USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





It's Time to Make the Web an Equal Partner

Sidebars: ? Multiple Ways to Interact ? A Means to More Insight ? Giving the Reader Independence In mid-July, The New York Times turned an entire issue of its magazine over to 'Talking About Race.' The essays and photos served as the exclamation point of an ambitious six-week series that explored the often uneasy race relations of Americans in highly personal terms.

The project was massive (15 parts). It was slow (each narrative tale unwinding in 6,000 words or more). And it took its share of criticism, such as a devilish New Republic online's parody headlined, 'We don't care what anybody says, we'll run these stupefying articles every day until we get the Pulitzer.'

But at its best, 'How Race is Lived in America' delivered what story editor Michael Winerip called 'all the small moments about race that add up to the larger view.'

Whether telling of the tensions between sergeants, white and black, on a Kentucky Army base, or the story of a racially mixed group of friends struggling to stay close as they entered a New Jersey high school, it was the kind of project -- a series of individual accounts with universal impact -- that had enormous potential on the Web.

Too bad The New York Times' brass wasn't paying closer attention. Or, as Winerip put it, 'The Times still regarded (The Web presentation) as frosting.'

Consider.

In spring 1999, reporters and editors met at the home of assistant managing editor Soma Golden Behr for a brainstorming session that kicked off the project. Nearly 12 months passed before Meredith Artley, the associate editor at NYTimes.com, got called in to plan the project's presentation online.

Some good signs

Lost time always equals loss of quality in the news business. And the special site devoted to the project at NYTimes.com proves no exception. It has some nice touches. There are links to Times archives dating back more than century, links to a resource page of organizations that deal with issues of race, a couple of audio forums of experts, a variety of reader discussions, writer and photographer journals, and one multimedia jewel showing two tours of a divided former cotton plantation in Louisiana, one led by the descendant of the plantation owners, the other by a black National Park ranger and historian.

But while Behr, the assistant managing editor who helped originate the project, called The Times overall Web presence 'dynamite,' others -- Artley included -- acknowledged it could have been better.

'There are certainly things I would have liked to be in on a lot earlier,' she said. 'if we could have talked to the reporters earlier, we certainly could have talked about what options were available in audio and video... This project certainly broke new ground in terms of collaboration (with the paper). But if this is the apex it is not acceptable.'

Too late for video

Reporter Steven A. Holmes agreed. After he'd finished a half year of reporting, he was approached about getting video of the two Army sergeants central to his story. One had left the base. It was too late to backtrack.

'There's no question that the people from the Web should have been brought into the planning at a much earlier stage,' he said. 'Part of the reason that they weren't is that we're still not thinking along those lines.'

Holmes' words are revealing when applied to a series that stretched over 15 months and almost certainly will be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It seems as if a decade into the Web and with mounting evidence of its emerging role at the center stage of news, America's premier newspaper isn't about to share top billing with a digital upstart -- not even its own.

Winerip, for example, who also wrote one of the articles, said Web staff might have interfered in sensitive interview situations had they attempted to accompany reporters to capture audio or video.

When asked whether long-form journalism might be presented differently online to hold readers attention, he replied, 'We don't even think of the Web that way now. What we do is take the newspaper story and plop it down there. Then we take the additional photographs and plop them down there.'

Plop isn't an image likely to entice new readers to NYTimes.com. But scrolling through endless pages of the narratives, eyes glazing, I found it on point. The stories did, indeed, feel plopped.

Did it have to be that way?

How to add insight

How, I wondered, might such a strong series better appeal to the online reader? How could The Times, to use Artley's words, really 'blow it out' on the Web? And what can project planners elsewhere learn from The Times successes and failures online with 'How Race is Lived in America?'

Of one thing I'm sure: Any answer starts with the words 'equal partners.' Meredith Artley, or someone else from NYTimes.com, should have attended the first meeting at Soma Golden Behr's house and any subsequent meetings of importance. From there the answers get a little tougher. Yes, we're all still defining the nature of news and story online. Let's start with three ingredients any good Web project needs to offer readers:

Multiple ways to interact. More insight than the story alone offers. Independence to navigate their own course.