The formation of the Online News Association, devoted to tackling thorny issues of ethics, credibility and credentials faced by Web journalists, fills a vast gap in the online news landscape.
What remains to be seen is whether they can translate that praiseworthy goal into a broad-based grassroots effort that includes not just senior executives but rank-and-file online journalists.
Some two dozen senior managers from major Web news sites met in Chicago last week and agreed to organize a nonprofit group "open to people interested in practicing serious journalism on the Web," spokesman Rick Jaroslovsky said.
Jaroslovsky, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, said the "eccentric" list of attendees was based on "who I knew and whose e-mail addresses I had in my address book." Among those in attendance were heavy hitters from the New York Times on the Web, Washingtonpost.com, MSNBC, Time Daily, San Jose Mercury News' Mercury Center, ABCNews.com, National Public Radio, CNet's news.com, CBS.MarketWatch.com and USAToday.com. Invited, but unable to attend, were staffers from Slate, Salon and ZDNet.
When news accounts first reported the group's plans, Staci D. Kramer, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists Task Force on Online Journalism, fired off an e-mail to CBS.MarketWatch.com pointing out that the new group was not trodding on virgin turf. "I was disconcerted someone had reported that this was the first time a group of journalists had gotten together to talk about online journalism," Kramer said by phone Wednesday. "My point was that we welcome their involvement and that there are other people -- in SPJ and elsewhere -- who are working on these issues."
Kramer said "some people at SPJ are alarmed" at the fragmenting of journalists into specialty groups focusing exclusively on criminal justice, the environment or the Web. "The more fragmented we are, the less possibility there is of getting on the same page. The creation of another group increases the need to cut across boundaries and work together."
Jaroslovsky sought to allay any misapprehensions, saying, "It's critically important for online journalists to be involved" in generalist organizations like SPJ, the American Society of Newspaper Editors or the Radio and Television News Directors Association. But he said the Web journalists believe "there is no existing group focused exclusively on the pressing issues of concern to online journalists."
Jaroslovsky's right about that. The nonprofit Internet Content Coalition, an organization of organizations, represents the interests of major content providers on the Web. SPJ, for all its important work in the online arena, has never broadened its appeal to the new crop of Web journalists working at places like Wired, CNet, ZDNet, Salon, Slate, PCWorld Online, iVillage, Women's Wire, Net Noir or a host of other publications, much less content aggregation sites such as America Online, Yahoo! or Infoseek.
As Kramer herself points out, "Sometimes it's a struggle to figure out who's a journalist in the online world. Is a person at ClariNet News who reroutes AP wire copy to the proper queue a journalist?"
The answer is: The old rules no longer apply.
At the Online News Association, the question of membership eligibility will fall to a task force headed by Jim Kennedy of the Associated Press, Jaroslovsky said. Other senior executives heading up task forces:
- Janice Castro, editor of Time Daily, will draft a mission statement outlining the group's goals and principles;
- Bernard Gwertzman, editor of the New York Times on the Web, will examine the educational aspects of online journalism, from the classroom to the newsroom (suggestion: establish a student chapter of your association);
- Lynn Povich, senior producer of MSNBC, will look at the feasibility of an awards program recognizing Web journalism;
- Jaroslovsky will tackle the group's organizational structure, rules of governance and finances (his employer, Dow Jones, has contributed seed money).
The group hopes to meet in late February in New York to tackle such nuts-and-bolts issues as tax-exempt status and bylaws, with incorporation targeted for early March. Then, by early spring, "we'll hang out the shingle and announce we're open for business," Jaroslovsky said.
The topics uppermost in the members' minds? "Clearly, there was a strong sense around the table that some issues jump off the screen," he said. "Credibility of the new medium. The blurring of the lines between news and e-commerce. The instantaneous nature of Web news. Issues of access, such as sports sites that have been denied credentials to cover events."
"We all agreed that our fundamental goal is to see the highest standards of journalism promoted on the Web," he added. "I don't think I've ever been in a room of journalists where there's been that much unanimity of sentiment."
One hopes that the group's lofty ideals are carried out in practice, for the Web's mantra speaks to inclusion, not exclusion; networking, not closed doors; talent and shared experiences, not titles or private clubs. The Online News Association must broaden its reach to all committed Web journalists, not merely those associated with the major players in online news.