Translating the network evening news to the Web

Jason Samuels was a TV man through and through. He spent 11 years at NBC News producing breaking news and as an award-winning long-form producer for the newsmagazine Dateline NBC.

“I am a big believer in television journalism–its power for telling stories and raising issues that should engage younger audiences who are my peers,” he said recently. “But I just didn’t see younger people tuning into network television news.”

He did see that generation flocking to online news and shifted to the Web with them. Since October 2006, he has been a senior producer at ABC News Digital where he says he has an opportunity to test how the power of television can translate onto the Web. Samuels spoke to OJR recently about sending out stringers with DV cameras to cover world news and how the webcast might be a precursor to the television newscast of the future.

OJR: Tell me about the webcast you produce for How different is it from the evening newscast?

Samuels: It started before I came here but they basically wanted a way to have some news before 6 o’clock available to those who were online. So correspondents who were working for the 6:30 broadcast would file pieces for the webcast at 3 o’clock so that people could click on them and watch them during the day from their office or before they left to go home.

But over time it’s evolved to where it has a distinct attitude, and it’s not shy about targeting a different group of viewers who may not be watching the network news. There is a different focus, a different DNA to the show. We kind of loosen the tie a little bit, if you will.

We do stories that may be appeal more to Generation X and Generation Y than stories that are directly trying to appeal to Baby Boomers and [their] parents. As a person in charge of it, it’s my job to kind of select stories that I think appeal to a younger generation.

We really have no rules to the show. We can try things that are very different. The mandate is to try to be different and try and engage the viewers who are not right now watching the evening news broadcast.

People believe that younger audiences get their news from the Daily Show. It’s a very smart show, but it’s produced by people who work for Comedy Central–not by traditional journalists. We have tried to create a webcast with content that appeals to people who are looking for news but are not really that engaged with what the traditional shows are offering.

OJR: Could you give me one example where the storytelling underscores how different it is from the 6:30 broadcast?

Samuels: Sure, I’ll first go over just the nuts and bolts. It’s essentially a 15-minute, commercial-free show every day that we tape live with Charles Gibson as the anchor. The first two and half minutes are the meat-and-potato headlines–the traditional network news fare. The rest of the show has pieces that can be on the news of the day but they can also be like features.

As an example, though, correspondents usually go out to cover stories; they write a script, edit it and put it together for the broadcast. But I tell them to just shoot a video blog. So in today’s show, Miguel Marquez in Los Angeles was assigned to do a story for the broadcast about the new line of Bible-themed action figures that are going to be sold in Wal-Mart. So when you watch the broadcast tonight it’s going to be a traditional, well-crafted 1:30 to 2-minute piece. What we asked him to do is that when you are at Wal-Mart and you are reporting your piece for the broadcast, just stand there, hold up these action figures and just tell us about them. Don’t script anything perfectly just give us your own impression and your sense of what is the story. Miguel filed a video blog piece that is about a minute long for our webcast. It’s a little less formal, it’s a little more raw and I would argue in some ways it is a little more real.

It is less polished but I think younger people are willing to accept that and almost prefer that instead of showing what’s packaged so perfectly.

Now if there is a piece for the broadcast that we are interested in, we will put that on our webcast as well. For example there is a piece for broadcast tonight about a woman who has homeless kids taking photos of what they wish to aspire to. And it’s a wonderful piece that should be interesting no matter how old you are. We’ve put that into our webcast.

Another example. We did an interview for the webcast exclusively with Christopher Hitchens, on his book, “God is Not Great.” We sat him down in front of a camera and we had him basically talk about the themes in his books and we edited that down into an essay. That would never go on the evening news shows but for us it worked. It’s provocative and it’s different.

OJR: You’re also lucky that you can use any portion of the massive amounts of content produced for ABC News on your webcasts. How much of what is produced specifically for the webcast is constrained by budget issues?

Samuels: Sure, a bit of being different is also for budget reasons. We don’t have the broadcast news staff; we don’t have the broadcast news budget. So we have to do things a little bit differently but I think effectively as well.

OJR: How are you as a broadcast-based news organization using interactivity on the Web?

Samuels: Now if you go to our website, you can comment in real-time on the broadcast.

I’ve only been here for four months but I am trying to slowly bring more interactivity into the fold. One thing we would like to do is have people watch the show, react to the show, and then the next day feature their reactions. This would mean that viewers could literally sit in front of their webcams, tell us what they thought and we will put it on our webcasts.

