TOPICS > Nation

Extended Interview: Kinsey Wilson

June 6, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

TRANSCRIPT

TERENCE SMITH: Since it’s the Web site itself for USA Today, it probably ranks right up there in usage.

KINSEY WILSON: There are probably three broad tiers. The Washington Post, Fox News, or at one level of around 5 million, 6 million unique visitors a month.

The (New York) Times and usatoday.com are in the 9-10 million range, and then you get into the CNNs, MSNBCs, the portal-affiliated sites, Yahoo news, that are in the 20-22 million uniques a month range.

TERENCE SMITH: Beyond the newspaper, the print product, what are the ways in which USA Today is projecting the news, the product out to people?

KINSEY WILSON: The principal one is the Web site. That’s where the vast majority of the audience beyond the newspaper comes to us, but we have platforms on iTV — it’s on command in hotel rooms as part of that service. We’re on AvantGo which is on the Palm Pilot.

We’re on various telephone, cell phone networks, and would expect, over the next couple of years, for that to be extended to other mobile platforms as they become more pervasive and as the business arrangements around those platforms sort themselves out.

TERENCE SMITH: OK. Let’s take those one at a time. The one that’s on command in hotel rooms, what does the viewer get? You’re talking about through the television in a hotel room, for example.

KINSEY WILSON: Right.

Through the television, through their on-command service there, they can interact with what is a scaled-down version of the Web site that is designed for, instead of three foot viewing, 10 foot, 12 foot viewing on a television screen, and gives them current, up-to-the-minute news, but in a more abbreviated fashion than they would get on the Web site or in the newspaper.

TERENCE SMITH: OK, and what was the second thing you mentioned?

KINSEY WILSON: AvantGo is a way of getting the same news on a Palm Pilot, so you sync the Palm Pilot and the news comes down on it and it’s then portable, you carry it with your wherever you go, and can read it at will.

TERENCE SMITH: Is that wireless?

KINSEY WILSON: No; it’s not wireless. You have to be connected –

TERENCE SMITH: You have to download it?

KINSEY WILSON: — to a computer and then it’s on the device until the next time you connect, and then it gets refreshed.

TERENCE SMITH: And you would download it by an action you would take?

KINSEY WILSON: Yes; uh-huh. And then telephones, there are a variety of different packages the different service providers offer, everything from essentially “surfing the Web” via your phone to proprietary packages that they offer.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. But what do you offer? What does USA Today offer?

KINSEY WILSON: I don’t have the laundry list in my head but we’ve got arrangements with AT&T and with Sprint and others to offer particular services, mostly headlines and top news –

TERENCE SMITH: Well, that’s what I’m asking, what it is that you put on the cell phones?

KINSEY WILSON: Right now, it’s primarily the commodity headlines that pretty much everybody else is offering. I think where we expect to see it going, over time, is news products that are more representative of the brand, that distinguish you in one way or another from another news source.

Right now, for the most part, everybody has stuck with news and money and sports scores, and top headlines, that sort of thing.

TERENCE SMITH: You used the word “commodity headlines.” What does that mean?

KINSEY WILSON: In the sense that you’re dealing with the same top news that all the other national sources of news are–

TERENCE SMITH: Kind of breaking news.

KINSEY WILSON: Yes.

TERENCE SMITH: On the markets, and national and international news.

KINSEY WILSON: Exactly; yeah.

TERENCE SMITH: OK. And was there something else that you mentioned?

KINSEY WILSON: iTV, mobile. Then beyond that is simply RSS, which is another distribution mechanism. It’s a way of — end-users can subscribe to various feeds that publishers make available and can view them in a reader that may be Web-based, may be an application on their computer, and what it does, in essence, is aggregate a variety of different content sources all in one place –

TERENCE SMITH: And they customize it?

KINSEY WILSON: They customize it.

TERENCE SMITH: The consumer customizes it.

KINSEY WILSON: Yes. And we benefit because it directs traffic back to our Web site.

TERENCE SMITH: So the consumer might call for the sports section of USA Today?

KINSEY WILSON: Yes. And we’ll provide them with headlines and maybe a lead paragraph, so that they can quickly scan what we have available, and then if they have greater interest beyond that, they’ll click on a story and then they come back to the Web site.

