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Online News on a Tightrope
Credibility, terrorism, inclusiveness are themes at 2nd ONA conference

The Online News Association's second annual conference in Berkeley, Calif., last weekend showed an organization with the talent and pluck to tackle the considerable challenges facing the online news industry, though growing pains were still very much in evidence.

The ONA folks unveiled the preliminary findings of its wide-ranging Digital Journalism Credibility Project, based on nationwide surveys of the online public and media professionals conducted in July. Time will tell if the events of Sept. 11 made those results moot.

The report's key finding, the study's authors suggest, was that online consumers have not yet made up their minds about the credibility of online news. But an even more telling finding, in my view, was this: The public has a higher opinion of online news sites' credibility than our Old Media colleagues do.

That's criminal. But hardly surprising.

Specifically, 47.9 percent of the online public said that online news sites provide 'a complete picture of the news,' while only 17 percent of the media sample thought so. The media respondents ? drawn from a dozen journalism trade associations ? were also much more likely to have a negative opinion of online news' credibility. (I urge you to check ONA's site in about a month when the full results are released.)

In summarizing the study's highlights, co-author Howard Finberg said, 'The verdict on digital news credibility is still out. Online news credibility is not a top-of-mind issue for the online public. That's very good news. It's not too late to convince the public that online news is credible.'

One wonders, though, why the public needs convincing if it isn't an issue for them. The problem, instead, may lie within ourselves.

Rich Jaroslovsky, the ONA's president and founder, said of the study's findings: 'It's confirmation of what I've observed ? the group of people who aren't as fully convinced of the bona fides of online journalists are other journalists. Print and broadcast news organizations see us and maybe feel a bit threatened or unsure of where we fit in. The public is more sure about the chops of online news than our colleagues are.'

Jaroslovsky, a former White House correspondent and now a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal, recalled the fracas in 1982 when ABC, CBS and NBC objected to CNN being admitted into the White House press pool because the upstart cable network ostensibly lacked the same standards of credibility as the traditional news networks. Online news operations face the same sort of second-tier status today, he suggested.

'We have a job to do in our own house,' he said. 'The first part of that job is to make sure the journalism profession's standards are maintained at a high level. The second part is for online journalists to better communicate the kind of job we're doing.'

Different flavors of credibility

Part of the reason for the disconnect between the public and the press may be their different perceptions of credibility.

I think Robert Cauthorn, vice president of digital media at the San Francisco Chronicle, nailed it when he told the conference, 'Too often we equate credibility with whether we can be bought, while the public thinks of it as whether we're right or not.' Yes, journalistic integrity and independence are critical to credibility, and online news organizations do a good job on that score; but we fall down when it comes to accountability, openness and, too often, accuracy.

'I worry a lot when I hear journalists talk about credibility,' Cauthorn said in a follow-up phone interview. 'Too often what they really mean is, We don't want to change.'

It probably won't take long for some media executives to pounce on the study's findings as evidence of the need to turn back the clock, to quash the last remnants of innovation and experimentation in the online medium and retreat to our comfortable shibboleths and myths about our role as gatekeepers and defenders of the One True Journalism.

We should reject those impulses. It's vital to embrace traditional values of accuracy, balance and fairness, yes, but we ought to also open our channels to new voices, to untraditional but reliable information sources, to alternative points of view screened out by the media's good-taste filters, to new forms of personal, passion-based journalism that connect with users on an emotional level.

Cauthorn doesn't lose sleep because users are looking beyond traditional media sources for their news. 'If the audience gets wacky things from the left and wacky things from the right, that's OK because they put it in perspective. People have a very sophisticated sniff test.'

Cauthorn pointed to the study's finding that online news has lower disapproval numbers than does the local print newspaper. 'This shouldn't come as a profound surprise,' he said. 'I've heard time and time again from readers that online news is more fair and evenhanded than print news ? even when you're repurposing the news that appeared in print. I think that's because the intimacy of online news and the interactivity make it more reasonable and friendly to them.'

