AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 2002

We've Only Just Begun   

Now a firmly entrenched part of the media landscape, online journalism is poised to confront the next generation of challenges.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

All is calm on the new frontier. Compared with the past decade of pioneering, the once wild Web today seems settled--almost suburban. In 10 years online news has evolved from a chancy venture, approached tentatively by major media, to a full-throttle charge, profits be damned, to an obligatory extension of service the public has come to expect--and trust. The trail-blazing years have passed; the development of this new medium is just beginning.

Ten years is not an exact measure; some online veterans include in this history the preceding decade of dabbling before the Internet was anywhere close to a mass medium.

In the 1980s a handful of papers and broadcasters started dial-up bulletin board systems on the Internet, usually the pet projects of engineers, newsroom technophiles and marketing departments. Most were partnerships with budding dial-up platforms such as America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe. Standard fare on these plain-text services included classifieds, business and entertainment listings, and a few news headlines.

In 1991 Tribune Co. invested in America Online and in 1992 launched Chicago Online on AOL, first with a sampling of Chicago Tribune stories and other newspaper content.

"Chicago Online was launched as a marketing department project, with content being contributed on an ad hoc basis from all over the newsroom," says founding Editor Owen Youngman, now vice president of development for the Chicago Tribune. The next year Chicago Online hired a staff of editors and began publishing the entire newspaper online.

The Tribune wasn't the first newsroom to toddle onto the Internet, but the scale and editorial commitment of Chicago Online make it a suitable starting point for the story of Web journalism.

By 1993 the Internet was percolating. With the release of the first Web browser, Mosaic, that year and Netscape 1.0 in 1994, people began to see and navigate the Web the way we do today.

The San Jose Mercury News launched Mercury Center through AOL in May 1993 and the New York Times followed with its AOL page in June 1994. The Washington Post debuted on a now-defunct service called Interchange in 1995.

Not all news organizations took the proprietary path. Some, such as the Boston Globe and Raleigh's News & Observer, launched sites on the open Internet so that their pages would be accessible to everyone. Within a few years the rest of the industry followed suit, though some newsrooms continued to sustain separate AOL partnerships.

The Newspaper Association of America reported there were a mere 12 North American dailies online in April 1993. That number increased to 20 by April 1994 and 60 in '95. Although newspaper ventures attracted more attention in the early years, TV sites were present at the front lines of breaking news and original reporting, locally and nationally. Launched in 1995 and 1996, CNN.com and MSNBC.com quickly secured a clear lead as the nation's favorite online news sources.

The next five years were exuberant, experimental and expansive. By 1996 most national news organizations had separate online business units with independent newsrooms, adequate if not generous budgets and three- to five-year profit horizons. They hired online journalists who had radical (and, to some, dangerous) ideas about breaking news on the Web.

During that period the outlaws of online news--well-connected renegades like Matt Drudge and Internet-only outfits like Salon--rankled the media establishment by publishing a few juicy scoops and exercising their own judgment about what news is fit to print.

Local papers and broadcasters moved to the Web en masse, either as stand-alone operations or members of online networks. By 2000 there was scarcely a newsroom in the country that didn't have a Web presence. The NAA counted 1,200 dailies online that year.

And for a fraction of a second, online news promised to be a viable business.

In late 2000 and early 2001, the dotcom bomb shook news sites along with the rest of the Internet economy. Advertisers dropped out; reality set in. At the same time, several media companies decided to consolidate and reorganize their houses. Between October 2000 and January 2001 there were deep staff cuts at CNN Interactive, Tribune Interactive, New York Times Digital and KnightRidder.com. Fox News Corp. closed its entire new-media division, moving Internet operations into the cable newsroom.

A small solace is that even though news Web sites were burning resources, they weren't cut loose. In a few years, online presence had evolved from an experiment to an expectation.

Today's news sites need to be lean and efficient. They rely on wire services and stories from partner newsrooms, focusing their efforts on Web specialties such as breaking news, deep resource and archive offerings, and interactive presentations. Some enjoy the cooperation of print and broadcast reporters who, through convergence partnerships, an appreciation of the medium or management fiat, contribute to online coverage in a way they haven't before.

According to the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press, 13 percent of Americans regularly sought online news in 1998; 23 percent did so in 2000. But that number has risen only 2 percent in the last two years. Literally and figuratively, online news is leveling out.

In the beginning, every story presented online editors with a universe of challenges and possibilities that are now routine. Gary Kebbel, news director at AOL, was on the team that launched USA Today Online in April 1995--just two days before the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

"OK, we're two days into this brand-new medium," Kebbel recalls. "What do we do? How do we cover this differently? In what ways should we be thinking that we wouldn't be thinking if we were at the newspaper? We knew the paper had the equipment to do framegrabs from television, so we did a framegrab of the scene."

For many fledgling sites, that event was a test of reaction speed, creativity and capacity for sustained coverage.

The history of online news is punctuated by such seminal stories. Each newsroom has its own list of events that triggered a burst of traffic and--when the servers held up--proved the worth of the Web site to audiences and owners. There are scores of national stories that resonate through the profession:

* The presidential elections of 1996 and 2000 and the three Winter and Summer Olympic games between '96 and 2000 put the spotlight on advance coverage and real-time results.

* The news of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair in January 1998, leaked to DrudgeReport.com, leveled the field between corporate media and citizen publisher--at least for a moment.

