USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

The New Face of Independent Journalism

If there is anything we have learned from the events of the past month, it's that the Internet has become a significant player in shaping and disseminating news. The shift from traditional to online media has led to heated debates over the destruction of the news cycle and the purported resulting tendency toward inaccurate and careless reporting. But perhaps the most interesting aspects of this shift -- which, understandably, have been ignored by the prevailing media powers-that-be -- are the possibilities it opens up for all manner of independent, non-corporate-owned journalism.

The relatively low cost of 'publishing' on the World Wide Web has given rise to a legion of cyberjournalists working outside the confines of the corporate structure. The WWW news sites that these virtual pamphleteers have erected cover a wide of range of topics in a style marked by two important characteristics that and its ilk lack: personality and a strong editorial viewpoint. And, far from being the irresponsible gatekeepers the traditional media is trying to paint them as, most of these individuals take their often non-paying jobs very seriously.

The most famous of these sites is, of course, the Drudge Report, a controversial news source about politics and the media whose reporter, Matt Drudge, works off anonymous sources in high places. Renowned for considering a story publishable once he's 80 percent certain of its veracity, Drudge has made a number of enemies in the mainstream press. He is currently a co-defendant in a $30 million lawsuit filed against him and America Online by White House aide Sidney Blumenthal. But, as even his most fervent detractors must admit, Drudge was first to the line with a number of major scoops, including the report that Jerry Seinfeld was demanding $1 million per episode of "Seinfeld", and the recent Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. Nearly as many people hate Drudge as love him -- but everybody reads him.  

A site that takes a somewhat more traditional approach to its news gathering if not its presentation is TABLOID, "the daily news service for readers weary of boring journalism." As its founders, Ken Layne and Charles Hornberger, proclaim in their mission statement, TABLOID "exists to shock and enlighten readers with the horrors, follies, frauds, heroes and villains of the real world -- and to amuse and educate with true reports of bizarre people, weird events and odd science." It accomplishes all this with news stories displaying loud, tabloid-style headlines, and an irreverent writing style that is all but lost in today's mainstream news organizations.  

A recent issue's lead story, "Indonesia's Tough-Guy Prez Promises Rioting Citizens: I Will Break You!", details, in a bold, lively style reminiscent of pre-World War II journalism, President Suharto's recent announcement to his countrymen that he will retaliate if they do not cease their rioting. TABLOID's stories are written by Layne, Hornberger and a loose association of foreign correspondents, and based on information gathered both independently and from other sources such as news wires and radio. [See OJR's Q&A section for an interview with TABLOID co-founder Ken Layne.]  

In the world of entertainment, one site that stands out for its attitude and wealth of information is Ain't It Cool News  

Ain't It Cool News is the brainchild of 26-year-old Harry Knowles, a film junkie from Austin, Texas, who probes the inner recesses of Hollywood via the Internet. Every day, Knowles' network of spies from all levels of the Hollywood food chain e-mail him insider information -- everything from advance photos of a securely-guarded movie set to reviews of a private, no-media-allowed test screening -- which he posts to his site for the benefit of his nearly two million readers a month. In his efforts to make Hollywood studios more accountable for the schlock they unleash on the public, Knowles has become a thorn in the side of many execs (some have reportedly even mounted campaigns of misinformation against him). None of this matters much to Knowles, though; his primary concern is to continue providing his readers free information about "all that is cool within the film industry."  

What's perhaps most interesting about Knowles' approach is that he garners such a large audience with content that completely ignores the private lives of Hollywood stars. As he writes on his site's front page, at Ain't It Cool News, "you won't ever read about who is sleeping with whom or who is addicted to what! The PLAY is the THING! And that is how we play."  

Speaking of play, sports fans are not without their own non-corporate Internet-based news resources. LCS Guide To Hockey for instance, provides in-depth hockey coverage that easily rivals anything to be found on ESPN SportsZone or CNNSI.  

Founded in June 1994, by "four young lads [who] decided it was time to change the way hockey news was reported," LCS' editors and enormous team of correspondents provide a weekly assortment of features, team reports, statistics and breaking news -- with the kind of attitude that would make their "hockey reportin' hero," Al Morganti, proud.

These are just a few of the many independent sites that are out there, struggling for our eyeballs against the multimillion-dollar budgets of the mainstream media organizations trying to extend their dominance into the Web. There are many more waiting to be discovered. In "The Fringe", I will uncover such sites and feature them in upcoming columns so that OJR readers can become more familiar with the range of news options that the Web has made available.

I will also tackle some of the issues that are raised by the existence of reporters and news organizations who work outside of the traditional journalistic structures. To wit: Should independent online news sites be held to the same standards of journalistic integrity as more traditional outlets? How can they hold their own financially against news organizations whose assets dwarf their own? Are independent online journalists just a short-lived phenomenon or a genuine kick-in-the-pants to what Jon Katz calls the "giant, homogeneous, indistinguishable blob" that our information culture has become?  

The exploration of these questions promises to be at least as interesting as any of the conclusions that will be drawn.

If you have any sites that you'd like to recommend be featured in "The Fringe," e-mail me with the URL.