From AJR, January/February 2000 issue
Newspaper Web sites are increasingly providing staff-produced breaking news. Their local TV counterparts are lagging far behind.
By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.
EVERY MORNING CHARLIE Meyerson gets on the 5:30 train for his early commute into Chicago. He takes a seat, whips out his yellow highlighter and dives into the Chicago Tribune. Meyerson, a breaking news columnist with the Tribune's online edition, sifts through the paper looking for stories that can be updated during the day. By the time he gets to his desk on the fourth floor of the Tribune Tower, he is ready to review the wires, catch the TV and radio news, check in with other Tribune reporters and editors, and get to work.
By 8:30 a.m. Chicagoans can log on to chicagotribune.com and find the first version of Meyerson's Metro Daywatch column. It rounds up breaking local news, from the latest on a construction crane that toppled over during the morning rush hour to the just-handed-down verdict in the city's latest hot trial--all early versions of stories that could not make their way into the print edition until the next morning. Meyerson and his afternoon counterpart, Joyce Garcia, update the information several times a day, taking feeds from the Tribune's staff of a half-dozen online reporters and occasionally from the paper's print reporters.
Their goal is nothing less than their slogan--"Instant Chicago."
"When we launched this, there was talk of updating every 10 minutes. I'd love to be able to do that," says Meyerson, a former radio news director. "We've only, in my mind, begun to scratch the surface of what we can do."
Breaking news is the latest catchphrase in the ever-morphing world of online journalism. While their counterparts at cable news Web sites like CNN.com and MSNBC.com are mastering the practice of getting breaking national and international stories online quickly, many online newspapers are emphasizing their strength--local news. Even at smaller papers' Web sites, it's no longer good enough to simply reprint the morning paper, then link to a few Associated Press stories at noon for the office workers logging on for a lunchtime news fix.
Within the last year, sites from giants like the Washington Post and the New York Times to mid-size players like the Providence Journal and St. Paul Pioneer Press have been pushing to get breaking news online well before it makes the next day's paper. Some sites are asking their print staffs to produce mid-afternoon versions of the day's top stories for the Web while the news is fresh. Others are hiring their own Web reporters to work separately from the print or broadcast newsroom and report solely for the online audience. Even more are embracing the idea of multiple-deadline newsrooms to allow local stories to be broken or updated online. In doing so, Web news operations, often the half-forgotten stepsister to the print side, have taken a step toward becoming full-fledged members of the newsroom family.
"If you look [back] two or three years ago, you can see a change in how newspapers regard online.... There is an attempt of turning this into a 24-hour news situation. We're seeing more and more news sites [that] are putting more time and effort into increasing their publishing," says Randy Bennett, vice president of electronic media for the Newspaper Association of America.
"I think they are beginning to see this is really a long-term play. And they are beginning to see this is an investment in the future," he adds. "But there clearly is still an experimental feel to it. No one is quite sure what this silver bullet is. It's clearly a moving target."
The New York Times on the Web announced it would begin publishing staff-produced updates on the day's news in mid-December. Written and edited by a new six-person Continuous News Desk, the Web-only stories would complement the day's print stories, providing additional analysis and explanation, says Jerry Gray, who heads the team. Between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. the new desk will pump out 10 to 20 stories a day to the Web site by asking print reporters to file early versions of stories or call in notes to one of four Web rewrite reporters. "We'll then put out a New York Times-quality story," says Gray, a former metro political reporter for the Times.
The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times recently redesigned their sites with a renewed emphasis on breaking news. In addition, the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant, Raleigh's News & Observer and the Orlando Sentinel are posting local stories--produced by print or online staffers--as regular daily updates aimed at office workers surfing the Net at lunch or before they go home for the day. Meanwhile, the Arizona Republic and the St. Paul Pioneer Press are among the papers encouraging print reporters to file brief early versions of their stories to the papers' Web sites as soon as they return from assignments.
In Rhode Island, the Providence Journal's Web site has been taking its first steps toward breaking news online while acknowledging its limitations, says projo.com Editor Andrea Panciera. "We're not trying to be a New York Times, where we are trying to put out what is happening nationally and internationally," Panciera says. Instead, projo.com has recruited its first Web-only reporter, former City Hall reporter Ken Mingis, and is committed to doing regular updates of breaking local news, at noon and 4:30 p.m. Mingis relies on the print news staff to feed him information.
Meanwhile, Panciera recently moved to the middle of the print Metro desk to be more plugged in, establishing a physical link between the print and Web staffs. (Some other online staffers moved into the print newsroom a year-and-a-half ago for that same reason.)
