Interview - Steve Outing

Interview: Steve Outing, Senior Editor, E-Media Tidbits, Poynter Institute & Columnist, Editor & Publisher: 24th July 2003

Media Man Australia interviews one of the world's most respected media editors and writers, Mr Steve Outling.

Steve gives his thoughts on the online media business, what news media websites should contain, Internet regulation and more.

What's your background?

Mostly print journalism (editing, writing, graphics) ever since graduating from Colorado State University in 1978 with a journalism degree. Till the end of 1994, I worked in the print world; last print-journalism job was as graphics editor for the San Francisco Chronicle. I got the Internet bug in '94 and said goodbye to print. Online is way more fun!

How did you get your break in the media business?

Not a "break," really. Serendipty is probably a better word. In late '94, the Chronicle, in staff-reduction mode, offered buyouts to anyone at the company longer than 5 years. I qualified and jumped off the cliff. Got enough money to comfortably figure out how to craft a career on the Internet. First freelance gig was writing a research report about online efforts by newspapers for Jupiter Communications. (This was when lots of papers hadn't even discovered the Web yet and were using proprietary services like Prodigy.) That led to an opportunity with Editor & Publisher to be one of the first journalists covering the fledgling online news business. Did a bunch of other online-media-related stuff in between then and joining the Poynter Institute for Media Studies a couple years ago.

What motivates you?

That the Internet is the most powerful communications medium yet invented. I honestly believe it will impact our world even more so than has television. And we ain't seen nothin' yet. It's still an immature medium. It's an exciting business.

What are your aims and objectives?

To provide guidance, advice and intelligence for media companies and professionals about what's next on the media horizon -- to help them adapt to the rapid pace of change that results from this period of incredible technological innovation. I tend to think of myself as a bit of an evangelist for change within the media industry. I want those who lead the news industry to understand the forces of change that are reshaping their businesses, and embrace new technologies instead of fight them.

What works of yours are you most satisfied with?

One of my favorite projects is a "group weblog" that I edit, E-Media Tidbits, which is part of the Poynter Institute's website:

Twenty writers from around the world contribute to this 5-days-a-week blog. Everyone's an expert in online/digital media. Some are academics; some work in the industry; some are journalists covering new media. While the majority of us are from the U.S., several contributors are from Europe; we have a guy in Chile who reports on the online media scene in South America. It's a great daily read if you're into online media.

It's not finished yet, but I'm very excited about some "eyetrack" research that we're embarking on at Poynter. Working with the Estlow Center for Journalism and New Media ( and Eyetools, we're studying how Web users interact with news websites.

By tracking eye patterns and analyzing patterns, we can learn a lot about user behavior that people can verbalize; a lot of it is at a subconscious level.

This is the third eyetrack study by Poynter (the first was of print newspapers, the second was of newspaper websites). This time around, a big part of the focus is on how people interact with multimedia editorial content. Results should be out sometime this fall.

What are the main pros and cons of news media websites?

Pros: Speed of publishing. Especially for the newspaper industry, their Web operations allow them to compete on a speed basis with television. If a major headline story breaks now, the audience is as likely to go online to find out what's going on as to turn on the TV. And obviously, the Web can offer so much more depth as well as the speed.

Cons: Speed of publishing. Operating more like a wire service, news websites are more likely to let mistakes get published. It's harder for the journalists, who these days often have to not only produce content for the Web, but also for print and/or broadcast. There's more pressure in today's cross-media journalism jobs -- and more journalists are starting to experience these work styles.

What are the impressive examples of online media, and why?

Online media have many aspects, of course, but my favorite has got to be the multimedia editorial content that some of the best sites are producing. Look at some of the multimedia work done by, where a package can combine text, still photography, audio narration, user-controlled or self-running slide shows, interactive graphics, and video. has been doing some great, ground-breaking stuff. See its "The Big Picture" series, which uses multimedia to do major headline stories and features a video narrator to guide you through the package. has pioneered some "immersive" content, such as the feature that let you pretend to be an airport baggage screener and try to catch weapons on a bag scanner. This is all a new form of storytelling, and it's fascinating to see the innovation that people are coming up with.

For good examples of multimedia news content, check out the winners of the SND.ies, the monthly news-multimedia awards competition of the Society of News Design. ( Disclaimer: I'm one of the judges.

What are the main differences in writing for the web, as opposed to writing for print?

For the Web, write so that you grab the reader's attention fast. The lead is incredibly important, as is the headline and deck. Use bulleted items to quickly tell the main points of a story. Overall, just realize that your readers are only a mouse-click away from going somewhere else. Write to grab their attention and hold it. Be economical; use the fewest words possible to make your point.

How do you get your ideas?

A combination of attending industry events; talking to people in the industry regularly; reading blogs on topics of interest to me; and e-mail. The latter is a huge source of ideas. My writing is known widely enough that I get lots of ideas sent to me by readers.

Will the internet put newspapers out of business, or are most newspapers making the cross over to online newspapers effectively?

The Internet will transform the newspaper industry into a news industry that's not so platform specific. Print won't go away in my lifetime, but it will find that digital/online news is its equal. I have no doubt that my daughters (ages 5 and 11) will get more of their news from the Internet (and television) than from print publications when they become adults. The Internet for them won't be just the desktop PCs they currently use, but portable wireless-broadband devices. Newspaper companies better understand that and deliver their content to where my daughters live online -- or they will go out of business in the decades to come.