The public also has a high opinion of cable news, ranking it as the most credible news source, while media respondents ranked it a couple of notches lower. What does this tell us? 'If you look at cable news, by definition it's unreliable at any given moment and presents a multiplicity of voices,' Cauthorn said. 'It's an opinion machine.' Qualities, in short, drummed out of print newsrooms. The media professionals, meantime, cited national newspapers as the most credible news source.

'The industry is so hidebound, I was astounded at the disconnect between the responses of the public and the media people,' Cauthorn said. 'I was happy the study was done, but I'm sure it's going to be misread.'

The Authoritative Moment and the Big Now

Credibility, it seems, can be a very squishy term.

The study found that accuracy and timeliness are the top reasons people visit a news site and find it credible. Unfortunately, as any journalist knows, accuracy and timeliness often play against each other. But we should think of online news not as a zero-sum game ? speed at the expense of getting the facts right ? but as a continuum, a constantly unfolding process. This is the truth as best we know right now ? and we'll also tell you what we don't know.

'We're in the cable news era,' Cauthorn said. 'The audience has gotten used to watching the story unfold and change and evolve. They're savvy enough to know that what you report out of the gate may not hold true five hours from now, and they accept that, as long as you update and self-correct. When we publish a print edition, we're delivering something I call the Authoritative Moment. At the moment the edition goes out, this is the best and most accurate information we have about the world.'

The authoritative moment sometimes butts up against online news sites, which operate in what Cauthorn calls the Big Now: a breaking-news report that dances on the razor's edge. 'The Big Now is an inherently less reliable view of the world because it happens in something close to real time. But it takes place in a time frame just far enough removed from live action to have adequate initial confirmation ? think of it as enhanced real-time action,' Cauthorn said. 'You and the audience know the rules going in: that this is what we think is happening, this is what we're testing on the anvil of time. As long as the audience is brought along and understands what you're doing, nobody will fault you because you've tried to tell them the honest truth you knew at the time. What we're learning as an industry is that at different times our readers need both the authoritative moment and the Big Now. And happily, we can deliver both.'

Media authentication and terrorism

The news media's authentication function is facing perhaps its biggest test right now. Cauthorn pointed out that President Bush let slip the first word of the anthrax-infected letter in Sen. Tom Daschle's office, and news organizations didn't rely on Bush's word but independently confirmed the news before reporting it because jitters about terrorism could create a panic.

'We've got to get this right,' Cauthorn said. 'A news site in the Midwest comes across an unsubstantiated report of a pending terrorist attack on the Mall of America. If it turns out to be false, it can have a huge economic fallout. If they sit on the story and it turns out to be true, tens of thousand of people can die. These are tough choices. We have zero margin for error.'

Cauthorn pointed to the collapse of the Soviet empire and the Challenger explosion as the seminal events that propelled cable news into the fiber of American culture. Today we've arrived at a similar historical juncture and defining event.

'We have a chance to do something more powerfully good for our culture and country than we've done in 50 years,' he said. 'I'm convinced the next four months will be more important than the previous six years in terms of defining online news in the public's mind. We're on a tightrope, and we have to find the best in ourselves and get it right and help people regain their trust. We cannot let them down.'

Credibility, then, may be less about editorial independence than it is about getting it right, about exercising sound news judgment in the days and weeks ahead. Everything has changed since Sept. 11, and our credibility will rise or fall on how we rise to the occasion in covering the most important story of our lifetimes.

'I'm concerned that not enough introspective minds are being thrown against the anthrax story,' Cauthorn said. 'I'm concerned that we don't have a generation of war reporters out there, and that city hall reporters may not be properly equipped to cover a war. I'm troubled by the nature of the reporting because nobody has been able to get their arms around the scale of the problem.'

He warned that news organizations shouldn't spoonfeed the public the official government line. At the same time, it's critical to provide responsible coverage of the terrorism and anthrax stories rather than pass along unsubstantiated rumors. 'We don't want to create a stampede for the exits. We can kill people if we're not careful.'

He told the ONA audience: 'If you want the key to our credibility, let's get the next four months right.'

More results of the Credibility Study

The co-authors of the Credibility Study, Finberg and Martha Stone, also outlined these highlights of their months-long research project:

? ? 'The public expects news sites to be constantly updated. Timeliness ranks at the top of the list of reasons users visit a news site.'

