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the future of news: a discussion

This is an edited transcript of a panel discussion held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 12, 2007. Moderated by FRONTLINE correspondent Lowell Bergman, the participants were: Len Downie, executive editor of The Washington Post; David Marash, anchor, Al Jazeera English; Scott Moore, head of news and information, Yahoo! Media Group; and Dana Priest, national security reporter for The Washington Post. [Editor's Note: Lauren Rich Fine, managing director, Merrill Lynch, was also on the panel, but FRONTLINE did not receive permission to publish her comments. For her perspective, read her interview.]

LISTEN   Listen to the panel (54:36, QuickTime + Windows Media)


“When you're bashed by the economic onslaught and by an administration who wants to paint us as biased and traitors, I think it's time to stand up and remind people what role we play -- and let them do whatever they want with it.”
Dana Priest

LOWELL BERGMAN: Len Downie, what is the future of The Washington Post in the news business?

LEN DOWNIE: We have a diversified corporation on purpose. We own a large educational company called Kaplan that makes lots of money, and that helps us to not worry about making 15 percent, 20 percent, 25 percent margins at The Washington Post newspaper.

We also have a strategy for multi-platform journalism. Our newsroom is no longer just a print newspaper newsroom. It also serves a Web site that has millions and millions of readers each day and is growing, along with a number of other publications that we've either bought or started. So we think our future's very good.

BERGMAN: If you didn't have this diversification, would The Washington Post be in business?

DOWNIE: Oh, we would still be in business, but it wouldn't be as comfortable for me as an editor of a newsroom that spends a lot of money covering the news if we didn't have a diversified company that was financially as sound as it is. The New York Times editor probably, in a jibe that he's later apologized to me for, said that we're no longer a newspaper company; we're an education company. And I said that I'm very happy to be under the umbrella of an education company these days.

BERGMAN: Now Dave, you went to Al Jazeera International. It doesn't have these problems, right? But at the same time, we can't see it in the United States.

DAVID MARASH: Well, that's our problem, is that right now we are barely distributed at all in the United States, other than on the Internet. We're actually seen on three cable systems in America -- the Pentagon's, the State Department's, and … it turns out that Burlington, Vermont municipally operates its cable system, and they put us on.

Clearly we do benefit from the fact that Qatar has the third largest natural gas reserves in the world, and the royal family is bent on developing it as a kind of information hub and social hub around information. But [there are] two big capital investments that the royal family of Qatar has made for maybe two generations away, revenue streams [for] when the gas and oil revenues start to slow down. Number one are the Al Jazeera television networks. And we're now up, I think, to eight or nine channels. They just opened a new documentary channel.


Washington Post Publisher Len Downie (l) and Lowell Bergman (r)

You won't be surprised to learn that the sports channel is the real moneymaker and the children's channel is the second moneymaker, and Al Jazeera's news channel in Arabic is not quite [self-]sustaining, in spite of the fact that its impact on its region and its culture is quite literally historic. In fact, it may be the single most revolutionary and progressive input into the culture of the Arabic-speaking world and the Islamic world since Mohammed, or certainly since the 12th century renaissance of Averroes and Avicenna.

So that there's a tremendous intellectual ambition. You could call it also a tremendous zeal for influence, but I find, so far at least, that the way in which influence is defined is information at its most transparent. And I as yet can decry no self-interest and editorial pointing or shaping at all in the channel.

BERGMAN: So Mr. Moore, if the Yahoo! repurposes everybody else's news, Yahoo! is dependent on news organizations, why not buy one?

SCOTT MOORE: Well, you asked me that when you were interviewing me for the show, and I think I made a crack about not wanting to own a business that was dependent on trucks and killing trees and that sort of thing.

But, I mean, the reality is Yahoo! pays millions of dollars a year in licensing fees to news organizations, sort of first and foremost, The Associated Press, Reuters, and other organizations. We have partnerships with CBS News, the BBC, ABC News, the Weather Channel, on and on. So we really have a robust set of partnership, almost all of whom we pay substantial fees to. So our business is dependent on those other news organizations, but it pays back benefits to them, both in terms of licensing fees and then also in terms of bringing their brands to new audiences.

For example, 60 Minutes, where I know you used to work, we put 60 Minutes on Yahoo! about six months ago. We're showing probably 5 or 6 million clips every week from the show. So the show airs on broadcast and then we put it up on Yahoo! on Sunday after it airs, and millions of people watch it. And the thing that's been really interesting to find out is that 60 percent of the audience on Yahoo! that's watching 60 Minutes is under the age of 44.

Now, if you look at the demographics of 60 Minutes on television, it's more than 70 percent above the age of 60. So from their perspective, they're getting their brand exposed to a whole new generation or a couple new generations of viewers who generally don't watch 60 Minutes at all.

BERGMAN: And Dana, when you hear all of this conversation about the changing newsroom -- I understand there are 50 of your colleagues running around with video cameras now, as well as having to blog and so on -- do you feel like you're going to be overworked, underpaid?