TERENCE SMITH: And this goes to computers or wireless devices or phones?

KINSEY WILSON: Principally to computers at this point but eventually to all of those devices, and, over time, they will be coordinated, so that if you’ve read a particular group of headlines in one environment you’re not gonna see it when you move to your mobile phone.

TERENCE SMITH: How about podcasting? Have you gotten into that?

KINSEY WILSON: We haven’t. It’s something we’re looking at very closely because we have a small audio unit and we have a small TV unit upstairs, so we have the ability to produce podcasts that are essentially radio broadcasts, if you will, of some duration, that, in turn, can be downloaded and listened to on an MP3 player or an iPod.

TERENCE SMITH: What do your radio and television units do now?

KINSEY WILSON: Primarily they’re providing supplementary material that goes with stories that are written by the newspaper. So, for example, we may have extended interviews with the subject of a particular story and we’ll feature those on the site, either in an audio photo gallery or with stand-alone audio.

TERENCE SMITH: But it’s through the Web site.

KINSEY WILSON: Yeah.

TERENCE SMITH: Are you doing newscasts on the site?

KINSEY WILSON: The only newscasts that we’re offering at this point are produced by USA Today Live, which is a small TV production group that currently provides broadcasts to the 22 Gannett television stations. We’re a Gannett newspaper and there are about a 100 local newspapers and 22 or so broadcast affiliates of Gannett.

That unit provides a national wrap-up every morning that’s based on USA Today’s reporting and then we take a version of that for the Web, and so that we have about a two-minute, fairly traditional TV broadcast news segment that runs.

TERENCE SMITH: Going back to these different platforms as they’re called, why are you doing it? Why are you taking your product and spreading it out through all these delivery systems?

KINSEY WILSON: I think the core answer to that is that you have to look at what the audience is doing. This is how the audience is beginning to interact with news.

We’ve gone from a world in which news organizations had either monopolistic control of certain markets or because of barriers to entry, fairly exclusive control over certain aspects of media, and consumers gravitated towards a few favorite sources of news, the NewsHour or the evening news on broadcast television or USA Today or the New York Times, to a world in which there’s saturation news.

We’re surrounded by it 24 hours a day. It comes at us from different sources on different devices, and as publishers, we no longer have exclusive control of the printing press. We’re dependent on others to become the purveyors of the news that we’re collecting and so this is the ocean that we have to swim in. This is the direction that everything is going and we have to find ways to do that that are complementary to our business, that don’t undercut it, but that allow us to get in front of the largest audience possible.

TERENCE SMITH: That are complementary to our business but don’t undercut it.

KINSEY WILSON: Yeah. Which is to say that we can’t be incurring the cost of gathering all this news and simply giving it entirely away for free, without at least realizing the advertising benefit that goes with that. he Web site is free but there’s advertising attached to it that pays the bill, so –

TERENCE SMITH: Right. So it generates revenue.

KINSEY WILSON: Uh-huh.

TERENCE SMITH: And I assume these other things have advertising attached to them too, on command, et cetera? AvantGo?

KINSEY WILSON: Some of them are — AvantGo has advertising attached to it. Even on a small device, we’re able to sell advertising, a discrete amount of advertising into that. Some services like telephone, certain telephone services may end up being subscription base, or a mix of advertising and subscription. In many cases, particularly with the smaller mobile devices, it’s still very experimental, and the business model is being worked out and until there’s real mass audience around those devices, you just have to get into the space and play, and advertising will probably follow, or subscriptions will follow and will sort itself out.

TERENCE SMITH: Are you watching what’s being done elsewhere around the world, in Europe, especially in Japan, where they’re, frankly, much more advanced?

KINSEY WILSON: Absolutely. I mean, South Korea is one country that I think all news executives are familiar with because of the success of a site allmynews.com, which is entirely citizen-generated news, at a very local level, and for a phenomenon like that –

TERENCE SMITH: Yeah, I wanted to get a sense of — where is the United States in the world with these devices and these techniques?