? ? Young people don't have the same qualms about mixing editorial and advertising online that older users do. 'Younger people are more comfortable with online news and less concerned about the separation of church and state,' Stone said.

? ? Stone mentioned three examples of online media outfits that may have breached that hallowed church-state wall. Earlier this year USAToday.com dropped its 'Beyond the Banner' promotion, which allowed advertisers to promote their brands in the nameplate area of the site. CBS MarketWatch's years-long policy of placing paid Budweiser advertising as the wallpaper behind its stock listings was criticized in media circles as 'too tight an integration' and a practice that 'could affect credibility.' And Wired News was singled out for allowing Cingular Wireless as a section sponsor, although 'editors say advertisers get no special treatment.'

I've written before about the ethical conflicts of interest inherent in corporate-media alliances and corporate sponsorships, and I continue to maintain that news and content sites owe an obligation to their readers to post ethics codes disclosing their corporate ties.

Having said that, I'm willing to bet that not a single person among the 1,027 online respondents mentioned MarketWatch's Budweiser wallpaper or Wired News' Cingular sponsorship as a serious credibility issue for them.

Let's think about that.

A return to journalistic tradition

Stone mentioned another interesting finding, that online newsrooms are increasingly turning to journalists rather than simply technicians or coders to staff their operations. 'Hire journalists ? that's the bottom line,' she said.

That's partly because the technology has gotten easier to do and partly because the mission of some of these online news enterprises has been scaled back to more closely resemble the parent corporation's core competency. News-gathering is at the heart of that mission.

Take SFGate. The Bay Area city guide launched in 1994 with an eye to creating a counterculture site that stood apart from the San Francisco Chronicle. 'The Gate began with a deliberate mission of trying to appeal to a different audience than the newspaper's readership,' news director Vlae Kershner recalled during a break at the conference. 'The site was hipper, it appealed to a younger audience. Fact and opinion were not clearly separated, even in news articles.'

Today, that separate identity has gone by the wayside. 'What's changed is we're trying to continue to be younger, hipper and alternative, but we're restricting that to the columns and features on the site, not to our news coverage,' Kershner said. 'Nobody wants to see opinions sprinkled throughout news headlines of our terrorism coverage. News judgment is critical when people are relying on us as their primary source of information, which was not the case five years ago.'

Will online news have a big tent?

Most of us go to conferences not so much for the panel discussions or keynote speakers ? this year, tech columnist Walter Mossberg, who exhorted online journalists to maintain high ethical standards ? but to network. And it's heartening to see the throng of 200 attendees (from nearly 800 ONA members) turn out not just from large online news outfits like MSNBC and washingtonpost.com but from Beliefnet, ParentCenter, Consumer Health Interactive and the Gotham Gazette.

One reason ONA held its convention in the San Francisco Bay Area was to attract smaller and nontraditional news and content sites into the fold. The Online Journalism Awards, too, honored a number of smaller sites that could use a hit of visibility ? sites like 360Degrees.org, PraxisPost, ProJo.com, TBO.com and DigitalJournalist.org. (See a full list of the finalists and winners.)

'We're giving them a crack at recognition and giving respect where respect is due,' ONA president Jaroslovsky said. 'And it gives us a chance to learn from each other.'

Three years ago I wrote my first OJR column by celebrating the formation of the ONA, but also urging the group to broaden its base of support ? and legitimacy and clout ? by opening the doors to committed Web journalists at sites like Wired News, CNet, ZDNet, PCWorld Online, iVillage, Net Noir, Yahoo, AOL and a host of other news providers.

I'm glad to see ONA making strides in that direction. But we're still a long way from the big tent.

Portal power at Yahoo

At many of last weekend's panel discussions, it was evident that participants had little idea that the digital news universe consists of anything beyond online newspapers, magazines and TV news sites. Many panel moderators and panelists seemed unaware that the Net is rife with a rich tapestry of Weblogs, alternative news sites, foreign sites and other destinations that fly under the media's radar. (Disclosure No. 1: I was program coordinator and moderator of the panel on new forms of journalism.)