* Eight months later the release of the full, 445-page Starr Report drew 12 percent of American adults to the Web for a true Internet exclusive (see "Starr Turn," November 1998).

* September 11, 2001, prompted news sites, among others, to moderate public discourse and provide a two-way channel of communication for tens of thousands of people (see "Not So Bad," November 2001).

Most of these stories were high-water marks for Web usage, breaking previous single-event traffic records and attracting new audiences.

Clinton-Lewinsky "was, without question, the first huge bump in Internet news traffic for the Washington Post," says Douglas Feaver, executive editor of washingtonpost.com. "When you get a big story like that, you get a new audience almost immediately."

Of course, most of the Web's big events also involved catastrophic server crashes. If a mob of people hits the Internet at the same time, it can clobber individual sites or even paralyze parts of the Web. For much of its history, the credibility of online news has dangled precariously on the foresight and agility of technology departments.

Eric Siegel is a principal Internet consultant at Keynote, a company that has measured Internet performance since 1997. Siegel says sites are better prepared for flash news today than in the past, having learned to quickly trim down their pages and hire companies that specialize in managing sudden, heavy demand. But he says that as users switch to high-speed connections and start demanding more large video files, the problem could rise again.

With the spread of broadband (high-speed Internet access) and audience migration to newer Web browsers, online editors and multimedia producers will be able to flex their imaginations with new storytelling techniques.

"I think we're at a point in the narrow bandwidth where we pretty much know what to do and how to do it," says AOL's Kebbel. "We're in the stage of moving to broadband and starting all over again. Now it's, 'What do we do differently from the narrowband presentation of news?' "

"The question of how to integrate text, video, audio, photo galleries and other graphic elements into a seamless [package] that doesn't require the user to load 13 different plug-ins before they can see the story...is one that I don't think any of us has solved yet," says Feaver. "We're sort of like TV in its first five years, where what you saw was a camera aimed at a guy reading the text piece into a microphone."

Another key characteristic of online news: dysfunctional relations between news sites and their partner newsrooms. Winning the cooperation of reporters, editors, producers, anchors and assignment editors has been a crucial, constant struggle in most shops.

Their early suspicion was understandable. Most news sites were set up as semi-independent newsrooms, so that print and TV reporters wouldn't need to worry about what was happening online. But reporters were concerned they'd be competing with their online counterparts for interviews or that their exclusives would be scooped on the Web before the stories hit newsstands or the airwaves.

At many news organizations the relationship between old and new newsrooms is improving, largely to the credit of online journalists who've proved their integrity and loyalty over the years.

Trends such as consolidating newsrooms and partnerships among print, broadcast and online outfits are helping by changing the way journalists think of competition and story ownership. In Feaver's world, the Washington Post will feed a story to NBC's "Nightly News" and washingtonpost.com, both of which will promote the next morning's print edition--and everyone's happy.

Print and TV reporters also are relieved to see that the kind of journalism happening at online news sites is a complement to their work rather than a threat. "We were among the early leaders in independent, original reporting for the Web, and therefore we were among the earliest to walk away from it," says Youngman. "What people expected on the Web was immediacy. So we shifted our resources to providing faster turnaround and breaking local news, and our traffic and business results have been spiraling [upward] ever since. [We] enhance the newspaper with things the Web does well--multimedia and databases and so on."

"We're doing more original journalism now than we've ever done," says Mark Stencel, vice president of multimedia for Washingtonpost. Newsweek Interactive. "We have a lot of journalists who are doing very creative multimedia packages, elaborate photo galleries, [moderating] five to 10 hours a day of online discussions. The key has been not doing online journalism that replicates what we get from the newspaper."

Brand-name news organizations have even mellowed toward the spoilers who inspired so much angst five years ago.

"Drudge Report links to a number of Washington Post writers every day," explains Feaver. "We're all depending on each other, and in some ways using each other. This is a very interesting development."

The real competition comes from aggregators such as Yahoo! News and AOL News, which ranked third and 17th in the Nielsen//NetRatings list of top online news sites for August. (Drudge hangs on at No. 20.) Without doing any original reporting, both organizations employ staffs of seasoned journalists to select and package stories and multimedia from dozens of content partners (see The Online Frontier, June).

"I think that AOL's and Yahoo!'s big advantage is that we're totally comfortable with handling multiple brands, and we're not locked in by the parent organization," AOL's Kebbel says.

Online news in 2002 is mostly smooth, efficient, reliable. People no longer thrill at finding fresher-than-the-paper stories on Monday morning or local high-school football scores on Friday night. In fact, they demand those things. Traditional reporters don't usually recoil at the idea of trading tips and research with Web editors. Online journalists know the tools at their disposal and the nature of the technology. The integrity of online news seems to be secure.

But don't confuse stable with static. In the next decade news organizations will address the opportunities offered by the wireless Web and handheld mobile devices--the biggest revolution in communication since the Internet. They will tackle the problem of stirring up elusive audiences who already surf the Web but aren't spending much time looking at news. They will explore innovative ways to present information and to interact with a generation of consumers who've grown up with the Internet. And there is the nagging matter of profit, which deserves much more than a footnote in this story--but basically remains an enormous question mark. A handful of local and national news sites are in the black, but most are still crawling toward solvency.

To squeeze the last gasp out of the most overused media metaphor in history (and who could resist?): For the past 10 years we've been careening over a gravel road; the superhighway still lies ahead.