DANA PRIEST: Not really. I don't have a video camera, but I have a contract with NBC News. And I look at it as a force multiplier, as they would say in the military. I do investigative reporting now. The Post has never questioned the fact that I'm off, you know, these days taking four or five months to do that. And I look at my multi-platform opportunities as a way to increase the impact of whatever I do for The Washington Post, and I think that's a model.

Thank goodness other people are worried about the business model. But for me as a reporter who is trying to do something every day and take a risk -- because as an investigative reporter you never actually know whether you're going to have a story that's worth four months' work -- I have a management that says, "Go do it." There are already fewer outlets that can do that. That puts The Washington Post and The New York Times and the L.A. Times -- still, but waning -- in a position that nobody else has. If we're smart, we're going to take full advantage of that and label ourselves as one of the only outlets that does that.

Because in the end, I have to believe that the American people, although they may not like the media in polls, in the end, they are going to value the things that only the big media can bring them and only the mainstream media can bring them, which is this whole effort and time put into stories that are way beneath the surface. So until someone pulls me off that job, I'm grateful to have it, and I sort of trust that things are going to work out.

BERGMAN: I open up today's paper and it says the Tribune Company is going to give up on even trying to sell itself, because nobody wants to buy it, or at least for a price, they would make their stockholders happy. We know The Boston Globe recently, owned by The New York Times, getting rid of all of its foreign bureaus, foreign correspondents disappearing. Is this a crisis? Or is this just the natural selection of the fittest?

DOWNIE: It's a very wrenching transition from one media era to another. And there will be, as always happens in wrenching transitions, winners and losers. Newspapers will not disappear. … There will be newspapers and they will still be charging a cover price. Newspapers are already relatively cheap -- maybe not The New York Times, but The Washington Post costs 35 cents -- it may not be free, but that's not a lot -- and $1.50 on Sundays. So price is not the barrier here.

We are still advertising supported, but are economic models shifting? We're gaining lots and lots of advertising on the Internet. But we're also on the Internet. It's not like it's competition. It's part of what we're doing. Just as I don't see Yahoo! or bloggers as necessarily competition with our news, because the best bloggers and portals have to point to our news. They have to take people to our site, because that's where the stories are.

“You would think that the history of the last 15 years would show you that ignorance bites you in the ass, and that a nation that consigns itself to ignorance of everything outside of its neighborhood is placing itself in a very endangered position.”
David Marash

So there's definitely a transition going on in which the economics are going to have to be carefully managed by smart businesspeople, which, fortunately, I don't have to be one of. I can just be the editor. But some of us are going to come through it all right, and others are not because they aren't being managed that well through this terrible transition.

BERGMAN: In the research we did, there was a recent study done by Bain & Company. And it said that to a newspaper, a subscriber is worth a thousand dollars a year in advertising revenue. An Internet reader is worth $5.50 per year. How can you ever have the twain meet?

DOWNIE: The advertisers on the Internet are paying more and more all the time, so the Internet reader may be a worth a little more. But the biggest difference is that there are going to be a lot more readers on the Internet, and therefore, those dollars will also add up.

BERGMAN: Dave, you and I met 30 years ago in television and we saw the decline of network television news. Could that be a cautionary tale for what's happening to newspapers today?

MARASH: Well, you know, I don't think the crisis is in the institutions. I think Len is right; newspapers will survive. The crisis is in the content of the newspapers, which is becoming more and more local. I think we may wind up with only three or four national news organs: the Post, the Times, the L.A. Times. Part of the Tribune's [problem] is there may not be room in the marketplace for a number four or number five national newspaper.

And so what you're seeing in your newspaper is less investment in national news coverage and almost no investment in international news coverage. And you would think that the history of the last 15 years would show you that ignorance bites you in the ass, and that a nation that consigns itself to ignorance of everything outside of its neighborhood is placing itself in a very endangered position. ... America used to be full of so-called regional newspapers that were very ambitious about covering way beyond the city limits, covering the state, covering the region and covering the world. And the networks of course also used to be global in their coverage. And we all remember on Sept. 12, 2001, every single one of the network news executives doing a nostra culpa and saying 9/11 should teach us that ignorance of the world is dangerous, and we've learned our lesson, and we're now going to cover the world. And of course they lied. They've done nothing but cut back on their global coverage. And what passes for news in America grows more parochial, less serious, and less devoted to reality every day. And to me, that's the crisis.

DOWNIE: More surveys show that foreign news ranks in the top five of subjects people want to read about. That doesn't mean that every paper in the country can afford the million dollars or more that we spend on covering Iraq every year, but it does mean that they can afford to take our news service, which isn't very expensive, or The New York Times, or the AP. And they can have one editor who's knowledgeable about that kind of material and cover it properly in their paper at very low cost.

But they're refusing to do it because of the fact that the people that own those newspapers, say that people aren't interested, and that's just wrong. ... I come from Cleveland, and most Clevelanders are not going to read those other newspapers. They're only going to read The Plain Dealer, and they should know something about the world from reading The Plain Dealer. …

MOORE: Unless they're under 30, in which case they probably don't take a paper and never have, and they probably never will.