Fact is, the vast majority of users get their news from sources other than newspaper Web sites. Portals, for one.

More people get their news from Yahoo's news portals than from hundreds of newspaper Web sites combined, and many young people get their news exclusively from Yahoo. In both Net ratings and media coverage, Yahoo is routinely snubbed as a player in online news, but I'm convinced they're a legitimate news operation despite the fact that they employ no reporters and offer no original news content.

Kourosh Karimkhany, senior producer for Yahoo News, participated in a panel discussion on online coverage of the terrorist attacks and told the audience that Yahoo's choice of news partners (60 in all) and filtering function are journalistic ones. Yahoo News employs a team of editors who comb 2,000 sites around the world to select the best, most insightful articles, without regard to political or national ideology. (Yahoo is a multinational company published in 11 languages.)

'As the story of the terrorist attacks evolved and the public demanded more information from more sources, the Internet became the perfect medium for this thing,' Karimkhany said. 'This medium will lead to a renaissance in the craft of journalism.'

The night before, Yahoo! Finance Vision won the Online Journalism Award in the category of Innovative Presentation of Information. The judges nominated only one finalist in the field and awarded the prize to the video-driven financial information portal.

Eric J. Scholl, the site's executive producer and director, told the crowd, 'It's nice to be considered Journalism with a capital J, because we're often looked at only in terms of our technology. At the bottom, it's all about the medium and getting the story out.'

Scholl told me afterward that he thinks Yahoo and Finance Vision deserve co-equal status with traditional news organizations in the online news pecking order. His staffers make editorial decisions about what stories to feature in a live program, which stories to include in the archive, and how to package it in a way that's most accessible to the public.

'When I worked at CNN and spotted a story on finance, in order to read more I had to use a search engine to find related stories and background information,' Scholl said. 'That's the idea behind Finance Vision: Here's one place to come that pulls it all together. Our motto is, 'No TV in your office? No problem.' We'll maximize your news experience by linking you to the best, most relevant stories no matter where they reside.'

Online Journalism Awards: On balance, a good crop

The best moment of the Online Journalism Awards ceremony came when Joe Weiss of the Durham, N.C., Herald Sun staggered to the stage after winning the award for Creative Use of the Medium (affiliated) and said, 'Oh my God, you have no idea how small we are!'

Weiss is the lone employee dedicated to the newspaper's online staff, wearing the hat of photographer, editor, designer, programmer and audio engineer. In creating their Touching Hearts package, he and a colleague spent 11 days in Nicaragua with a Duke University medical mission. 'To go up against Time, MSNBC and those other big guys was almost preposterous,' he said.

I'm not in the best position to comment on this year's awards, given that I entered this year's contest with a series of OJR columns (nope, didn't win). But a few awards merit mention.

By and large, the judges did an outstanding job, choosing from a rich field to award prizes to BBC News Online for General Excellence in Online Journalism, Salon for its expose on Clear Channel Communications, and the Sun-Sentinel for its series Witness to an Epidemic ? AIDS in the Caribbean.

But one decision left me cold. The judges awarded the Online Commentary prize to a Slate columnist for a nicely done series of Supreme Court analyses that, while well reasoned and thoughtful, could have appeared in any elite East Coast print publication. With writing that can hardly be called Web-friendly and almost no links (except for the occasional perfunctory link to the full text of a court ruling), there's nothing remotely Web-centric about them.

Perhaps the judges were being high-minded, saying that this series deserved recognition regardless of the medium. To my mind, the medium matters. Online commentary should reward writing that's native to the Web, that's infused with the language of the Web, that takes full advantage of the medium's interconnectedness and interactivity.

Just because writing appears online doesn't make it online writing.

And the award for independent news goes to ...

A friend writes to ask: 'Can someone explain to me why Slate.com, which is funded by a multi-billion-dollar corporation, is honored as Best Independent news site?'

Given that Microsoft has no native journalism operation, the ONA's categorization (actually, General Excellence in Online Journalism: Independent) probably makes sense. Still, Slate would be history by now were it not for Redmond's purse strings, so it hardly seems a level playing field for true independents like Salon and CNET.

Any thoughts on how ONA should handle this next year?