Reaction from print reporters asked to contribute information to the afternoon updates--in Providence, New York and other cities--has been mixed.
"Not all the print side and editorial folks know what to make of it," Bennett says.
Gray says the Times foreign bureau reporters seem excited about contributing to the online operation because their local audiences will finally get to see their reporting on a timely basis, instead of waiting days for the print edition to arrive on their shores. But Gray says he is also running into some resistance from other print reporters worried that being required to support the Web site will interfere with the time they need to put together their own stories for the print edition. "People worry, is it going to cut into the process? They worry, will this intrude into the kind of journalism we practice?"
DESPITE THE GROWING pains, adding staff-produced stories to a Web site's breaking news menu can have its rewards. When word came October 24 that U.S. Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) had died of congestive heart failure, it was too late to make the Providence Journal's Monday morning paper. Projo.com stepped in, and a wire story about Chafee's death was online by 10 a.m., followed a half hour later by an update written by the newspaper's Washington staff. A complete package on Chafee's life and the state's reaction to his death was up by about 6 p.m., a full 12 hours before most readers would get their Tuesday morning paper.
A week later, on Halloween, EgyptAir Flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic off the coast of Rhode Island. While recovery efforts were under way, Panciera and her staff were able to update the Web site several times a day, first with wire reports, then with staff-written copy. She posted the initial story from her home computer.
"Most of us who are trying to do this are finding our days are very long and very full," Panciera says of the constant updates. "People's expectations for us in this medium are higher than most of us can actually meet."
The fitful shift toward staff-produced breaking news comes as the online news industry appears to be maturing. It has its own professional trade group, the Online News Association, formed last year. The Online Journalism Review, founded in March 1998 at the University of Southern California, is tracking the ups and downs of reporting in cyberspace.
More than 1,100 of the country's 1,500 daily newspapers are online, including every one of the 100 largest, according to the Newspaper Association of America. The Wall Street Journal's Interactive Edition, which charges subscribers, and USA Today's site were among a small number expecting to turn a profit in 1999, representatives said at last summer's mid-year media review with Wall Street analysts (see The Business of Journalism, October). But most local newspaper Web operations remain in the red.
Still, newspapers are ahead of the online curve when compared to most of their local television counterparts. Though some TV station-related sites, especially those operated by Internet Broadcasting Systems of Minneapolis, have begun to make their presence felt, most local stations are using the Web for little more than self-promotion.
Last summer, Columbia University associate professor Steven Ross and public relations executive Don Middleberg looked at TV station Web sites around the country. Only about a quarter of local stations had sites, they found. Of those, less than 15 percent were making an effort to post any local news reported by their own staffs. In the top 300 television markets, 223 sites were set up to deliver "real news," Ross and Middleberg concluded. But only 40 were developing and posting their own stories. "Local television stations have fallen far behind in the delivery of online news," they concluded in the report. "If the stations can't catch up, they risk losing their most profitable audience--the audience for local news--to upstarts who can Webcast without a broadcast license." Until the stations catch up, "journalists who want to work combining video and the Web might be advised to head for national-level Web sites, like ABCNEWS.com, MSNBC.com and CNN.com."
Media Metrix, a firm that measures Internet traffic, says as the Net audience grows, more users are turning to it for breaking news. America Online topped Media Metrix rankings in the news/information/entertainment category in September, with 13.4 million unique visitors a month. MSNBC.com and CNN.com made the top 15 in that same category, with more than 4 million monthly viewers each in September. No newspaper sites ranked in that elite group.
The Los Angeles Times' site, latimes.com, boasted 3.2 million unique visitors a month in October when it unveiled its third major redesign. The revamping, nearly a year in the making, split the home page down the middle, with features from the print newspaper on the right and breaking news headlines on the left. The new design replaced the familiar three-column format, which had featured elaborate pull-down menus that made it difficult to find breaking news. Frog, a design firm that also came up with the look for the Apple Macintosh SE computer, developed the redesign. The aim was to give breaking news equal play with traditional features.
The new look was based on surveys and focus groups with users. "What we found out after interviewing about 1,700 people was there was an intense interest in rapidly updated news," says Carol Perusso, president of latimes.com.
The site promises an update of some sort every two minutes--most pulled from the wires. ("News updated more often than L.A.'s area codes," reads one of the tongue-in-cheek ads in latimes.com's $1 million advertising campaign to launch the redesign.) More breaking news means more contact and coordination with the print newsroom. As at most newspapers, latimes.com is a separate division of the parent company. The Web site's 100-member staff is housed in a building two blocks from the print newsroom, though plans to move into closer facilities are in the works.