BERGMAN: And they can read on the Internet.

MOORE: Right.

PRIEST: Well, as a mother of a 15-year-old, they can still care about the world if they don't take a newspaper. The fluency on all the news, alternative sites on the Web is remarkable, so--

MOORE: Yeah. I personally think that you have to divorce the state of the business of newspapering from the state of people's interest in news and journalism generally. Because certainly at least our experience at Yahoo! has been that there's almost unlimited interest in news. I mean, our monthly audience is 35 million people every month, and it grows and it grows and it grows. And you kind of go, "How could it grow more than that?" And that's just in the U.S.

Scott Moore (l) and David Marash (r)

Now worldwide, our audience on Yahoo! News is well over 50 million a month. So we've got people from all over the world that are reading it. As far as international news, about 15 percent of the articles that we serve, which is the number three section, is international news. We have wire service arrangements with, like I said, AFP, with BBC, with AP.

So in terms of the news product itself, you can actually get a better product online because it's immediate. You don't have to wait until tomorrow morning when the news that hits your front stoop is already outdated, by definition, by any number of hours. And you can go to whichever source you happen to prefer.

In our research, for people under the age of 30, the BBC ranks as the number two or three source. When you ask them, "What would be your preferred news service?" the BBC is very high up there, which is surprising, because it doesn't have a lot of distribution here. But people that are sophisticated with the technology know how to go find what they want and get it however it is most convenient for them.

BERGMAN: But does the system on the Internet expose people to stories they wouldn't necessarily see? You know, when you look at a newspaper, it's laid out by an editor. You put it out there as information in the public interest: what is most important; what you think is important. On the Internet, you get to choose and you get to avoid that way information that you think people should be exposed to.

DOWNIE: This will sound strange from a newspaper guy, but not exactly. Because, for instance, has a homepage and it is edited the way I edit our front page; that is to say, they try to figure out what range of stories they ought to be presenting to people. So you will see things you didn't necessarily ask to see.

And the other thing is that a lot of people that come into our Web site come from blogs and other things, you know, other kinds of sources where they find links to our stories. So they're coming in from all over the place.

I used to make that argument, that newspapers had serendipity. Well, for people my age, newspapers are still the preferred form of serendipity. But for younger people, they find exactly that same thing on the Web. If they want to read about politics, they wind up at, and that's just fine with me.

BERGMAN: But the Internet itself cannot support, for instance, investigative reporting at this point. That's based on the advertising and the revenue coming from your newspaper.

DOWNIE: At this point. We don't know if that's never going to be the case, but at this point, we've got much more revenue for the newspaper than for the Web site. But the Web site is growing. I don't know what that'll be like in the future.

MOORE: Yeah, but one interesting statistic on that is that if you look at total media consumption -- the total amount of time that people spend with different media -- the Internet today is about 12 percent. ... I think that is close to what radio is now. So it's beyond magazines; it's not quite to newspapers or to television. The amount of advertising that's spent online today is only 4 percent, and that's been growing too. But that gap will absolutely close over time.

So we're at a place now at Yahoo! where, even though our news business in particular is a tiny fraction of most major newspapers, it's growing by leaps and bounds. It's growing at a rate of 40 percent to 50 percent a year, off of a not insignificant base. And we don't have all of the fixed costs, all of the overhead that these dead tree businesses have.

So we'll be able to invest more in investigative reporting and other innovative forms of journalism as we go forward. I mean, that just is the natural order of how it's going to develop.

PRIEST: And as a reporter looking to put things, not only in the newspaper, but on our Web site in a slightly different form, we'll carry the story on the Web site. Then hopefully what we'll be able to do is to bring readers closer to the people in a story through photographs, through our voiceovers, through sidebars which won't necessarily run in the newspaper, but then also in some way -- and I think this is so important -- into the process that we use. Not necessarily how we got from A to Z, but how we got from A to B. When I went into this person's house and talked to them about this, this is how they seemed. Something that is more personal, which frankly is a relief to me, because after 20 years of reporting, one of my great frustrations is I still feel that I am put through a filter that has to be there that doesn't allow people to come with me as much as I wish they could.

“We'll be able to invest more in investigative reporting and other innovative forms of journalism as we go forward. That just is the natural order of how it's going to develop.”
Scott Moore

And so to me, it's exciting to try to take the personalization that's on the Web, to let them in a little bit more on the process that I go through and the people I meet, because I'm always astounded at the people I meet and excited by them. And I get frustrated that I can't translate that in the newspaper; there's just not enough space.

So again, I think the Web holds a lot of potential for investigative reporters; hopefully we're going to do some of that in politics, too, that we can't do, and in national security. Those are the three areas that -- since I don't run the Post, but I have this platform -- I would say are really the Post's great -- and the Times', too -- great franchises. And it's up to us to figure out how to make them more exciting to people.