What should an effective (news) website consist of?

Original content. Multimedia content. Finely targeted advertising. The means for readers to converse with editors and reporters, and easily offer feedback. Non-traditional voices, in addition to traditional "journalists'." Weblogs. Smartly databased classified advertising verticals. Journalists' e-mail addresses and contact information. Simple, easy-to-use navigation. A good site-search feature. A reasonably priced and easy-to-use article archive (photos, too).

Has online news media websites made it too easy for people to call themselves "journalists"?

It's always been easy to call yourself a journalist. We're not licensed, after all. The Internet has just made it easier to publish in a professional-looking manner to a potentially global audience. We got part of this ability years ago with PageMaker, the Macintosh and the first Laserwriter printers -- when desktop publishing was born. Now we have great software to create great-looking websites/journals/blogs AND the ability for anyone anywhere in the world to read them. So, yeah, I guess we now have a LOT more "journalists."

How much impact did "bloggers" have on numerous staff departures from the New York Times?

I think the story might have died and Howell Raines kept his job if the story hadn't been kept going on the Internet, and especially on blogs. Same thing happened with Trend Lott. I don't think bloggers got Raines fired, or got Lott to step down, but they definitely helped things along.

What other portals do you see being a threat to Google, MSN and Yahoo! ?

Google's definitely on a roll. I can't see anyone on the horizon that's going to stop them being dominant in search. I love Google News. That's got some interesting potential as they evolve the service. Frankly, I'm less enamored with portals than I was earlier in the Internet era. I can't remember the last time I thought to go to Yahoo!

Eventually, Google may slip up, get too greedy and make some bad decision. Or someone else will come along with the next great Internet mousetrap and out-Google Google. Google probably won't stay dominant forever.

What are your views on online broadcasting and internet radio broadcasting?

It's sad, so far. The music industry has pretty much stifled this new industry with its unrealistic royalty demands. I'm a strong critic of most commercial FM radio (and AM is just beyond pathetic), so I love the potential that Internet radio has of offering alternative music. I like bluegrass music (among other genres), but I can't find any decent source of bluegrass on the airwaves where I live. Internet radio is an obvious solution to my problem. (Satellite radio, XM and Sirius, is of course another solution.)

How much regulation of the internet should the Government have?

Minimal. I think it's reasonable for governments to try to do something about spam. There's only so much governments can do, of course, because spammers don't conveniently stay within any government's jurisdictional borders. But some laws can at least have a positive impact on the amount of spam. Other than that, I think it's reasonable for governments to exercise some common-sense control -- prohibiting child pornography, etc. Mostly, I hope they'll leave the Internet alone.

What is the ideal solution to the world's "spamming"?

If I knew, I'd of course be wealthy and retired by now. What I do know is that the ultimate solution needs to be a mix of rational and not-overreaching government regulation, and technology. The technology must have a very tiny "false-positive" rate -- that is, it can't block mail that you want. So far, spam filters have been notoriously bad -- catching spam, yes, but also catching wanted bulk e-mail such as newsletters, personalized news deliveries, advertising offers that you ask for, discussion-list postings, etc.

What positive impact have you had on the online media business?

Judging from my reader feedback over the years, I think I've introduced lots of ideas that ended up getting implemented at news and media companies because someone read it in one of my columns. I'm not suggesting that I concocted all those ideas, only that I was able to let my readers know about them fairly early on because I identified the trends. I was also one of the first people to create online forums for the online media profession, and they became fairly effective in being a place where industry pioneers trade ideas and learn from each other. I think I contributed and sifted through a lot of knowledge that helped the online-news industry grow to become a viable commercial medium.

What news sources do you trust, and why?

The New York Times, still. I'm old enough that some of the old media brands still stick out as credible and trustworthy in my mind. Because of the Internet, I'm now more inclined to seek out media from outside the U.S. During the war, I was more trusting of the BBC's coverage than U.S. news organizations, which tended to be too rah-rah for the war (especially CNN, in my view).

While I certainly don't trust every blogger, there are some that are extremely credible. Indeed, I get much of my news from the blog world; I don't just rely on traditional media brands. Bloggers are especially great for staying on top of niche topics. Example: Rafat Ali's is a wonderful source of news about one narrow segment of my professional world (new media). He's more credible than many mainstream news reporters who cover new media.

What advise can you pass on for those looking to make a strong, positive impact on the media business?

Don't get stuck on the ways of the past. Don't get stuck on the way things are now. Recognize that technology in this time of history changes rapidly, and you have to keep moving with the technological tide. We've been enamored with the Web and e-mail for some time, but now wireless is the next big wave. Be prepared to change your organization quickly. Don't fight new technology, embrace it. (Don't be like the music industry.) Enjoy the challenge of constant change. (And if you can't, find another line of work.)

What do you do to relax?

The last couple years I've become a fitness nut. I'm training to run my first-ever marathon in the fall, and I'm a slightly less avid bicyclist (and I ride a tandem with my wife or daughter). While recuperating from a long run or ride, I enjoy my family's TiVo (so I can watch the handful of shows worth watching and skip the commercials). 8^) And yes, I do regularly read printed magazines and books.

Thanks for thinking of me for your interviews section!



Editors note: An insightful, interesting and well written interview. We will be hearing a great deal more from Steve Outling.


Poynter Institute: E-Media Tidbits

Poynter Institute: Steve's profile

Editor & Publisher

Poynter Institute: Media Man Australia (Greg Tingle's) profile