Online News on a Tightrope
credit to J.D. Lasica, OJR Senior Editor of Online
terrorism, inclusiveness are themes at 2nd ONA conference
Online News Association's second annual conference
in Berkeley, Calif., last weekend showed an organization
with the talent and pluck to tackle the considerable
challenges facing the online news industry, though
growing pains were still very much in evidence.
ONA folks unveiled the preliminary findings of its
wide-ranging Digital Journalism Credibility Project,
based on nationwide surveys of the online public and
media professionals conducted in July. Time will tell
if the events of Sept. 11 made those results moot.
report's key finding, the study's authors suggest,
was that online consumers have not yet made up their
minds about the credibility of online news. But an
even more telling finding, in my view, was this: The
public has a higher opinion of online news sites'
credibility than our Old Media colleagues do.
criminal. But hardly surprising.
47.9 percent of the online public said that online
news sites provide 'a complete picture of the news,'
while only 17 percent of the media sample thought
so. The media respondents drawn from a dozen
journalism trade associations were also much
more likely to have a negative opinion of online news'
credibility. (I urge you to check ONA's site in about
a month when the full results are released.)
summarizing the study's highlights, co-author Howard
Finberg said, 'The verdict on digital news credibility
is still out. Online news credibility is not a top-of-mind
issue for the online public. That's very good news.
It's not too late to convince the public that online
news is credible.'
wonders, though, why the public needs convincing if
it isn't an issue for them. The problem, instead,
may lie within ourselves.
Jaroslovsky, the ONA's president and founder, said
of the study's findings: 'It's confirmation of what
I've observed the group of people who aren't as fully
convinced of the bona fides of online journalists
are other journalists. Print and broadcast news organizations
see us and maybe feel a bit threatened or unsure of
where we fit in. The public is more sure about the
chops of online news than our colleagues are.'
a former White House correspondent and now a senior
editor at the Wall Street Journal, recalled the fracas
in 1982 when ABC, CBS and NBC objected to CNN being
admitted into the White House press pool because the
upstart cable network ostensibly lacked the same standards
of credibility as the traditional news networks. Online
news operations face the same sort of second-tier
status today, he suggested.
have a job to do in our own house,' he said. 'The
first part of that job is to make sure the journalism
profession's standards are maintained at a high level.
The second part is for online journalists to better
communicate the kind of job we're doing.'
flavors of credibility
of the reason for the disconnect between the public
and the press may be their different perceptions of
think Robert Cauthorn, vice president of digital media
at the San Francisco Chronicle, nailed it when he
told the conference, 'Too often we equate credibility
with whether we can be bought, while the public thinks
of it as whether we're right or not.' Yes, journalistic
integrity and independence are critical to credibility,
and online news organizations do a good job on that
score; but we fall down when it comes to accountability,
openness and, too often, accuracy.
worry a lot when I hear journalists talk about credibility,'
Cauthorn said in a follow-up phone interview. 'Too
often what they really mean is, We don't want to change.'
probably won't take long for some media executives
to pounce on the study's findings as evidence of the
need to turn back the clock, to quash the last remnants
of innovation and experimentation in the online medium
and retreat to our comfortable shibboleths and myths
about our role as gatekeepers and defenders of the
One True Journalism.
should reject those impulses. It's vital to embrace
traditional values of accuracy, balance and fairness,
yes, but we ought to also open our channels to new
voices, to untraditional but reliable information
sources, to alternative points of view screened out
by the media's good-taste filters, to new forms of
personal, passion-based journalism that connect with
users on an emotional level.
doesn't lose sleep because users are looking beyond
traditional media sources for their news. 'If the
audience gets wacky things from the left and wacky
things from the right, that's OK because they put
it in perspective. People have a very sophisticated
pointed to the study's finding that online news has
lower disapproval numbers than does the local print
newspaper. 'This shouldn't come as a profound surprise,'
he said. 'I've heard time and time again from readers
that online news is more fair and evenhanded than
print news even when you're repurposing the
news that appeared in print. I think that's because
the intimacy of online news and the interactivity
make it more reasonable and friendly to them.'
public also has a high opinion of cable news, ranking
it as the most credible news source, while media respondents
ranked it a couple of notches lower. What does this
tell us? 'If you look at cable news, by definition
it's unreliable at any given moment and presents a
multiplicity of voices,' Cauthorn said. 'It's an opinion
machine.' Qualities, in short, drummed out of print
newsrooms. The media professionals, meantime, cited
national newspapers as the most credible news source.
industry is so hidebound, I was astounded at the disconnect
between the responses of the public and the media
people,' Cauthorn said. 'I was happy the study was
done, but I'm sure it's going to be misread.'