DOWNIE: Starting next month, we're going to be doing an experimental presentation of a huge project by one of our senior reporters on lobbying in Washington. I can't tell you too many of the details right now, but it's called Citizen K Street; that'll help you think about it. And the first day's reporting will be two pages in the newspaper, pretty conventional. The next 25 days will be serialization on, not in the newspaper. There'll be teasers in the newspaper, but the substance will be on, in shorter forms. And it'll be accompanied by audio and video interviews with the people involved, and all kinds of other stuff you can only do on the Internet and not in the paper. And then it will conclude with two full pages, again in The Washington Post. And it'll be very interesting to see how that works.

So we're presenting it to a variety of audiences at the same time: a local audience and a national/international audience, because the longer pieces will also be available on the Web for people who don't pick up the printed newspaper. And we'll also be obviously in different revenue streams by presenting it on those two platforms. So it'll be interesting to see what happens.

BERGMAN: So everything is going to be great?

DOWNIE: No. Everything's going to be different.

PRIEST: All of this is not addressing a situation, which, I know the first part of your series addresses which is, reporting that must depend on anonymous sources. Because how you do that on the Internet is really a challenge.

BERGMAN: Meaning?

PRIEST: Well, meaning you can't talk about the process. You can't have their voices anywhere. …

BERGMAN: Listening to you, I'm thinking about the third part of our series, a large part of which is about the Los Angeles Times. In that part of the series, one of the major investors in the Tribune Company, says, "The problem with the Los Angeles Times is they want to be like The New York Times. They want to be a national and international newspaper. There's no market for it. We have The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. That's enough. The Los Angeles Times has to become a local, regional newspaper."

And I wondered how you feel about that, that you'll lose your competition, basically, but also [not] be able to read that kind of reporting in the Los Angeles Times. Also, [it] wouldn't help anybody coming up in the business; there'll be fewer jobs.

PRIEST: Yeah. I think the L.A. Times is in a particularly difficult spot because we are in the nation's capital, and they are never going to be thought of as The Washington Post and The New York Times because of history. But they've done great investigative reporting. Tens of millions of people in California have read it and relied on it. So I have a hard time thinking that that investor doesn't value that sort of thing. It's ultimately local and statewide.

About five years ago, the L.A. Times stopped circulating its Washington edition. And what that meant was that it didn't circulate on Capitol Hill. So the reporters who wrote about Capitol Hill or the Pentagon were as if, you know, the tree falls in the forest and no one's there to see it. None of their sources saw their stories anymore. And we were worried about that in one sense because they're great reporters, and I think it's healthy for us to be competing against more than The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

BERGMAN: … But that means one less Baghdad bureau to contribute reporting from Iraq. Is that healthy?

DOWNIE: No. The more competition and the more voices -- that's why I love bloggers and anything else the Internet can produce in the way of new news voices. Because we need all the information we can get. It is expensive and difficult to do that kind of reporting, and one welcomes as many people who can afford [to do it] as possible.

MARASH: But, you know, in television, and particularly at the network level or the cable news level, this competition is literally minute by minute. And so there is a terror in the television suites of putting anything on that's going to make somebody go for their remote, and they have that option every second. And this is one of the reason why, although television lives off terrible news stories -- this tragedy, this plane crash -- television's very loathe to give you bad news stories: America's role in the world energy markets has shifted irrevocably, and it means an awful lot; this bad incident, this bad speech in Iraq adds up to something really seriously disastrous.

For years, the networks didn't want to add that up because they were terrified. And they learned this, by the way, in Bosnia, where, by 1993, whenever Bosnia was mentioned in primetime, on the minute by minute, you could watch people fleeing because they knew, "Well, the Balkans is not going to be anything that I want to know, so what do I need to know it? Let's change the channel."

And so for the network news divisions, doing hard stories, and particularly stories that are depressing or have serious negative implications, has become an almost impossible task, because they're convinced the audience won't sit still for the story, and therefore, it's self-defeating to try and do it.

So that the L.A. Times's problem of, "How can we really compete with The New York Times and The Washington Post, maybe we should just become a local/regional paper," is magnified a million times at the television networks. And you're seeing the result in their news shows. I mean, you're seeing three hours on the death of Anna Nicole Smith, literally to the exclusion of everything else.

MOORE: But it sells, right?

BERGMAN: The Valerie Plame affair, the battle over whether or not reporters should testify, the cautionary tale of Judy Miller and Matt Cooper, led an editor for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, your hometown paper, to announce that they knew about a federal federal investigation in Cleveland of corruption going on. And they were not going to run the story because, one, they would probably lose in court, and the legal fees would be very high. The reporters might be in danger, and they didn't have the money anymore. They were going broke.

So is this crisis in newspapers actually resulting in us not hearing stories? You can't hear a tree fall in the forest. But how do we gauge what information or what reporting we haven't heard about?

DOWNIE: That sounds like an extreme case to me. If you look at the stories that are being entered for prizes for the Pulitzer Prize and other prizes, year after year, there's more and more investigative reporting every year. So it does not necessarily require a lot of money to do good investigative reporting. There are exceptional cases where you'd be worried about subpoenas and costs like that. But by and large, it's a decision about how you're going to use your resources, whether you're going to spend it on one kind of journalism or another kind of journalism.

