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CNET's Expansion May Signal a Turnaround in Tech Journalism

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CNET and its award-bedecked News.com site came out of nowhere in the mid '90s to trounce established technology news outlets with speed and scoops. After cutbacks during the bust, the company is again expanding by buying MP3.com, WGR and Esther Dyson's EDventure.

Back when CNET Networks figured out that it wasn't going to be an all-tech-news TV channel as planned, it had the chutzpah to buy the domain name "News.com" for its new online technology news site. As if the upstart dot-com could somehow own the news. But then -- surprise! -- it did go on to basically own online news about the high-tech business.

That happened largely because of the vision of Jai Singh, founding editor in 1996 of the subsidiary, News.com, and a tech trade veteran who lured away rivals' talent and convinced them to write two to three original news stories per day. While bigger technology publishers like Ziff Davis and IDG were still focused on print, CNET saw the opportunity in breaking stories around the clock for a tech-savvy audience that lived online. Its News.com site has won or been nominated for an award per month on average, according to Singh.

CNET exploded during the late '90s boom and expanded from TV and online to radio, gaming, comparison shopping, downloading, print publications and more. But News.com burned out some of its staff with the grind of writing so many original stories, while not always taking the time to see a bigger picture. When CNET bought out rival ZDNet, the number two tech news site, it spelled doom for serious competition in breaking technology news online.

When the dot-com bust staggered the parent company, it laid off 760 employees in 2001 and 2002, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, and had 1,700 staffers worldwide at the end of 2003. CNET's net losses were nearly $2.4 billion for the downturn years of '01, '02 and '03 -- though the company likes to stress it had operating income in '03 of $2.8 million before depreciation, amortization and asset impairment. CNET hasn't had a profitable fiscal year since 1999, when it made hundreds of millions of dollars selling its stake in Snap.com and Vignette.

But now the company is on a roll, with its news sites tallying 3.1 million unique visitors in February 2004, up 94 percent from February 2003, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. And it's on another expansion binge, taking over MP3.com, buying up Wireless Gaming News, and getting the ultimate technology insider, Esther Dyson, by acquiring her high-end newsletter, Release 1.0, and conference business, PC Forum. The teaming of brainy Dyson with conventional CNET News.com is the equivalent of Stephen Hawking doing a regular column for Popular Mechanics.

"I like the people and the culture [at CNET]," Dyson told me via e-mail. "And I'm really looking forward to working from a broader platform. The [information technology] market continues to scale up, and we just needed more resources to reach the growing market. Release 1.0 comes out monthly; we want to make it 'live on' by adding updates."

Could these moves by CNET be a sign that technology journalism is finally coming back from the near-dead? I talked with News.com editor Singh, 47, about everything from bloggers to CNET's recent move to outsource tech writing to India. He told me News.com now has a staff of 46, with 22 reporters. The following is an edited transcript of our recent phone conversation.

[Disclosure: I have done copy editing for CNET.com, and written Web site reviews, game reviews and a humor column for the site in the past.]

OJR: Tell me about your editorial background and history at CNET.

Jai Singh: I've been at CNET over eight years now, and I started News.com so I'm the founding editor and editor in chief. And I'm senior VP at CNET. Prior to CNET I worked at IDG's InfoWorld, and before that I was at Ziff Davis. Before that, in '88 or '89, I was at a paid daily newsletter focused on computer industry news, which was totally cool. It was totally personalized and fax delivered. I don't know if you remember, but fax used to be 'hot' at one time.

We thought there must be enough people who wanted a daily dose of computer industry news. Much to our chagrin, most people were fine with the free print weeklies. Back then computers were still a back-room operation. The startup was called Pinpoint Publishing. Esther Dyson started something similar at the same time that didn't work out either.

In 1981, I graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., with a degree in journalism and worked in local newspapers. I was born in India and came here when I was 18, 19 years old to finish up my business studies, but hated studying business so went into journalism.