KINSEY WILSON: In some cases we’re ahead; in other cases, we’re lagging what’s going on in other countries and I think it really depends on what technology happens to have taken hold in which countries, some of which is driven by regulation, some of which is driven by consumer preference.

In the United States most of the experiences revolved around the PC, to date. When it comes to mobile phones, the Japanese and the Europeans are way ahead of us, if you will, in terms of the type of interaction that they have with those devices and how they use them. South Korea is wired for broadband in a way that few countries in the world are, and in many respects is seen as sort of an early bellwether of where the technology may eventually take us, and they’ve experimented with things like allmynews.com which is a citizen-driven Web site in which citizens contribute news in small communities and its gets rolled up into a larger site, with some editorial oversight but not the kind that would traditionally be supplied by a mainstream news organization.

TERENCE SMITH: And that’s become popular.

KINSEY WILSON: It’s become very popular and as is, the model for some experiments like mybackfence.com that have been launched in this country.

Or Backfence. I’m sorry. Backfence.com.

TERENCE SMITH: Backfence. There’s a common element in all of this, or in much of this, which is the consumer customizing his or her product. The consumer’s in charge here.

KINSEY WILSON: The consumer is very much in charge and this has–news has moved from a medium in which we were the exclusive purveyors of information, I think Dan Gillmor has said it’s moved from a lecture to a conversation, where the consumer is beginning to have the expectation that they can engage much more directly with traditional news organization and communicate peer to peer with each other, and share information across all kinds of different platforms and media.

TERENCE SMITH: What do you think lies behind that desire on the part of the consumer, that’s so conspicuous, to customize the news?

KINSEY WILSON: I think it’s inherent and is a desire, or they have been empowered by these devices to be able to get a much wider view of whatever particular aspect of the world they’ve looking at. It may be a very specialized niche interest that they have or it may be something as broad as international news.

And within that realm there’s a lot of noise, it’s still at this early stage I think very hard to filter valuable sources of information from those that are very amateurish but it’s beginning to move towards a place where you can find plenty of other informed voices that go beyond the traditional media sources that were available.

My view of this is that I think, by and large, for general interest news, people will tend to turn to, as they have in the past, to mainstream news organizations, probably a broader variety of them than they did traditionally, but they’re still, in many ways, the best vehicles for the top level of news that people are after.

As you start to get down in what’s been described as “the long tail of information,” into more segmented areas, I closely track what’s going on in media, for example, and there are countless sources of information, blogs, in many cases, small sites, large sites, that contain a lot of very valuable information about the industry and what’s going on within it, and there are hundreds of segments like that.

TERENCE SMITH: Leaving you out of it but thinking of the more general, less professional consumer, is there more to it than just the technological capacity to customize the news?

Is there something else going on here? Is there a revolt against mainstream news organizations? Is there some rebellion of the reader?

KINSEY WILSON: I think there’s some of that going on. I think as the public generally — I mean, one of the things we’ve seen over the last 20, 25 years, has been a declining confidence in the credibility of media generally, and so this is a way for consumers to take some of that control and to counter that.

It’s also forcing the news organizations to be more transparent about the way they do business and that’s discomfiting, I think at times, but at the end of the day, my view is that that’s simply healthy. It forces us to be a little more self-conscious about how we go about doing our business and how we interact with our audience.

TERENCE SMITH: Does it jeopardize the traditional print newspaper?

KINSEY WILSON: The traditional print newspaper becomes one of a variety of platforms on which news will be consumed. Newspapers generally, nationwide, particularly local newspapers, have been suffering steady erosion in their readership.

It doesn’t mean that there’s necessarily a steady erosion in the appetite for news but as other devices and other platforms become available, then they end up being preferred.

TERENCE SMITH: So they are no longer the “800-pound gorillas”?

KINSEY WILSON: They’re no longer the 800-pound gorilla and they may, over time, lose the monopoly, or near monopoly, status that they’ve had in certain markets, and have to contend, as we have at the national level for a long time, with a far larger number of competitors.

The difference now is that a single individual, practically, can get into the market as a competitor. Publishing tools have become so convenient, that for free, or for eight or ten dollars a month, I can essentially create a very credible looking publication and I can achieve distribution and I can marry it with advertising, and so now I have the three legs of the stool on which traditional publishing is built and I can do that as a lone agent, if you will, and to some extent, to head to head with more traditional and more established news organizations.