I think the bigger concern about the flurry of subpoenas and so on is whether or not it will dry up sources, whether Dana's sources will decide, "I just can't talk to Dana anymore." While we're going to get all upset about whether Dana is going to be subpoenaed or go to prison or not, they're facing much worse consequences potentially. They may not talk to Dana anymore. That's what I'm really worried about: It's chilling the sources themselves, the people that have the truth that want to get it to us.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: I'm very interested in what you've all said about the Internet and the resources, news that the Internet provides. But I really would like you to address the whole issue of Net neutrality, the ability of individuals to access any information or use any application on the Web without the interference of the Internet service providers. … I frankly don't understand how journalism is going to survive or diversity of opinion is going to survive without Net neutrality. …

MOORE: Essentially there's a debate beginning to boil up about whether or not the companies that control the pipe into your home that carries broadband -- cable companies, telecoms primarily, those are the companies -- whether they should have the right to dictate what kind of traffic goes across their network or whether they have to be open to you going to any site that you want to.

So, in other words, if I owned a cable company and you were my customers, theoretically, I'd say, "Well, my pipes are in your home. I'm only going to allow you to go to certain places. And if you want to go to other places, you have to pay me," or "The site that you want to go to will have to pay me in order for me to cross that traffic across my network."

So the idea of Net neutrality is that anybody who's in the business of providing Internet access should be regulated in such a way that they can't essentially control the flow of the information. Personally as a citizen, not speaking for Yahoo!, but I think it's sort of obvious that Net neutrality should be the way that the government regulates the industry.

On the other hand, I have a feeling that it may be more of a bit of a tempest in a teapot, because there's enough competition in the market for Internet access that if Comcast starts telling you that you can't go to certain Web sites and you can go to certain other Web sites, you may just call up Verizon or whomever the phone company is and get your Internet service from them.

So I don't think it's gotten to a point yet where it's really a problem. It's more of a theoretical problem at this point.

BERGMAN: You're all aware of what happened in China? That if you go on Google, for instance, in China, you can't see the famous tank man, the 1989 Tiananmen video. He's been airbrushed out. And, by the way, we asked Eric Schmidt of Google about that and his response was, "They resisted. This will never happen again."

PRIEST: Well, that's a good response. You got him on the record.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: What do you think about citizen journalism?

PRIEST: You know, in many places, it's made a huge impact. There's a case in Singapore where they caught some abuse on tape. Then the police were under investigation in a place that normally they wouldn't be. So it has great value.

The problem is, it's the problem that exists in trying to figure out how reputable the journalist is, and I think that's the larger problem of bloggers using derivative information. So do we have a standard in journalism that says, "We're reputable and the next guy isn't"? We don't. We never have, and I can't imagine that we ever will.

But there's got to be some way to label something or to require -- and I know that's not the way, but that's the only thing I can think of now -- a disclaimer or disclosure of some sort that actually allows viewers, readers to know the veracity of the account.

BERGMAN: Scott, how does Yahoo! rank veracity or reliability?

MOORE: Oh, we don't care about that at all, Lowell! No, obviously, it's critically important to any sort of news publishing enterprise. But I think citizen journalism's going to be fascinating thing to watch evolve. Citizen journalism is almost too highfaluting a term for it. … In software terms, if you write a piece of software and then other people use it; you write it, they read it, okay? And that's kind of the way that media has traditionally been made: The journalists write the news; the readers read the newspaper or they watch the TV show or whatever.

But with the Internet, you're getting into a read/write phenomenon where people not only read, they also can interact back. So they can make comments on stories; that's sort of the most simple way to do it. But when the London bombings happened [in] July of '05, within 15 or 20 minutes, the editors at Yahoo! News were pulling images that had been uploaded to Flickr, which is a photo-sharing site. People had taken pictures on their cell phone cameras in the tube, at the scene of the bombings, uploaded them to Flickr. Our editors thought to do a search and found the images, and we were publishing them within 30 minutes.

Now that's not citizen journalism; that's just somebody being in the right place at the right time with a cell phone that has a camera on it, and then they're sort of connected. Because of technology, we have this sort of virtual stringer network that includes, probably, most of the people in this room right now. If something significant were to happen and you were on-scene, you could very easily record it. And increasingly, you could do it with video as well.

So I think that phenomena is going to be really interesting to see how it plays out. My favorite idea for citizen journalism is high school sports, because high school sports are typically very badly covered by most major newspapers, right? They just don't have the resources and the amount of newsprint to cover them properly. And yet high school sports are incredibly popular for millions and millions of people across the country, whether they're parents or they're athletes or they're friends or whatever.

And I think you're going to see a situation very soon where somebody will create a Web site -- maybe it'll even be Yahoo!, who knows -- where if you go and attend a game, you can file a story on the game. Maybe we tell you, "Okay, here's the basic things you need to write in the story: This is not investigative; this is not Watergate reporting; this is a high school football game, or whatever, so tell us who won. What were the key plays? Who was the best player?" It's not that hard to do, right? And you'll see that kind of thing begin to take place in lots of different niches all over the country.

