USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





From Acorns to Mighty Oaks
Innocuous interview turns radioactive

Back when most journalists had to be taught how to use a Web browser, I put together a presentation explaining, among other things, that items posted on the Internet had a half-life of radioactive waste.

Post a message to a Internet listserv or newsgroup, for instance, and you never knew when it might come back to haunt you. A favorite example: the time I sent a recipe for Passover apple crisp to a Jewish food list that I didn?t realize was being archived. A year later I received a vivid reminder when an e-mail arrived asking if the writer should use 1-2 cup or 1-2 stick of butter; another reminder came when the author of the recipe credited in my initial message came across it and sent me a note.

It?s proof of the power of making an article available free of charge -- even for a limited amount of time -- and the kind of payoff it can bring.

In recent weeks, I?ve had a reminder of another fact of Internet life: Once something is posted it can take on a life of its own without any push from you whatsoever. For proof, go to Google and type in ?Jamie Kellner? and bathroom. That?s right  type in the name of the chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting, one of the most powerful people in broadcast and cable television, and a common household word and you?ll see how quickly a story can spread. 

Now you may think you?ve already got plenty of evidence of that piling up in your mailbox as friends and family members pass around the latest urban legend or virus hoax.

But this is different. It?s proof of the power of making an article available free of charge -- even for a limited amount of time -- and the kind of payoff it can bring. It also demonstrates how little control journalists have over how readers perceive their work.

It started out innocuously enough when an interview I conducted with Jamie Kellner ran as Cable World?s April 29 cover story ?Content?s King.? The hope was that the Q-and-A on a wide range of subjects, including his concerns about potential misuse of personal video recorders, would attract some attention within the cable industry the week before the industry?s big show in New Orleans. No press releases. No external publicity at all.

While that issue was being distributed, I was already at work on the next week?s cover and deep in preparations for the show. When that issue came out  complete with a story that was publicized as an exclusive -- I was immersed in the show itself and hoping that story would get picked up.

What I didn?t realize was the Kellner story lived in the outside world due primarily to a pair of comments he made. One compared the skipping of commercials via so-called ad-skipping buttons to theft; another was in response to my question about whether missing a commercial to go to the bathroom or to get a soft drink was also theft. These were instant ammunition for people who a) resent limits on content, b) follow copyright issues, c) use PVRs or VCRs, d) like to make fun of media CEOs, e) like to complain about the quality of television  programming.

I?m still not sure who picked it up first but the message that started the avalanche at Slashdot.org, where more than 1,000 comments have piled up, credits a May 1 post on hacker haven 2600.com for the tip off. It was picked up Kuro5hin, numerous web logs, sites I?d never heard of and even by Hotline, which credited the site LostRemote.com with the story. Most linked to the full interview even when excerpts were included; that started to change as people realized the original was no longer available for free. One particularly clever post came up with the ?Top 10 New Copyright Crimes.? I think this particular site excerpted a tad too much but given its beliefs on copyright that?s not surprising.

I don?t remember ever having the chance to read so many reactions to something I?ve written.

My first hint that all of this was going on came the morning of May 8, when the first burst was over. I?d set up a news tracker for Jamie Kellner on Nexis and was sitting in a hotel room in New Orleans when the e-mail report turned up an irate column by Michael Zuzel in the (Vancouver, WA.) Columbian. It was amusing to see myself characterized as ?apparently aghast? but disconcerting to see Kellner, who had taken a great deal of effort to explain his views, described as a ?sputtering doofus? by someone who didn?t seem to get the difference between an implied contract and a written one.

Veteran San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor handled the subject with an equally dismissive but far more sophisticated piece that put Kellner?s notions in context with several other incidents involving access to content. What began as a print story posted on the Internet was back to being a print story posted on the Internet. Gillmor?s syndicated status guaranteed ripples of attention as his column was reprinted.

I began to see mentions all over the place, including Peter Lewis?s column at Fortune.com. A follow-up story I wrote about Turner?s AOL Time Warner sibling Time Warner Cable?s decision not to include ad-skipping features on its PVRs brought another wave. Ironically, my name was rarely attached to any of the mentions and when it did appear was misspelled. (Search for Kellner and Krammer and you?ll see what I mean.)

The greatest irony to me, though, was the way this came about by happenstance just when I needed it to illustrate a point. I?d been trying to explain to an editor how Internet buzz can influence a story?s cycle and push it into the mainstream. I?d had plenty of experience with that phenomenon when I was at Inside.com like the day when I picked up a newspaper in Atlanta and saw a lead story about something that broke on Inside.  At last check, Turner had inquiries about Kellner?s PVR ideas pending from several major mainstream publications.

It?s almost impossible to plan to make it happen but when it does the payoff can be a big one.

The down side as some of you will be quick to point out: thanks to cut and paste capabilities, lots of people were able to read the controversial comments without visiting CableWorld.com. The up side:  recognition for the magazine, publicity for the story  and the chance to watch the Internet at work.