TERENCE SMITH: I keep bringing you back to this desire to customize the news. Does it also reflect, in your view, lifestyle changes?

KINSEY WILSON: To some extent. I mean, consumers are increasingly, whether it’s TiVo, on the one hand, or it’s podcasting, or it’s these RSS feeds which we describe, the consumer has the option of electing when and how they want to consume media.

One of the things that everybody’s looking very closely at is what’s the threshold for that. How much time and effort will people invest in assuming the burden of customizing all those different sources and trying to filter through them? And therein I think lies a further opportunity for news organizations to, in a sense, be enablers for the end user.

We may no longer be broadcasting the news to them in the same fashion that we have, delivering the lecture, if you will, but, rather, helping them identify what sources are likely to be of interest, which ones are credible, what degree of credibility should be attached to those.

We’ve gone from a world in which we firmly control the information that lies within the four walls of our publication to one in which we have to be cognizant of and embrace and get our arms around all of the information that’s out there, because that is what consumers are doing, and then help them apply, in essence, editorial judgment to that and figure out what they should spend their time on and now–

TERENCE SMITH: An evolution from gatekeeper to enabler?

KINSEY WILSON: Enabler; exactly. Uh-huh.

TERENCE SMITH: So still a function to be performed; but a different function.

KINSEY WILSON: And still very much an editorial function, one that involves applying our judgment to all these sources of information. I mean, it’s, in many ways it’s extended our reach, because instead of having to pick up the phone in every instance and develop sources and contacts, and so forth, we now also have the ability to pull in all these different sources of information and over time assess their importance and their credibility.

TERENCE SMITH: The blogosphere. An opportunity or a peril?

KINSEY WILSON: Probably both. At this point I think the blogosphere has gotten a lot of publicity of late, some of which I think is in the big picture a bit of a sideshow, partly because it’s, blogs have singled out mainstream media and in some very highly-publicized cases led to reversals by news organizations on some of the stories they publish, and so forth.

I think the larger importance of them is in their ability to put in the hands of any individual the capacity to publish, and the most credible authors, ultimately, through some system of technology and editorial judgment, over time, will rise to the top and the cranks and the noise will sink to the bottom, I think.

We’re in the very early stages of that and we’re seeing it exposed in a rather raw fashion right now and it probably ultimately won’t be as evident.

TERENCE SMITH: Some are already rising to the top. I mean, some are developing broader and broader reputations.

KINSEY WILSON: Sure. You have wonkette here in Washington, who sort of deals in the political gossip and byplay that newspapers have traditionally published in some form or another. Her blog is owned by Gawker Media, which is a small company out of New York that’s beginning to make a business of accumulating these blogs.

There are other sites that — paid content is one that I’m familiar with — that actually cover the media business and has, I believe, two reporters but is carrying advertising and has the feel of a more developed site.

So everybody’s testing exactly what form is best going to work in this space, and you’ll see — we’ve had blogs on our site in one form or another for a couple a year and we’ll continue to develop them, as appropriate.

TERENCE SMITH: In-house or out of house, or both?

KINSEY WILSON: In-house with in-house reporters, and we’ve applied the same editorial standards, really, to those that we would to anything else that we publish. But we do link out to other sources of information that we don’t control and don’t own and can’t necessarily vet in, with the same degree of scrutiny that we do our own work.

TERENCE SMITH: Uh-huh. So what do you think is the overall effect of all this on the flow of information and the absorption of information, again looking at it primarily from the consumer’s point of view? For example, does a person who customizes his or her news, you know, get more or less? I’m not sure I know.

And does that person lose the serendipitous discovery of information that he or she might come across in the paper that he or she would not seek out?

KINSEY WILSON: This was the fear, I think, that since the advent of the Internet, and the possibility of being able to customize and sort your resources of news, there’s been this concern that everybody would gravitate towards their own narrow view of the world, and we would lose both kind of the overarching sense of who we are as a nation or who we are as a community and that sense of serendipity that you described.