MARASH: The problem, of course, is the person who has the cell phone camera and Photoshop and can do to his Internet readers what one freelancer [Adnan Hajj] did to Reuters not too long ago in Lebanon, which is to doctor a photograph.

Now, of course, the beauty of the Internet is that the detectors of the millions of participants will eventually analyze and catch up to this. But again, the basic problem is that the Internet is a fantastic mine of information, but it's relatively indiscriminate information. And both verifying the provenance and the accuracy of the sources of information in a virtual universe is more than virtually impossible.

MOORE: You should spend some time on Wikipedia if you really believe that. Because actually, Wikipedia -- that's a community-generated encyclopedia which is, if not the equivalent of the Encyclopedia Britannica, it's well on its way to becoming that.

MARASH: Except that it's full of things that ain't true. I mean, Wikipedia, it is chilling how Wikipedia has become the encyclopedia of junior news writers. But a lot of the information in Wikipedia is not verified, and some of it is not true. And it's very difficult to winnow on your own.

MOORE: It self-corrects.

MARASH: Sometimes.

MOORE: I want to make a point about the Reuters photographer that you mentioned. I don't know how many of you know this. This is during the Israeli/Lebanon war very recently. This photographer in Lebanon working for Reuters Photoshopped in some smoke into an image which he then submitted to Reuters and it got published in newspapers all over the world.

Well, who figured that out? Somebody on the Internet. Some bloggers were like, "Wait a second." So that self-correcting part of it and having it become read/write is a very healthy thing.

BERGMAN: You guys are going hyperlocal, aren't you? You're going to do Washington Post high school games.

DOWNIE: Yes, we are. Two points. One is, this is not a new phenomenon. Pamphleteers, you know, were present at the American Revolution, and obviously long before that in other countries. Citizens have been sending, taking pictures of things, crimes around town and fires and bringing them into newspaper offices ever since there were cameras and newspapers, for decades.

And so this is just a new technology, a new technological form of citizen participation, to me, that's been going on for a long time. And, again, I think it's great to have the input. …

For instance, on our site, we have reader comments on stories, even though it drives some reporters crazy. I don't know what Dana's position is on that. But they're identified as such: This is the readers talking; this isn't us talking. And we are going to have a hyperlocal site in Loudoun County, Va. where we're going to have a lot of reader participation, where people will be sending in sermons for churches. They'll be certain citizens that will be sending in news reports to us after they get trained about how to do it. And we're going to have very fancy high school sports coverage. It'll be like professional coverage of high school sports. And it's an experiment--

MOORE: You beat us to it.

DOWNIE: Yeah. And we'll see what it looks like. This is actually a guy who did this in Lawrence, Kansas. Then he did it in Naples [Fla.]. Now he's going to do it for us. He's the originator of this concept. But the important thing is: Label the professional stuff; label the stuff that's not professional; and have certain filters, even for the non-professional stuff. So we don't let people libel people online or use the wrong language online, a variety of ways in which you kind of police the citizen participation.

BERGMAN: We did interview Rob Curley, your new guru of hyperlocal in the third hour [of the "News War" series]. But the question that he was unable to answer was, "Does this make money?"

DOWNIE: I'm unable to answer that now, too, which is why it's an experiment. But as was pointed out earlier, [Washingon Post Co. CEO] Don Graham's been doing this kind of experimenting, spending a lot of money. It's interesting, about 12 years ago maybe, in Fortune magazine, there was a little blurb about him that was very insulting, about all the money he was wasting on the Internet, and all the money he was wasting on this and on that.

Why was he buying an education company that started out not doing so well? And now all those investments have paid off. And so we're continuing to experiment, and we're not standing still. We're not a staid newspaper company, as too many have been mismanaged by not changing with the times. And so we'll try it out and see what happens. We'll see if it makes money.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: You made a comment when you were talking about conundrum between citizen journalism and professional journalism. And your solution right now is you label [what is by] the professional journalism and the reader. My question is, if a blogger, for instance, is getting paid by his readers, is he professional?

DOWNIE: Who cares? We're not going to do that. That's a question, for instance, present in the discussion now in Washington over having a national shield law. How do you define a journalist? And we'll work out some way to compromise on it. ... Anybody's a journalist who proves to you and me that they're a good journalist, and if they're not, you won't think they're good journalists. You may still want to read their blog because you're entertained.

The number one driver of traffic to is Matt Drudge, because he respects our journalism so much, he links to it all the time. Now, there's a lot of stuff that Drudge puts up that I don't particularly like, that is wrong. But his readers know the difference, and they follow the links to us. Younger readers follow the links to us when they see something that interests them. And that's just fine.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: You've all managed to talk about the media for nearly an hour and didn't mention the "B-word." How much is the declining fortunes of the old media driven by the perception of political bias?

