June 14, 2000
For a while, in the glow of expanding stock market wealth, dot-com journalists pretty much had free run of the place. Get a faux-visionary C.E.O. to tell a good story in front of the money men about "vertical-market penetration" and "hypersyndication" and liberate the ratings-sensitive, focus-group-approved, newsstand-driven old media from its prisons while a new dawn arose.
The money men aren’t happy that no one seems to have figured out a way to make money selling content online. And the TV cameras aren’t paying much attention–unless, of course, it’s some Schadenfreude report on the implosion of the most recent Web firm.
For the journalists, the stock-option riches they tallied up in their heads aren’t likely to come to anything, and now that it’s clear that content must make money or perish, they’re going to have to return to those same ratings-sensitive, focus-group-approved, newsstand-driven values.
Recently, it seems, another content company has stumbled almost daily. Crime news site APBnews.com ran out of cash on June 5 and fired its entire staff. The next day, the CBS Internet Group announced it had laid off nearly a quarter of its staff. And the day after that, Salon.com and Oxygen Media laid off some of their employees. Most recently, on June 13, NBCi, the Internet arm of the network, announced that it would be killing off two of its better-known Internet brands, Snap.com and Xoom.com.
Some day, more Americans may get their news from ABCNews.com than ABC News. And when that day comes, the editors and reporters for ABCNews.com will find that the things that made them leave ABC News in the first place are still around. Because when big money is at stake, when writers and editors start getting bossed around by Nielsen meters tracking what each Internet user looks at, for how long, and in what order, then the new medium that was supposed to be the promised land of freedom has become something else.
Long ago, in 1995, Laura Miller was living in San Francisco and getting tired of struggling as a freelancer. Her options, as she saw them, were to take a job writing something she hated or move to New York and try to break into the world of Manhattan glossies. "There was no work in San Francisco," Ms. Miller said. "I could have gone to MacWorld and the newspapers there are terrible–it was a nightmare."
At the same time, David Talbot, then the arts editor of the San Francisco Examiner (an occasional employer of Ms. Miller), was organizing a Web site which would become Salon.com. Mr. Talbot eventually offered Ms. Miller a job.
Though attracted to the idea of full-time work, Ms. Miller was still worried. "I thought, ‘If I do this I will probably vanish off the radar screen of journalism.’"
Ms. Miller was willing to take that risk in exchange for steady work and getting out of the editorial game.
"The thing that decided it was that he was going to let me do whatever I wanted," Ms. Miller, now Salon’s New York editorial director, said a few days after she had to fire one of her bureau’s writers. As a founding editor of a Web site, Ms. Miller got the chance to write about what she wanted and edit the pieces that she wanted without pandering to the whims and constraints of the editors who gave her freelance assignments.
Jim Edwards, the laid-off celebrity news editor for APBnews, described a similar account of how he started working for the site. In 1999, he was a managing editor of Adweek and growing tired of running the trade. "I was willing to take a pay cut just to do something interesting," Mr. Edwards said.
Mr. Edwards knew some of the people at APBnews from when he worked at the North Jersey News and Record and started talking about taking a job with the company. Mr. Edwards said, "They asked, ‘what do you think of the site?’" He gave his thoughts, "And they said, ‘Why don’t you come over here and do that. They actually allowed me to design my own job."
Mr. Edwards was put in charge of the "G-Files" section of APBnews.com, filed for access to F.B.I. files on various celebrities and posted them on the site in their entirety, highlighting the gossipy material. "The management here was good," Mr. Edwards said. "They left you alone to work on stories you liked, investigations you were interested in. They weren’t standing over your shoulder waving a copy of the New York Post going, ‘Why didn’t we get this?’"
Those were the frontier days, though, when the people financing and starting Web publications had about as much a clue on what online journalism should be as the people they were hiring.
Making money wasn’t just unimportant, it was unknown, something left to sort out later. And still, aside from tiny operations, like Mickey Kaus’ Kausfiles.com and Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews.org, no one has figured out a way to turn readership into revenues, in the lingo, "monetize traffic," on a large enough scale to support a full-fledged journalism operation.
That will change, however, or online journalism will go away. For it to become a big business, online journalism will become a lot more like a big business. The events of last week were like the first marital fight after the honeymoon in the new media. The viability of the marriage isn’t at stake–but the issues of flexibility and change are. And nothing is written in granite in eParadise–complete editorial freedom for Web writers and editors will most likely be the first to go.
"Too many journalists have this complacency, they have these blinders on," said Sreenath Sreenivasan, a new media professor at Columbia’s journalism school who has earned a reputation for being a guide for helping people from print and television make the move to the Web. Mr. Sreenivasan urges those entering the online world to understand the way the online content business works. "This is no longer a charity operation. I call it ‘know your enemy,’" he said."
Already, it’s becoming clear that hit-counts–the number of times a particular Web page is accessed–will loom larger in journalists’ minds. Just as television had rude awakenings when Milton Berle beat Edward Murrow and The Beverly Hillbillies rose after Playhouse 90 subsided, the new medium is going through some shelf-testing, and it’s not pretty.
"What new media journalists learn is that you can tell specifically how many people read your story. You’ve got to understand your bosses know that and you have to be able to make a case for yourself," Mr. Sreenivasan said. "If they have the numbers, they will use them."
Virtually every Web journalist has access to daily traffic reports, derived from the Web site’s server logs, which can tell exactly how many people accessed a particular page, and frequently can tell how long they stayed. In the content world, hits are cash, or the nearest approximation, because advertisers pay for the number of times their ads are displayed; 50,000 hits are 50,000 opportunities to display ads.
When Mr. Talbot announced layoffs at Salon.com, he said he used these traffic figures to determine who got pink slips.
Jake Tapper, who covers politics for Salon and enjoys high traffic, downplayed the daily numbers, even though they are e-mailed to him every day. "I try not to pay too much attention to the numbers," Mr. Tapper said. "Luckily, I’ve been able to write what I want and the numbers have worked out."
On June 6, some of his colleagues were less lucky. Don George, as editor of Salon’s travel section, turned out quite a bit of fine writing. Because travel was the least visited area of Salon.com, however, Mr. George was let go. Other editors and writers freely doing what they want to do will no doubt take notice.
As an editor the importance of traffic leads to a heavy emphasis on snappy headlines to convince people to click through and, thus, ring up another advertisement display. When Salon’s Ms. Miller gets her hit-count, she said she uses it to check up on her own headline writing skills. "A lot of it depends on how you present it on the cover," Ms. Miller said. "You ask yourself, What was it about that cover line that made people want to click on it?"
The never-never land for journalists has existed because online journalists have been homesteaders in a land grab by upstarts who want to be future media titans and media titans who want to stay that way.
Last January, The New York Times started what it calls the "continuous news operation," which has its own small staff of editors and rewrite men to churn out updated stories for the Nytimes.com site throughout the day. Jerry Gray, who oversees the "continuous news desk" said the Times started the operation primarily just to be in the game.
"[Times publisher] Arthur Sulzberger’s line on this is that one day it may be possible, maybe outside our lifetime, that news can be delivered to the cerebral cortex," said Mr. Gray. "He said that he doesn’t care, but you know, when that day arrives, if that day arrives, I want The New York Times in position so that our readers, our listeners, or whatever you’re going to call them then, will be able to turn to The New York Times."