My own experience — having immersed myself in RSS feeds and blogs, and this whole world, pretty intensely in the last six, eight, 10 months — is that there’s just as much serendipity there, and it does lead off in unexpected directions, not only is in the same way that it has with the guidance of editors who determine what’s going to go into a paper but, if anything, it’s opened up an even wider world.

I think, to go to your core question, I think the consumer in the end is the winner, but with a caveat, I would say, and that is that these technologies are very disruptive to established news organizations and there’s a very open question at this point as to whether money will shift from traditional news providers to technology companies and others, and how much cash will be available for the basic news gathering that is at the root of all of this.

Blogging is fine and blogging can be of tremendous benefit to people but if there’s no reporting going on in the background, there’s a dearth of information on which to react to and to deal with.

So that probably is gonna take a decade to sort itself out.

TERENCE SMITH: Is it the deprofessionalization of journalism?

KINSEY WILSON: In some respects it’s the deprofessionalization of journalism but then there, going back to what I said before, I think that it’s incumbent upon journalists to then apply their journalistic judgment to that amateur world, if you will, or semiprofessional world of journalism that exists in various rings outside of the traditional world that they occupy.

So it’s–and that’s where we can play a role in helping people navigate and discern what’s going on in that world.

TERENCE SMITH: Can you look down the road and tell me what other platforms or means might be available five years from now.

KINSEY WILSON: If I can look down the road two or three years and figure out what we’re gonna be doing next, I’m lucky. Five, 10 years out is almost impossible to predict. The pace at which both the technology and consumer adoption of that technology is moving is, at times, frightening, because it really is changing so quickly.

I think the general trend towards pervasive media, towards user control, towards customization, personalization of media will continue. How that plays out, exactly, either in terms of specific devices, or what kind of content is available, or what business arrangements around that is the part that’s up in the air, and the part that makes our lives interesting every day.

TERENCE SMITH: Finally, you as a consumer, if you’re at home, or wherever you are, it doesn’t matter, you don’t have to be at home, for how do you get your news?

KINSEY WILSON: Personally, I have four newspapers dropped on my doorstep every morning, so that I can canvass what’s in the competition. I survey the competitive set that we go head to head with directly as a Web site, first thing in the morning.

I have a variety of RSS feeds set up and a couple a different RSS readers that allow me to scan a wider universe beyond that. I listen to National Public Radio. At the end of the day I listen to the NewsHour by radio on my way home, and a computer is probably near me or around me on either a wire to wireless connection most of my waking hours, and then there’s the Blackberry that’s attached to my hip.

TERENCE SMITH: That’s bringing in –

KINSEY WILSON: Which is bringing in e-mail and news feeds and e-mail newsletters, and alerts of various kinds –

TERENCE SMITH: What do the letters R-S-S stand for?

KINSEY WILSON: I think most people say it stands for really simple syndication, which, as long as it’s known by that name is probably not going to be considered really simple. It’s when the letters go away and all you know is that you subscribe to certain news sources, and at the click of a mouse being able to present that in whatever environment you’re comfortable with.

TERENCE SMITH: What’s involved in a Web site like yours in enabling RSS?

KINSEY WILSON: It’s fairly simple. We’re able to take the content that we already produce and, in essence, tag it in a way that makes it suitable for these readers and for syndication in this form–

TERENCE SMITH: Can you give me an illustration?

KINSEY WILSON: We have, for example, a top news digest of the top ten stories of the moment that are on our Web site, and that same collection of stories is available as a feed that somebody can subscribe to and we have a place on the Web site from which you can select. I think it’s now over a 100 different feeds that we provide, that includes video, includes text, even includes some advertising feeds.

We have some specialized advertising feeds in the travel category that, where people may actually desire to subscribe to a listing of certain special deals around certain cities and that sort of thing rather than generalized advertising.

TERENCE SMITH: Who determines the top ten stories and how? The editors in the classic gatekeeping fashion? The people by the number of people who go on the, you know, who read that story? How is that determined?

KINSEY WILSON: Right now, it’s determined by editors here who are surveying a variety of different wires and content that USA Today produces and selecting from those the current top ten.