Latimes.com wants to keep its own "personality," but is looking for greater ties to the newsroom, Perusso says.
THE PUSH AND PULL between the print and online newsrooms is taking place across the country. Among the key issues: What should newspapers' Net editions ask of print reporters?
Some papers expect print reporters to interrupt their accustomed one-deadline-a-day existence to contribute feeds, stories or updates to their cyber counterparts. Other news sites acknowledge relying on print-side reporters is an imperfect system. So they hire their own staff of "content producers" to package stories from the newspapers and wires and do some original reporting.
"Of course, it's a huge issue," says Ben Estes, editor of the Tribune's Internet edition. "It's hard to tell a print reporter to do both jobs. Sometimes, it's impossible."
At the Tribune, the interactive edition hired its own staff to fill in the gaps. The Web site employs nearly a half-dozen online reporters who sometimes go out on stories side-by-side with print reporters. "The Tribune has made it clear from the get-go we have to take the Web site seriously," says Thomas Cekay, the Tribune's interactive news editor. "We also clearly understand it's a different medium."
When a print reporter is covering a trial, he or she cannot be expected to run from the courtroom after the verdict to file a story for the Web. The story for the print edition would be incomplete if the reporter left the courtroom without gathering reaction, Cekay says. So, the Tribune has begun sending online reporters to the verdicts of big trials to report solely for the Net audience--and to get reports up quickly. It has helped make chicagotribune.com its own "serious news operation," Cekay says.
"We definitely believe breaking news is the future," he says. "We have our own reporters, editors."
Other papers have taken a more direct approach to selling the print newsroom on the importance of the Web. At the Washington Post, the paper's three-and-a-half-year-old Web edition introduced a redesign in the fall. One of the most-talked-about new features was PM Extra, a 1 p.m. mini-edition showcasing the day's top stories from print reporters.
The weekday "Extra" edition features print staffers' updates on stories in the morning paper and early versions of pieces that will appear in the next morning's paper. Post staff writer Mike Allen, for example, filed a 14-paragraph story from New Hampshire on November 15, the morning former Labor Secretary Robert Reich endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley. It was posted alongside a nine-graph piece from Post staff writer Joan Biskupic on the morning's developments at the Supreme Court and a Metro story about the just-announced cause of a suburban Maryland fire.
With washingtonpost.com headquartered in Rosslyn, Virginia, and the Post newsroom across the Potomac River in downtown Washington, the effort to post breaking staff-produced news on a regular schedule requires additional coordination. A new editor's position was created in the print newsroom to give a first read to all PM Extra copy, before handing it off to online editors.
Some print reporters griped about the increased workload to support the online edition. There were more groans when Post Managing Editor Steve Coll sent around a memo suggesting print reporters could someday add a multimedia dimension to stories they filed early for washingtonpost.com. "Reporters will be wandering into the streets not only with notebooks in their pockets, but occasionally, with little video cameras in their hats. A great way to cover a riot, for instance," Coll wrote.
The Post reporters' union shot back with a bulletin. "If the Post wants to turn us into sound engineers and video camera operators, then perhaps there is some negotiating to be done," the Washington/Baltimore Newspaper Guild wrote. The incident ended up in an "Inside the Beltway" item in the rival Washington Times.
Washingtonpost.com Executive Editor Christopher Ma says the PM Extra idea is going to take some time to find its place. "It clearly requires a great deal of close cooperation," he says.
BUT IF NEWS WEB sites are going to move ahead and really incorporate breaking news, there is going to have to be a true merger of online and print divisions, says Bennett of the NAA. "There clearly is a cultural shift that needs to take place."
In Orem, Utah, publisher Levor Oldham says he knows how to eliminate tensions between print and online newsrooms: simply eliminate print altogether. Last summer, the Orem Daily Journal, one of Utah's seven dailies, ceased printing and began publishing exclusively on the Internet (www.ucjournal.com). Though some weeklies have made the same move, the Orem paper is believed to be the first U.S. daily to make the permanent switch to cyberspace. Oldham says his seven full-time reporters, along with three or four stringers, work exactly as they did when the Daily Journal was published on paper. News and sports stories are posted on the site daily. Advertising on each page helps pay the bills, and Oldham hopes the new online edition will soon turn a profit.
"We changed the distribution," Oldham says. "That's it. It's worked out extremely well in terms of [being] a local portal and dealing with local advertising."