OJR: Since you helped start News.com, how has the site changed over the years?

Singh: One of the fundamental tenets that I run the site on is that credibility is at the heart of everything we did. It's easy to say but tough to do when you go to a startup that has no parentage in terms of the old media. Halsey Minor, who founded the company, he was an investment banker. Shelby Bonnie, our CEO, is an investment banker. You can imagine in those days in September of '96 when I launched News.com, there was a heavy skepticism that how could we, born of the Internet, cover the Internet business objectively.

Credibility was number one. Number two was how do you get to that point. You go out and hire people who practice journalism at trusted and established organizations. One of my first hires was a guy who worked at the San Francisco Chronicle and the L.A. Times, Mike Yamamoto. We hired people from a newspaper background, from wire services. We hired people from trade magazines.

I decided if we were going to make a dent in the business, being the new kids on the block, we were going to beat them by sheer volume and timeliness. We found out that most trade magazines were still not hip to the medium of the Internet. In '96, more of the core readership was not dialing into the Internet -- they had T1 lines, not dial-up connections. So we had a ready-made audience needing, wanting news and information.

The challenge was how do you convince your staff, that was used to a daily deadline at a newspaper -- you said 'look, you will write and report as news happens.' We were a small staff, and my edict was everybody's going to write two to three stories a day. They said, 'It can't happen.' I said, 'It will happen.' Long story short, I was able to convince them why. They saw the power, because as soon as we started doing that, we saw the readership for it. In this medium, you get real-time feedback and metrics.

The culture I created is what I'm most proud of. At the heart of it all is gaining the reader's trust, and doing hard-hitting and objective and fair journalism. If you cover the computer industry, and your advertisers are the very people you're covering sometimes, it's a tough balance. I'm proud to say in our seven-plus years of existence we've won many, many awards and honors. We've won or been nominated for an award an average of once per month for every month of our existence.

OJR: And what about the dot-com and tech bust?

Singh: We've been able to get through the course of the downturn over the last two or three years. Plus, I had the biggest supporters in our executives. Without their commitment, we can't do incredible journalism. Without the money to hire good people, you can't do good journalism. Not only support but total independence to do what I think is the right thing to do by our readers -- not by our marketers.

A lot of organizations failed during the bust, and we are the one standing. Our work is not done by any stretch of the imagination. To use the number one cliche, according to the list [of worst cliches], 'at the end of the day' what I feel best about is having the support of people who didn't come out of traditional media.

The L.A. Times did a story on online journalism once in '96 or '97 and said they [News.com] publish first and ask questions later. We were the anecdotal lead to the article, and pointed to a story on our site. I told the L.A. Times that beating my competitors by nanoseconds is not my objective. We want to be first, but we want to be right first. We've lost many a scoop because we didn't have enough sources. We have to have at least three sources, unless the editor approves a single-source story. Every story has to have multiple independent sources.

OJR: Did you burn out a lot of people making them write two to three stories per day?

Singh: We burned out some, sure. But we had some who have stayed here and over the course of time we haven't had to do three stories per day. People have to write one to two stories now -- it's a practice but not an edict. We have people who work on a big honking special report -- investigative with a small ' i ' -- and they'll work on a story for a week or ten days. But if something breaks on their beat, we pull them to write a breaking story.

We must establish a comfortable balance. I'm not going to say everyone is extremely happy. I don't know too many journalists who are very happy. If you look at the totality of our body of work, we were successful only because we have great, hard-working reporters. Reporters are the kings and queens of any news organization. It's a bottom-up driven organization, and we count on the reporters to tell us what big stories they're going to work on.

OJR: Tell me about the Esther Dyson EDventure purchase -- how does that fit in with CNET?

Singh: News is a pretty reactive business. Somebody breaks the news, and news entities report the news. They're clearly reactive unless we're doing a special report or doing a trend piece. You get on it and break the story, just like we did with Microsoft making a deal with Major League Baseball. What Esther brings to us is the 'big think.' She's ahead of the curve. In social networking, she's been writing about it for awhile. It's not on our radar in a big way.