Authoritative Moment and the Big Now
it seems, can be a very squishy term.
study found that accuracy and timeliness are the top
reasons people visit a news site and find it credible.
Unfortunately, as any journalist knows, accuracy and
timeliness often play against each other. But we should
think of online news not as a zero-sum game
speed at the expense of getting the facts right
but as a continuum, a constantly unfolding process.
This is the truth as best we know right now
and we'll also tell you what we don't know.
in the cable news era,' Cauthorn said. 'The audience
has gotten used to watching the story unfold and change
and evolve. They're savvy enough to know that what
you report out of the gate may not hold true five
hours from now, and they accept that, as long as you
update and self-correct. When we publish a print edition,
we're delivering something I call the Authoritative
Moment. At the moment the edition goes out, this is
the best and most accurate information we have about
authoritative moment sometimes butts up against online
news sites, which operate in what Cauthorn calls the
Big Now: a breaking-news report that dances on the
razor's edge. 'The Big Now is an inherently less reliable
view of the world because it happens in something
close to real time. But it takes place in a time frame
just far enough removed from live action to have adequate
initial confirmation think of it as enhanced
real-time action,' Cauthorn said. 'You and the audience
know the rules going in: that this is what we think
is happening, this is what we're testing on the anvil
of time. As long as the audience is brought along
and understands what you're doing, nobody will fault
you because you've tried to tell them the honest truth
you knew at the time. What we're learning as an industry
is that at different times our readers need both the
authoritative moment and the Big Now. And happily,
we can deliver both.'
authentication and terrorism
news media's authentication function is facing perhaps
its biggest test right now. Cauthorn pointed out that
President Bush let slip the first word of the anthrax-infected
letter in Sen. Tom Daschle's office, and news organizations
didn't rely on Bush's word but independently confirmed
the news before reporting it because jitters about
terrorism could create a panic.
got to get this right,' Cauthorn said. 'A news site
in the Midwest comes across an unsubstantiated report
of a pending terrorist attack on the Mall of America.
If it turns out to be false, it can have a huge economic
fallout. If they sit on the story and it turns out
to be true, tens of thousand of people can die. These
are tough choices. We have zero margin for error.'
pointed to the collapse of the Soviet empire and the
Challenger explosion as the seminal events that propelled
cable news into the fiber of American culture. Today
we've arrived at a similar historical juncture and
have a chance to do something more powerfully good
for our culture and country than we've done in 50
years,' he said. 'I'm convinced the next four months
will be more important than the previous six years
in terms of defining online news in the public's mind.
We're on a tightrope, and we have to find the best
in ourselves and get it right and help people regain
their trust. We cannot let them down.'
then, may be less about editorial independence than
it is about getting it right, about exercising sound
news judgment in the days and weeks ahead. Everything
has changed since Sept. 11, and our credibility will
rise or fall on how we rise to the occasion in covering
the most important story of our lifetimes.
concerned that not enough introspective minds are
being thrown against the anthrax story,' Cauthorn
said. 'I'm concerned that we don't have a generation
of war reporters out there, and that city hall reporters
may not be properly equipped to cover a war. I'm troubled
by the nature of the reporting because nobody has
been able to get their arms around the scale of the
warned that news organizations shouldn't spoonfeed
the public the official government line. At the same
time, it's critical to provide responsible coverage
of the terrorism and anthrax stories rather than pass
along unsubstantiated rumors. 'We don't want to create
a stampede for the exits. We can kill people if we're
told the ONA audience: 'If you want the key to our
credibility, let's get the next four months right.'
results of the Credibility Study
co-authors of the Credibility Study, Finberg and Martha
Stone, also outlined these highlights of their months-long
'The public expects news sites to be constantly
updated. Timeliness ranks at the top of the list of
reasons users visit a news site.'
