrooms, as the “dark side.”

Since nobody has yet figured out a sustainable business model for online news media, it often seems like every old value is being re-evaluated. Non-journalist colleagues raise all the most prickly questions that strike at the core of what we say we believe in: honest, accurate information for our audience. They ask about things like how to induce users to click on sponsor advertisements, buy merchandise promoted next to our content, or otherwise help the company meet its business objectives. This kind of conversation used to be forbidden, of course, for journalists, as we stayed on the far side of our own Chinese wall. In Internet media, however, we are issued stock options, which serve as tickets to sit at the big table, where businesses are trying to devise ways to survive in a fast-paced, information-based economy.

From a traditionalist perspective, perhaps the only thing worse than participating in such meetings might be the prospect of not participating. My own view is that this is one of the things that make new media exciting—we are inventing it on the fly. After all, we were never really in the “news” business anyway, because there was never a news business per se. News doesn’t pay for itself directly; rather it attracts audiences that media companies have to find ways to monetize, through advertising revenue, subscriber income, and newsstand sales.

One aspect that is truly new about online media is the need to figure out a fresh business plan. Why shouldn’t journalists help create a new model for financing our work? When you think about it, who is better prepared to determine the standards and values for interactive media companies? We know from experience that media companies will rise or fall on their ability to gain and maintain their users’ trust. And trust, in the end, is what our value system, whatever its flaws, has always been about. Besides, if, as journalists, we find ourselves in the role of helping to insure that an open and honest flow of communication with our audiences survives in the business plans of new media companies, maybe we will eventually begin to rediscover where our values came from in the first place.

David Weir has been a magazine and newspaper reporter and editor, an author, a radio and TV executive, a screenwriter and a graduate school journalism instructor. For the past five years he has been working online, for the content teams at Wired Digital, Salon.com and, most recently, Excite@Home, where he currently is vice president for network programming and product design.

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