years ago, you said the Internet was becoming the place people turned
to in order to get a richer news experience. Is that still the case?
Not long ago I read a study that found the typical user spends a total
seven seconds on any given Web page. Seven seconds! So online journalists
need to understand that underlying truth about the medium: To many people,
the Web is Short Attention Span Theater. You need to grab the reader
collar with news that's summarized quickly and cleanly, stripped of
anecdotal leads or clever, prosaic approaches more suitable to another
medium and another era.
Now, that doesn't mean that Web journalism begins and ends with snappy
headlines and terse writing. Today, headline news sites are a dime a
Some, like Yahoo News, do
a great job of rounding up the top stories from credible sources and
transporting users to news sites with the best coverage. Other headline
news services draw no distinctions between trustworthy news providers,
tabloid stories, and thinly disguised PR material masquerading as journalism.
Online news outfits need to offer more than headline roundups of breaking
news, or [recycled news] from this morning's print edition. They need
to commit editors and writers to reporting news that's breaking in their
community during the day. And they need to provide depth, context and
perspective to the news by digging beneath the surface to explore not
what happened but how and why, and to report their findings through
photos, audio, video, informational graphics and scanned source documents.
Major news organizations like CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington
Post, Chicago Tribune, USAToday and others understand this, and that's
why the public turns to them during big stories like the presidential
election aftermath. Unfortunately, we're now beginning to see cutbacks
in online news staffs -- the Miami Herald, for example, just laid off
its only Web
in 1999, you said many online news organizations hadnít gotten a good
grasp on the concept of interactivity. Is that still the case? What kind
of interactivity seems to appeal to visitors most?
Last year I wrote a 52-week series for the parenting site BabyCenter
the birth and
development of our first child, and the resulting interactivity
with the readers each week was staggering: hundreds and hundreds of
e-mails and forum postings from expectant mothers and new fathers, offering
feeding and weaning, sharing their own heartfelt experiences, and basically
just wanting to have their voices heard. More than a few were surprised
grateful when I took the time to respond to their comments, as if it
somehow remarkable for a journalist to deign to climb down from Mount
Olympus and interact with ordinary mortals.
That's the challenge our profession faces: Too often we give in to
institutional ivory-tower conceit that says: We're the expert news gatherers
who decide what's important, you're the passive recipients -- end of
discussion. That's pure arrogance, and it's antithetical to the Internet's
core ethos. I think the folks working in news organizations' new media
understand this, but they're still a small minority -- and that's the
problem. Everybody in most news organizations, from the interns
the executive editor, ought to be online and plugged into a two-way
with the public, not just a designated handful. But interactivity still
scares the daylights out of old-school journalists.
Still, some points of light have begun to pierce the darkness. Last
spoke with the editor in charge of interactive media at the Minneapolis
Tribune, who said, "More and more of the newsroom's reporters are
have their e-mail addresses printed in the paper because they love the
feedback." Other papers are also trying to change the newsroom
Reporters and columnists who spend a lot of time online invariably say
get their best story ideas, and the most rewarding feedback, directly
readers over the Internet.
do you think is in the cards for Internet-only publications in todayís
I hope they can hang on. With online advertising shrinking and Wall
putting the squeeze on content sites, Net publications are sailing in
seas. The grandiose visions of a few years ago -- city guides brimming
rich content, product-comparison sites steeped in consumer journalism,
ad-supported finance and sports startups -- are giving way to the
realization that producing high-quality content is both really expensive
really hard to pull off. Some Web-based publications with questionable
business models, like the crime news site APBNews.com, won't be around
I'm more hopeful that Salon, Slate and the entertainment-news site
Inside.com will make a go of it. They won't be profitable this year
they're savvy enough to weather the storm. America Online, of course,
another online publication that reports the news, and they're going
with us for a very long time.
Internet news doomed by its nature to be a profitless venture? Are there
any business models that seem to be working?
The challenge facing online news organizations is: How do you make
a medium where information is ubiquitous? There's no one-size-fits-all
answer. The Star Tribune's
operation is profitable because the tech staff builds Web sites for
local businesses. WSJ.com is close
to profitability because users value the breadth and depth of their
financial coverage. Other papers may find similar niches by becoming
the paper of record for newsworthy activities and events in their back
Eventually, as news sites' online work intersects with the print and
broadcast operations of their corporate siblings, we may stop thinking
Internet news as a separate entity. This month CNN
and the News Corp., owner of FoxNews.com
and FoxSports.com, scuttled their
Internet divisions and merged their online staffs into their broadcast
divisions. The Tribune Co.,
one of the smarter media companies around, has a long-term strategy
combining their print, broadcast and Internet assets all under one roof.
Online news sites may or may not become profitable, but the Web is
medium. Farther out on the horizon, digital news ventures are likely
money from wireless applications, interactive TV services, broadband,
portable tablet-like devices, and personalized newspapers that come
out of a printer in the home.
do you see wireless technology and digital television playing into the
future of news on the Web?
We've already begun to see Internet startups show off the latest gizmos:
handheld wireless units connected to the Net that call up not just stock
quotes and sports scores but headlines, stories and news alerts. The
McClatchy Co., publisher of the Sacramento Bee, is working with a partner
on a venture where you'd be able to get tailored news updates when you
drive to work -- on your timetable, not the radio station's. The technology's
there, now it's just a matter of forming the right partnerships and
out just how much real-time news consumers actually want. Early indications
suggest there may not be as much demand for wireless news as originally
thought and what people really want is to send and receive short text
messages on cell phones.
Digital television could become a huge deal. Not the wide-screen,
high-definition TV, which faces a lot of technical obstacles, but the
of services we're already seeing with Tivo, Microsoft's Ultimate TV
other digital video recorders and set-top boxes. Last election night,
partnership between the NewsHour and WebTV allowed thousands of viewers
to get a more personalized election experience by letting them click
candidates' victory and concession speeches and follow local returns.
That only scratches the surface. We'll see more of this, on a much larger
scale, on all the major networks before the decade is out.
this new media reorganization is over, will there be a resurgence of Internet
news or will the consolidation of the past few months continue?
We're likely to see more online news layoffs and cutbacks in the months
ahead, but the worst is probably behind us. The downturn should be over
by fall, and next year we'll likely see small incremental growth rather
than big expansion plans. It may not be until 2003 that online news
ventures take off again in a significant way, though we won't see a
return to the spasmodic expansions of the past two years. Analysts say
traditional retailers should start advertising on the Web in a big way
starting late this year. I hope that's true. It's amazing how much journalism
is still at the mercy of market forces outside our control.