Young people don't have the same qualms about
mixing editorial and advertising online that older
users do. 'Younger people are more comfortable with
online news and less concerned about the separation
of church and state,' Stone said.
Stone mentioned three examples of online media
outfits that may have breached that hallowed church-state
wall. Earlier this year USAToday.com dropped its 'Beyond
the Banner' promotion, which allowed advertisers to
promote their brands in the nameplate area of the
site. CBS MarketWatch's years-long policy of placing
paid Budweiser advertising as the wallpaper behind
its stock listings was criticized in media circles
as 'too tight an integration' and a practice that
'could affect credibility.' And Wired News was singled
out for allowing Cingular Wireless as a section sponsor,
although 'editors say advertisers get no special treatment.'
written before about the ethical conflicts of interest
inherent in corporate-media alliances and corporate
sponsorships, and I continue to maintain that news
and content sites owe an obligation to their readers
to post ethics codes disclosing their corporate ties.
said that, I'm willing to bet that not a single person
among the 1,027 online respondents mentioned MarketWatch's
Budweiser wallpaper or Wired News' Cingular sponsorship
as a serious credibility issue for them.
think about that.
return to journalistic tradition
mentioned another interesting finding, that online
newsrooms are increasingly turning to journalists
rather than simply technicians or coders to staff
their operations. 'Hire journalists that's
the bottom line,' she said.
partly because the technology has gotten easier to
do and partly because the mission of some of these
online news enterprises has been scaled back to more
closely resemble the parent corporation's core competency.
News-gathering is at the heart of that mission.
SFGate. The Bay Area city guide launched in 1994 with
an eye to creating a counterculture site that stood
apart from the San Francisco Chronicle. 'The Gate
began with a deliberate mission of trying to appeal
to a different audience than the newspaper's readership,'
news director Vlae Kershner recalled during a break
at the conference. 'The site was hipper, it appealed
to a younger audience. Fact and opinion were not clearly
separated, even in news articles.'
that separate identity has gone by the wayside. 'What's
changed is we're trying to continue to be younger,
hipper and alternative, but we're restricting that
to the columns and features on the site, not to our
news coverage,' Kershner said. 'Nobody wants to see
opinions sprinkled throughout news headlines of our
terrorism coverage. News judgment is critical when
people are relying on us as their primary source of
information, which was not the case five years ago.'
online news have a big tent?
of us go to conferences not so much for the panel
discussions or keynote speakers this year,
tech columnist Walter Mossberg, who exhorted online
journalists to maintain high ethical standards
but to network. And it's heartening to see the throng
of 200 attendees (from nearly 800 ONA members) turn
out not just from large online news outfits like MSNBC
and washingtonpost.com but from Beliefnet, ParentCenter,
Consumer Health Interactive and the Gotham Gazette.
reason ONA held its convention in the San Francisco
Bay Area was to attract smaller and nontraditional
news and content sites into the fold. The Online Journalism
Awards, too, honored a number of smaller sites that
could use a hit of visibility sites like 360Degrees.org,
PraxisPost, ProJo.com, TBO.com and DigitalJournalist.org.
(See a full list of the finalists and winners.)
giving them a crack at recognition and giving respect
where respect is due,' ONA president Jaroslovsky said.
'And it gives us a chance to learn from each other.'
years ago I wrote my first OJR column by celebrating
the formation of the ONA, but also urging the group
to broaden its base of support and legitimacy
and clout by opening the doors to committed
Web journalists at sites like Wired News, CNet, ZDNet,
PCWorld Online, iVillage, Net Noir, Yahoo, AOL and
a host of other news providers.
glad to see ONA making strides in that direction.
But we're still a long way from the big tent.
power at Yahoo
many of last weekend's panel discussions, it was evident
that participants had little idea that the digital
news universe consists of anything beyond online newspapers,
magazines and TV news sites. Many panel moderators
and panelists seemed unaware that the Net is rife
with a rich tapestry of Weblogs, alternative news
sites, foreign sites and other destinations that fly
under the media's radar. (Disclosure No. 1: I was
program coordinator and moderator of the panel on
new forms of journalism.)
is, the vast majority of users get their news from
sources other than newspaper Web sites. Portals, for
people get their news from Yahoo's news portals than
from hundreds of newspaper Web sites combined, and
many young people get their news exclusively from
Yahoo. In both Net ratings and media coverage, Yahoo
is routinely snubbed as a player in online news, but
I'm convinced they're a legitimate news operation
despite the fact that they employ no reporters and
offer no original news content.