DOWNIE: Since the old media is full of many different kinds of political slants -- in fact, that's one of the developments in the old media, is that you have a Fox News that is presenting the news from what they see as a different point of view than what they thought the three other major television networks were doing. You have all different kinds of views of editorial pages; you have editorial pages like The Wall Street Journal that look very different than the news pages of the same newspaper.

I think if anything, people's strong feelings about the news are greater than ever before. So, if you will, reader bias is stronger than ever before. And as a result, it is encouraging, I think, more and more diversity of views in the media, particularly in the Internet, but also in the pages of our newspaper and our site and everywhere, and on television increasingly reflecting different views. Because people are pushing for that in what is right now an extremely polarized country, still a very much 50/50 country in which activists have very strong views, the strongest I've seen in my life.

I've been in this business 42 years, never seen anything like this, not even during the '60s. I think it has been good for the media. It's actually made more possibilities of different kinds of news presentations from all different points of view.

BERGMAN: Isn't the crisis really, at least from what we were looking at, in organizations that specialize in mass circulation: general interest publications and broadcasting? That's where the crisis is economically. The crisis isn't in political publications with a point of view. They're doing fine; they're making more money. The crisis isn't in foreign language publications in the United States as an economic model; they're growing. The crisis seems to be in those organizations that have put forward a professional way of collecting the news and presenting it to the largest possible audience. …

MARASH: Well, I think there's a great unknown here, and that is, it is truly unknown how efficient the Internet is as an advertising medium. I mean, there's a reason that it has 12 percent of the eyeballs and 4 percent of the advertising, because advertisers are not universally convinced that it is an effective medium, that in fact people don't essentially zap by the ads and ignore the ads.

If that is true, if in fact advertising on the Internet is not radically effective, then we are in deep trouble as an industry. And I think the jury is still out on that. You know, TimesSelect is a profound vote of un-confidence in advertising. And of course the Times, as Len pointed out, charges a buck for their newspaper, and apparently they can. But there's not another newspaper in American that feels that they can without excluding a lot of their readership. And again, it must be a very ambiguous pleasure to be a columnist on the Times and have 90 percent of your Internet audience excluded from reading your work.

MOORE: Yeah, I can't imagine they're too happy about it. I actually hope that all of my mainstream news competitors start charging for their Internet products because we certainly will never do that. There's just no need to.

I mean, if you look at just the economics of publishing newspapers or magazines, the whole point of a subscription is partly to have a verified circulation. It's partly to pay for the newsprint, the ink, the trucks, and the people who run the presses. None of those things exist in the Internet. So it would be totally counterproductive to charge some tiny amount of money for people to come and read it when you could make a lot more money on the advertising.

And the difference to me in the advertising on the Internet, and the reason there's still this gap, it has a lot more to do with the people that are buying the ads and their demographics and the kind of media that they grew up consuming than it has to do with the actual efficiency of the medium.

The other thing that it speaks to is the fact that in television, it's very difficult to know whether an ad is effective. It's almost impossible to know, and especially today with TiVos and people changing channels or just skipping right through and not seeing anything. But it takes a long time for an industry of, I'll call it $50 billion dollars, to begin to say, "Wait a second. This actually isn't working. What else are we going to do?"

Well, on the Internet, we can tell you exactly how many times your ad was seen or clicked on, and so it's extremely efficient in that sense. And I'm very bullish that over time it's going to continue to grow very robustly.

MARASH: What's interesting is the data shows that Internet advertising is most efficient, alas for newspapers, in the kind of basically catalogue advertising. Craigslist is obviously very successful and a dagger in the heart of the classified section. Or a car dealer doing the car ads -- in other words, ads for people who already have the impulse to buy and are now selecting within that impulse.

The question is whether the Internet is as good at the creation of impulse -- which is basically what television advertising is about -- rather than presenting you the bill of fare, the catalogue. But, you know, just as the effectiveness of television advertising in the new era of TiVo needs re-scrutiny -- and I'm sure it's getting it. I'm sure that the Internet is getting all kinds of scrutiny as to what kind of advertising works and what kind doesn't. But as I say, the initial returns are worse for print than for television I think in terms of advertising competition.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: … We consider subjective language to be unprofessional when we're talking about news, unless it's on the opinion page. And we consider objective language to be objective news reporting, even though we're human beings. So I'm just interested in how the culture of the blogging world will affect the culture of professional journalism.

DOWNIE: I think that's a good question, and the pressure is not just from the Internet and blogs. It's also obviously from cable and broadcast television talk shows and radio talk shows where opinion is prized and shouting is prized over facts. That has put a lot of pressure on ordinary reporting that goes on. You see in local television news shows, for example, and sometimes in national television news shows, reporters and anchors having to express something like an opinion at the end of the story in order to have some punch to it. We're still resisting that in our little newspaper business and in our Internet version of the newspaper business. There's plenty of opinion to be had in opinion pages and in the opinion bloggers on the Internet site, and from readers who could express all the opinions they want.

But people are still expecting our news coverage to be as close to the truth as possible, and if they think we are injecting too much bias or opinion in it, they get mad. So I think there's still protection of a culture not of objectivity, which is impossible, but of fairness and accuracy.

