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From AJR,   September 1998  issue

When Marketing Overwhelms Journalism   

A once-heralded Web site shifts direction and goes under.


By J.D. Lasica
J.D. Lasica is a former AJR new-media columnist.     


THE TENSION BETWEEN EDITORIAL AND commercial interests plays out in interesting new ways in Web publications. Usually, a balance is struck. But sometimes, journalism is the first casualty.
Steven Chin, co-founder of the Asian-culture Web site Channel A, discovered that firsthand. His experience makes for a cautionary tale as the Internet moves headlong toward e-commerce, or electronic retail transactions.
Chin, a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner for eight years, left the paper in the spring of 1996 to launch a Web site for Asian Americans. Other niche sites had just taken off: NetNoir, geared toward African Americans, LatinoLink and others.
``I was excited by the idea of creating a site built around the idea of what it meant to be an Asian in America in the '90s, from a racial, political, economic and sexual perspective,'' he says.
To finance his startup, he obtained financial backing from a local family and assembled a business management team in nearby Silicon Valley. The site's backers sought to position Channel A as the principal online conduit for importing goods and products from Asia. ``From the outset, I knew that this was an e-commerce site with journalistic content and not an advertiser-supported magazine,'' Chin says.
ChannelA.com launched in September 1996 with the aim of adding an online retail store a few months later. As executive editor, Chin created strong, dynamic editorial content: stories about Asian-American culture, politics and race relations; spot news coverage of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's death; slice-of-life features by Asian students at American college campuses; and columns by actress Margaret Cho and others.
Community message boards, allowing users to post comments, were featured.
Soon, the laurels began to roll in: a slew of Web awards, praise by major newspapers, and, this July, the Chinese American Journalist of the Year award to Helen Zia for two of her columns in Channel A on hate crimes and political discrimination against Asian Americans. The site's retail store went up in February 1997. Culture clashes quickly emerged.
Chin--management's lone editorial voice--insisted on creating a visual language for advertorials. ``The [nonjournalists] didn't understand why advertorials needed to be distinguished from editorial content,'' Chin says.
The Silicon Valley managers, who hailed from database, software and hardware companies, attempted to calculate the return on investment for each story based on how effective the story was in driving users into the online store-- patterns that can be precisely measured on the Web.
By fall 1997, the Asian financial crisis scuttled the company's next round of funding, and the pressure became enormous to run stories exclusively on Asian lifestyle and decorations.
Finally, says Chin, ``The chairman said, `No more controversial stories. No more articles about labor, or politics, or racial issues. Shoppers don't want to be confronted with this.' '' Anything controversial ``was seen as driving away traffic.''
Channel A's managers acknowledge the site made a decision to veer away from hot-button topics and toward practical ``how-to'' articles and lifestyle coverage. Stories moved away from topics of interest to Asian Americans and toward those that catered more to the white middle-class audience that was doing the bulk of the online purchases.
``By early '98,'' Chin says, ``I grew tired of having every story being judged on its ability to make a sale. It was clear that there was no more journalism left on the site.'' Gone were the news flashes, the issues coverage and most of the columns. Even the community forums were eliminated.
``They're trying to capture this Asian Martha Stewart, upscale-catalog space, and that's very different from what I set out to create.''
And so, last February, Chin quit. ``It was a really good education. I came a long way from just being a journalist in a newsroom to learning how to run a business, create a brand identity and attract an audience.'' Chin is now a Web consultant.
``Cyberspace is a tough place to be for journalists,'' he says. ``There's a lot of compromising of journalistic values on the Web.
``But if your mission is really journalistic, sometimes popularity is not the only criteria for running something.''
A postscript: After this column was completed, Channel A said it would soon shut down its operation. ``For our product to grow, we needed a greater level of funding,'' says Margaret Ng, director of marketing. But, she adds, ``Things might be different in two or three years. E-commerce is taking off like you can't believe.''