Karimkhany, senior producer for Yahoo News, participated
in a panel discussion on online coverage of the terrorist
attacks and told the audience that Yahoo's choice
of news partners (60 in all) and filtering function
are journalistic ones. Yahoo News employs a team of
editors who comb 2,000 sites around the world to select
the best, most insightful articles, without regard
to political or national ideology. (Yahoo is a multinational
company published in 11 languages.)
the story of the terrorist attacks evolved and the
public demanded more information from more sources,
the Internet became the perfect medium for this thing,'
Karimkhany said. 'This medium will lead to a renaissance
in the craft of journalism.'
night before, Yahoo! Finance Vision won the Online
Journalism Award in the category of Innovative Presentation
of Information. The judges nominated only one finalist
in the field and awarded the prize to the video-driven
financial information portal.
J. Scholl, the site's executive producer and director,
told the crowd, 'It's nice to be considered Journalism
with a capital J, because we're often looked at only
in terms of our technology. At the bottom, it's all
about the medium and getting the story out.'
told me afterward that he thinks Yahoo and Finance
Vision deserve co-equal status with traditional news
organizations in the online news pecking order. His
staffers make editorial decisions about what stories
to feature in a live program, which stories to include
in the archive, and how to package it in a way that's
most accessible to the public.
I worked at CNN and spotted a story on finance, in
order to read more I had to use a search engine to
find related stories and background information,'
Scholl said. 'That's the idea behind Finance Vision:
Here's one place to come that pulls it all together.
Our motto is, 'No TV in your office? No problem.'
We'll maximize your news experience by linking you
to the best, most relevant stories no matter where
Journalism Awards: On balance, a good crop
best moment of the Online Journalism Awards ceremony
came when Joe Weiss of the Durham, N.C., Herald Sun
staggered to the stage after winning the award for
Creative Use of the Medium (affiliated) and said,
'Oh my God, you have no idea how small we are!'
is the lone employee dedicated to the newspaper's
online staff, wearing the hat of photographer, editor,
designer, programmer and audio engineer. In creating
their Touching Hearts package, he and a colleague
spent 11 days in Nicaragua with a Duke University
medical mission. 'To go up against Time, MSNBC and
those other big guys was almost preposterous,' he
not in the best position to comment on this year's
awards, given that I entered this year's contest with
a series of OJR columns (nope, didn't win). But a
few awards merit mention.
and large, the judges did an outstanding job, choosing
from a rich field to award prizes to BBC News Online
for General Excellence in Online Journalism, Salon
for its expose on Clear Channel Communications, and
the Sun-Sentinel for its series Witness to an Epidemic
AIDS in the Caribbean.
one decision left me cold. The judges awarded the
Online Commentary prize to a Slate columnist for a
nicely done series of Supreme Court analyses that,
while well reasoned and thoughtful, could have appeared
in any elite East Coast print publication. With writing
that can hardly be called Web-friendly and almost
no links (except for the occasional perfunctory link
to the full text of a court ruling), there's nothing
remotely Web-centric about them.
the judges were being high-minded, saying that this
series deserved recognition regardless of the medium.
To my mind, the medium matters. Online commentary
should reward writing that's native to the Web, that's
infused with the language of the Web, that takes full
advantage of the medium's interconnectedness and interactivity.
because writing appears online doesn't make it online
the award for independent news goes to ...
friend writes to ask: 'Can someone explain to me why
Slate.com, which is funded by a multi-billion-dollar
corporation, is honored as Best Independent news site?'
that Microsoft has no native journalism operation,
the ONA's categorization (actually, General Excellence
in Online Journalism: Independent) probably makes
sense. Still, Slate would be history by now were it
not for Redmond's purse strings, so it hardly seems
a level playing field for true independents like Salon
thoughts on how ONA should handle this next year?