That’s not to say that we won’t put the power in the hands of consumers to rank those stories, and to comment on them and indicate which ones are of greatest value to them.

TERENCE SMITH: A la Google News.

KINSEY WILSON: A la Google News in some fashion; yeah. The company that owns USA Today, combined with the Tribune Company and Knight Ridder, recently invested in a company called topics.net, which performs a very similar function to Google News, and they haven’t indicated yet how they intend to deploy that, but clearly the idea, the kernel of the idea inherent in that technology is the ability to give consumers the power to pull in a variety of feeds and the ones that they think are most relevant to them.

TERENCE SMITH: It’s a customization tool.

KINSEY WILSON: Uh-huh; exactly; yeah.

TERENCE SMITH: What you just described about your own day — given the array of different means by which people can get news, are they actually saving time?

KINSEY WILSON: I don’t know that they’re saving time. I think there’s a certain amount of time shifting going on.

Certain media are losing mind share, if you will, and the limited amount of time that people have available is moving to other media, the Internet being the principal gainer, I think, and particularly with the rollout of broadband.

But there is another aspect to it and that is that media is becoming immersive. It’s an “always on” sort of function now, and I think, particularly when we look at younger audiences, and the way they interact with these media, there’s multi-tasking going on, it’s very episodic, it’s in and out, it’s part of the air they breathe.

And so it’s very hard to draw comparisons with the way you and I grew up consuming media, and that’s changing as well. Is it more convenient? Are they saving time? They’re spending their time differently, I think is really the answer.

TERENCE SMITH: Backfence.com, the new venture in this area, what strikes you about that, both as a technology, as a news delivery system, as a business model?

KINSEY WILSON: It’s one of a handful of very interesting experiments right now in citizen journalism, if you will, and listing people at a grassroots level to write and distribute information about those things which they know best, and in this case it’s their neighborhood or their school district or the activities in which they’re involved.

This is not investigative journalism and there are lots of open questions as to sort of the standards that will surround this and what will emerge and how credible it will be, and whether in fact it will get hijacked by people who simply see it as an opportunity to promote their own agenda, or will really have community value.

But there is the experience that we talked about previously, and once this gains a certain momentum, the community can be self-regulating and self-policing, if it’s set up properly, and again, it’s a mixture of finding the right technology and the right people to oversee it, that really allows it to take hold.

TERENCE SMITH: Is it a threat or an opportunity to USA Today?

KINSEY WILSON: It’s certainly not a direct threat to us. It’s probably a more direct threat to local newspapers and their franchise. For us, I would see it as more of an opportunity. We have been confined, largely for distribution reasons, to presenting strictly national and international news.

Something like that — though I don’t know that we will hopefully go down to that kind of micro local level — opens up the possibility of our reaching, truly being the nation’s newspaper, if you will, and spanning the entire country at a variety of different levels and not simply at the topmost level.

TERENCE SMITH: But you’ve had conversations with them?

KINSEY WILSON: We’ve had conversations with them, but we have conversations with virtually everybody who is sticking a toe into the new technology or a new area of media, to try and understand what they’re doing. It’s a world in which we have currently forty or so different content partnerships on the site today, people with whom we have formal agreements.

This is a world in which we all play a kind of reinforcing role with each other and we no longer do it solo, so we have a partnership, for example, with the Weather Channel and with CBS Marketwatch, or formerly CBS Marketwatch, now marketwatch.com.

And those kinds of things will continue both with start-ups and with more established companies.

TERENCE SMITH: Their argument, Backfence, is that they are covering what they call hyper local news.

KINSEY WILSON: Uh-huh.

TERENCE SMITH: That they say has been dropped by mainstream news organizations, either because they don’t consider it news or they can’t afford to cover it at that level.

KINSEY WILSON: Uh-huh. It’s very expensive to send reporters into the field at that level and to report on every small community meeting or local school board meeting, and back when I was a print reporter, you witnessed the phenomenon.

In the boom years, newspapers would create lots of individually zoned sections aimed at those local communities and as soon as the economy got soft, they’d shut them down because they simply couldn’t sustain them.

This does open the opportunity to, for those communities to be covered in a way that they really no longer are by established media.