We do a pretty good job of covering the computer industry, but we want to reach out beyond the Silicon Valley to the policy makers. Policy is going to be important with digital convergence. [Dyson] has good contacts and was the chairman of ICANN [Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers]. And the other part of it is she holds this very powerful conference called PC Forum, so she brings thought leadership. For her, we provide a bigger megaphone, a bigger platform. She has so much data in her head, and she can disseminate only so much in her newsletter. So why not tap into her over-brimming well of knowledge?

OJR: This is a move into paid content for CNET. Is that something you're thinking about doing more?

Singh: We really haven't dived into the details, to be honest. It was a pretty quick turnaround [deal]. It does bring to our mix paid content. We have some paid content on our GameSpot site, but nothing that we've done on our news site.

OJR: She had a quote in Reuters saying that readership for Release 1.0 might expand a little bit and appeal to a broader audience, but not too broad. Her quote was, 'Let's face it. [Release 1.0] is not an easy read, and it does require you to think.' How did you take that?

Singh: The fact is that it is a 'deep think' piece, and not every one of our people wants the deep think. They want to stay on top of news, for example. For people to whom deep think matters, we hope there are considerably more people she can reach of that ilk than she has prior. We have 4 million unique visitors per month [according to internal numbers], and I don't think all of them will pay $795 per year [for Release 1.0].

OJR: You recently did a redesign of News.com and added a blog-like feature called Get Up to Speed. Do you consider them to be Web logs and what was your thinking behind them?

Singh: It's not really a Web log, it has an element of that. Like most media entities, we haven't figured out Web logs. There's something there, but we're trying to figure out how to approach these. Get Up to Speed was simply an attempt to say, look, if you're interested in these particular subjects, they're getting a lot of noise, rather than wait for us to aggregate everything about it, you could see it all in one place. If you wanted to know everything about WiFi that's happening that week, you don't have to fumble around with search -- we give you one place with all the content.

OJR: What Web logs do you like and what do you not like?

Singh: That's a loaded question. We literally have a daily discussion on this topic. We have a lot of top people writing columns and perspectives but we know that the bulk of our readership still comes to us for the news. In one sense, my editor for opinions, Charles Cooper, writes a column that's sort of a blog, and we have this "Your Take" feature now, whereby readers can respond to his column, but it is not a two-way thing.

I think with news the question is which blogger do you really trust. There are so many of them. It seems to me like it's a pretty incestuous thing going on. One journalist points to another journalist's blog and other bloggers point to other people's blogs, and you somehow think that this is the most popular thing. But is it credible? I don't know.

There's this notion that with a blog you don't have to have the same journalistic standards. Obviously I don't ascribe to that. People have busy lives and want to know the facts, and want to know if they are truthful. What I don't like is the credibility factor that falls on my shoulders to figure out. What I do like is the two-way engagement many times, where you are interacting with your readers.

OJR: CNET will review products and have links to where you can buy the products. A lot of people talked about that crossing an editorial and journalistic line. How do you view that practice?

Singh: I don't think there is an issue, if we believe that we are here first and foremost to serve the reader. If you come in as a reader and want to buy an iPod the first thing you're going to do is read a review. If you then decide, "Hey, I might want to check out where to buy it," is it not our responsibility then to serve the reader [by showing] where you can go and buy it? Why give the reader the review and then tell the reader to hunt and peck on their own to find where they're going to buy it? I look at it as a reader service.

The perception issue is no different than having an advertisement on your page. We write about Microsoft, and there might be a Microsoft ad there. Is that very different? If we fail to be credible with that review, that's a problem. But I think we [realize] that we are in a different medium, reader expectations are different, and at the end of the day -- that cliche again! -- what we have to recognize as journalists is we have to serve the reader.