Of course, Oldham did not have much to lose. The paper was conceived to eventually exist only online. His company, Oldham Associates L.L.C., which owns two Utah County newspapers and markets software for newspapers, launched the Orem paper in 1998 as a competitor to the 33,000-circulation Daily Herald in nearby Provo.
Research showed the area might be a ripe market for a cyber daily. Nearly 46 percent of Utah residents have access to the Internet, making it the fourth most wired state in the nation (behind Alaska, Colorado and Maryland), according to 1998 statistics. Still, Oldham Associates chose to introduce its new paper on old-fashioned newsprint.
"People want to touch and feel and see and look. So you had to launch it in a traditional print format," Oldham says. Within a few months the Daily Journal had 2,000 print subscribers, and the paper was established enough to make a go solely on the Web. If the Orem experiment works, Oldham says he envisions launching other small-town, Web-only dailies. But he is cautious that the venue of Internet news can be a money pit.
"Everyone is going to go online. The problem is, what are you going to do once you get there? When you go in an APME meeting, it's, ŒGee, aren't we intelligent. We've only lost half as many millions as they have,' " he says.
Profit remains elusive at most news sites. Newspapers are aware they are charging their print readers for the same news they are giving away online. The theory that newspapers will someday be able to charge Internet users to access their sites is still out there, says Larry Pryor, editor of the Online Journalism Review (www.ojr.org).
The Wall Street Journal (www.wsj.com) is successfully charging $59 a year (or $29 a year for subscribers who get the print Journal) for access to its interactive edition. But the idea of other nonbusiness-oriented sites charging the average Web surfers for a look at headlines? "I just don't think it's going to happen," Pryor says. The competition is too great.
In addition to daily newspapers, television networks, local radio and television news stations, weekly suburban papers, major magazines and online upstarts like CNET, ZDNet, Salon and APBnews have shown you don't need a 100-year-old reputation to become a news force in cyberspace. Even Internet search engines such as Yahoo! have well-read links to national and international news from the wires and other sources. The average computer user does not have to search hard for news.
Perusso of the latimes.com rattles off her competition: "CNN.com, MSNBC.com, Yahoo! and all the other portals...nytimes.com, washingtonpost.com. And the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Forbes...and every brokerage has business news."
There are also plenty of Web upstarts finding Net niches. APBnews.com, a year-old site headquartered in New York, is luring traditional print and broadcast journalists into online journalism with its emphasis on crime reporting. The theory is a newsroom without the complications of also putting out a print or broadcast product can do a better job of publishing a Web site. "Newspapers generally are doing the Web poorly and covering crime poorly," says APB Executive Editor Hoag Levins, a former Editor & Publisher editor.
At APBnews.com (APB stands for All Points Bulletin), reporters are invigorated by the combination of old-fashioned reporting coupled with the always-on-deadline feel of breaking news on the Internet, says Levins. "If you were in our newsroom right now, it has the feel, the sound and right now it even has the smell of a metropolitan newsroom crossed with a broadcast newsroom," Levins says. "The deadline here is always now."
Rich Jaroslovsky, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition and one of the founders of the Online News Association, says Net-only newsrooms are only one of the things newspaper Web operations have to worry about. Competition, he says, is as wide as the Internet itself. "The reality and the thing that keeps me awake at night [is that] the entire Web is our competition," he says.
The news sites that thrive will do more than offer breaking news. Soon continuously updated local, national and international news will become the norm, and cyber news consumers will be looking for the next innovation, says the Online Journalism Review's Pryor.
Many sites, including latimes.com and washingtonpost.com, offer personalized features where users can enter their zip codes or community names to get news and other information tailored for where they live. The other trend is to make newspaper Web sites "portals," or all-purpose Net-entry points for shopping and news, with search engines and other links to the rest of the Web.
"The people who will use the medium best are going to do two things: The first is using multimedia, and [the] second is providing their own content," Pryor says. The multimedia revolution, the long-promised use of audio and video clips with news stories, is not widespread yet. But it is coming, and newsrooms need to be sure they do not get left behind, he adds.
At the Wall Street Journal, Jaroslovsky says executives have been trying to look even further into the future. Maybe concentrating too much on the Web is shortsighted. Maybe the future will be delivering news over personal pagers or any one of a ream of new technologies. There is no security in the world of online news, Jaroslovsky says.
"It is a real business. It's a real tangible medium. But in a lot of ways, the business is the business of experimentation," he says. "It's constantly moving forward."