BERGMAN: Don't you change your headlines on the Web?

DOWNIE: The only reason we change our headlines on the Web is that, in order for search engines to find our stories, for our stories to come up at the top of search engines, they have to have certain words in them. And sometimes headline writers in newspapers, in trying to attract some people into the story, will not necessarily mention the keywords in the story. So we have to write a second headline that's actually duller for the Internet in order to have the keywords in it so that the little robot going through the Internet will pick up, "Oh, Bush," and put that in the search line.

Dana Priest

PRIEST: But for reporters and editors, all of this does pose some new problems that we become aware of when we somehow fail. For instance, I do a weekly chat on Thursdays. I like to try to be more informal. Sometimes, I'll try to joke and I'll use language that's more informal. But what I can't do and I have to tell myself -- I have to have a second brain in there saying, "Okay. I'm being more informal. I'm being more chatty. But am I crossing the line between opinion and analysis and news reporting?" It's not always evident. And when you do it more, you get a little more used to it. And when someone calls you on something that you've said and you really do have to think about what you've done.

You know, my favorite example of sort of melding into this world is Dana Milbank who writes, not a column, not a straight news story, but he's allowed to have what we call a voice. I think we call him the Washington Observer--

DOWNIE: No, sketch.

PRIEST: Sketch, right. And it gets on the front page now, which I think is great because it's so entertaining. But some people don't think it's great because he has a certain eye that I don't have, and that some people probably think shouldn't be on the front page of the Post. So there is where you're pushing the limits. And I think that if we want to stay in business as a newspaper, then we have to push the limits in every way we can without stepping over some invisible line that we all know is there.

DOWNIE: But again, this is not driven by the Internet; it's not brand-new. Because parliamentary sketches have been in British newspapers for many, many decades, maybe for 100 years. And it's just the form that it hadn't been really tried with success in the United States. Dana's good at it, so it works for us. But it's not like it came out of a blog or something.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: A question about the reputation of journalists and journalism: It has been practically a cottage industry to criticize journalism and journalists since [Spiro Agnew used the phrase] nattering nabobs of negativism. That goes back a long way. Do you believe that journalists as individuals and journalism as a profession have done what they should to defend the practice of fact-based journalism, to defend journalism and its role in American society? Or have we as journalists failed in some way to reinforce our role?

DOWNIE: I don't think we've always explained ourselves. I like what Dana had to say about the opportunity she now has to be able to take readers along with her more on television and the Web. We're finding ways to do in the newspaper too, to help people understand what it is that we do.

We don't have to be in the business of defending our honor. Our honor, our credibility, is determined by what we do day in and day out. And sometimes the most credible things we do are going to be the most unpopular. If we start worrying about our popularity, that is a very slippery slope. I don't have any friends, and it doesn't bother me.

PRIEST: I would take some exception with that. I think that we as an industry have really failed to explain the importance of what we do. Not by tooting our own horns, but by saying -- and I do this in every speech I give, especially on college campuses where people are not necessarily reading us and they're always bashing the mainstream media -- I'm making a point of saying, "I am a proud member of the mainstream media, and this is why."

To me, it's very simple. You cannot do the kind of investigative reporting that really matters on a shoestring. I mean, obviously, there are exceptions. You really do need the backing of some money and corporate support behind you. And people take that for granted. And we don't like to toot our own horns. And we don't like to get up there and say it. But when you are bashed by the economic onslaught and by an administration who wants to paint us as biased and traitors, I think it is time to stand up and remind people what role we play, and then let them do whatever they want with it.

DOWNIE: That's the explaining I was talking about. We should be doing more of that, but not worrying about whether we're popular or not.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: Hello. I heard a lot of anxiety about the accuracy and viability of online journalism. But I believe that part of the crisis in mainstream media has to do with the reliability of the print media, specifically with regard to anonymous sourcing. … Recently, I've been following the Obama/Madrassa story. And Insight magazine, the outlet that originally put that story out there, still stands behind their claim that Hillary Clinton's camp is responsible. They're standing behind this anonymous source which they don't have to name. And as a result, this story, which is not true, can persist for however long. I just want to know what you think about that, what you think about the problem of credibility that print media has, which we haven't yet discussed.

PRIEST: Well, I think the value of anonymous sources is higher, unfortunately, than it should be or that it has been in the past, and again, mainly because of the post-9/11 world. Not only did the administration try to control media, control information from the administration out to us -- that was a huge effort on their part -- but then when it came out anyway and it wasn't to their advantage, they really did come down hard.

So it's crucial that we be able to continue to have that. However, in cases like that, I think it's the self-correcting thing that we've talked about before: Eventually if enough media outlets try to chase that story, as we would say, or match it, and they are unable to do so, or they are able to prove the opposite, then the credibility of that anonymous source by itself will, I think, wane.

There is no alternative. The alternative is make them, you know, out their source or never use anonymous sources. And unfortunately, that's not really a realistic alternative in this environment or ever.

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posted feb. 27, 2007

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