OJR: You get paid every time somebody clicks on one of those links, right? So it would make sense to write good reviews because that would get people to click. So you would write more positive than negative.

Singh: In theory, you're right. In practice, think about it. If we only wrote glowing reviews, our readers are smart, how long before they figured out they were polluted? How long before they figure out that we're not independent? In journalism, it's all about trust.

OJR: This goes for all media. It's always about the 10 Best Laptops and not the 10 Worst Laptops.

Singh: [laughs] Obviously. Consumer Reports does that but they're different because they don't take advertising. The New York Times does links from its Book Review site to book sites. Is that a conflict or a reader service? I leave that to the readers to decide. Your question is valid and we think about it all the time. I don't want to speak for CNET.com, but I like to believe that they uphold the highest standard of journalism.

There are sites that do nothing but shopping, like Yahoo Shopping. So readers have a choice, but why do they come to us? For the reviews, to find out the good, bad and the ugly.

OJR: CNET site Builder.com is going to outsource some of its content writing to India. Is that something that you're considering doing more of within CNET?

Singh: We at News.com have a freelancer in India, we have staff all over the world. But we don't have staff [in India]. We have no plans for that. It's something that might come up but we're not thinking about it right now. I don't have a particular issue with [Builder.com doing it] because you're talking about freelancers, if I recall.

My big picture thinking is that if it's a global economy, and the Internet is a global village without borders, does it really matter where your reporter is? I'm not going to say I'm putting a whole bunch of reporters there. But if a freelancer is doing technical writing, it could be done anywhere. In principle, I don't have issues with it.

The key part is do they have the same ethical standards and guidelines? Offshoring is a huge issue, I know Reuters has put some people there. So journalism organizations are looking at it. For News.com, it doesn't make sense to cover the Silicon Valley with people in Bangalore.

OJR: What about running opinion pieces from industry analysts? Do you consider that good journalism? Is there a problem with conflicts?

Singh: We talked about having analysts disclose if they're writing about a company they're advising. I know we've discussed this, and they should disclose if they're writing about a company. Generally, they're writing about trends or events instead of companies. We will not have them writing about Microsoft, but they could be writing about Web services.

OJR: Do they get paid for these articles?

Singh: No. None of our outside [analyst] columnists are paid. I don't know why that is. When we talk to analysts we don't pay them either. If we take freelancers, we will pay them. We have industry folks write, we have analysts, all kinds of people.

OJR: I saw that News.com was nominated for a National Magazine Award. Do you see yourselves as a magazine?

Singh: We don't see ourselves as a magazine, but the special reports that we do are as exhaustive and as detailed and as lengthy and could be a feature piece in a magazine. I assume the rationale is from that perspective and not just our news. One of the conundrums and frustrations I face is most people think of us as just breaking news, but I believe we do [real investigative] journalism when it comes to in-depth reports. I'm glad that they recognize that.

OJR: Are you getting a sense that the technology business and media are coming back to some extent?

Singh: Definitely, from a year ago and two years ago and three years ago. It appears to be getting better. The bosses haven't given me carte blanche and said, "Go, hire away!" The good thing is that people are feeling bullish. There may not be as much happening in reality, but people are feeling good, heads are being held higher and people aren't moping around. That psychological boost is a big deal.

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Related Links
AP: Like, with all due respect, bear with me
About CNET Networks
CNET Networks' Annual Report for FY 2003
CNET News.com
Charles Cooper: Information overload and its discontents
National Magazine Award finalists
News.com: MLB lands Microsoft, America Online deals
NewsForge: Builder.com outsourcing content production to India
Reuters: CNET Networks buys Esther Dyson's EDventure
SF Chronicle: CNET Networks to cut 80 additional jobs
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Jai Singh, CNET News.com founding editor: 'A lot of organizations failed during the bust, and we are the one standing. ... What I feel best about is having the support of people who didn't come out of traditional media.'

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