The Christopher Hitchens’ piece is a perfect example. We asked our viewers to send reactions and comments in video about his provocative essay. Going forward, I want to do more of that.

I am also trying to develop a way for people to send us their story ideas for the webcast. If you think there is a story in your town or city that you think should be on the webcast, send us info and we will try to assign someone to do the story.

Those are two ways that I hope would make us more interactive soon.

OJR: News organizations have always controlled distribution of their content. The Web is changing that with RSS feeds, Google News and other ways of news personalization. What is doing in that direction to share its content more broadly?

Samuels: The webcast is available on iTunes. When it’s posted on iTunes, I believe we are one of the few video broadcasts that have chapters. So when you are watching the webcast on iTunes, you can fast forward through the segment if you are not interested.

In June, we had over 5 million people download the webcast from iTunes and

I should mention is obviously every segment that we do for the webcast lives as an individual piece, if you will, on So the webcast exists as a show but it also exists as a way to manufacture very interesting short news segments for

OJR: Disney’s ABC and Apple’s iTunes have obvious connection through Steve Jobs and Pixar. But there is also this realization that you need to be on as many platforms as possible. Are your shows available on places like YouTube as well?

Samuels: This is a little bit beyond my pay grade but I think that ABC News is not letting people post our content everywhere else, including YouTube. Their philosophy is we want to drive people to our websites and we want the clicks on our websites. That’s an internal discussion that’s going on and I think a lot of media companies are trying to figure out how much do you let float out there and how much do you keep behind your walls.

OJR: How do the reporters and producers react to all of a sudden having more work to cut an earlier segment with the pressure of meeting the 6:30 deadline?

Samuels: I think that initially they probably thought it was pain in the neck but I think that they understand that this is the future.

The downloads of our show is increasing. Whereas if you look at other forms of news content–whether it’s newspapers, or evening newscasts, or news magazines, or nightly news shows–they are decreasing. With that in mind, I think they realize this is something they have to do.

We also try to have them do something a little different. They don’t have to give us the same thing that they doing for the broadcast. We want a video blog with a behind the scenes look at something.

Also, I am already using stringers around the world for content. Before the advent of small DV cameras and laptop editing, these stringers were only used when there was a huge catastrophe. Today I can call the stringers who have DV cameras and laptops for editing, can they can do a story about anything and send it to me over FTP and we can put it on the webcast.

For example, the recent stand off in Islamabad, in Pakistan, an ABC News person in Islamabad that filed for the web cast virtually everyday. He would shoot it and send it to us with his own DV camera and it was wonderful stuff. As we go forward, my plan is to have people all over the world filing for us–stuff that would never get on the evening broadcasts because they have a more serious structure to them. But we can post video blogs from people in Cuba, in China, in Islamabad, in Africa, in Australia, in France… everywhere. Because the technology allows that and I don’t need the polished or experienced correspondent. These are usually younger people. I love to have that kind of energy and that raw look at the news from around the world. Technology makes it possible.

I can’t predict the future but I know that ABC News is making a commitment and an investment to position young people with DV cameras around the world in Africa, in India, in places where they ordinarily would not be able to afford to put a crew and a cameraman and a producer. Now you can put a 20-year-old graduate student with a DV camera and a laptop in far away places and they can send you things through the Internet and you can put them on the air. I plan to have my show take full advantage of that in New York.

OJR: How do you respond to critics who say this is nothing but an attempt to cut expenses by using inexperienced and therefore cheaper labor because the technology allows it?

Samuels: I absolutely understand that argument. If I am an editor who has worked 30 years in my craft and some young kid out of graduate school and edits these pieces, what does that say for the value of my skills? I would say there is room for both, but I think if you are an editor or a cameraman that’s been in network news for a long time, you might have to adapt instead of shooting with your beta camera take a DV camera out and shoot with it. If you are an editor that’s used to working with a big beta system, use your skills to edit on a laptop. I don’t think the skills are no longer needed I just think that the tools are changing.

At the same time, what we do everyday with a smaller staff as we do is pretty remarkable. So I think there is something to the notion of less people doing more.

There are also more outlets for work in terms of work that’s different and that’s exciting.

OJR: As the generation that’s used to the structured evening news format gets older and older and continues to shrink, are we going to start seeing some of these webcast techniques making their way into the evening news?

Samuels: I think it will over time. When you have a 20-year-old stringer in Islamabad doing your report it’s not going to look like Brian Williams. I am of the mind that younger people are more able to appreciate a raw unpolished news pieces. They are used to homemade videos on YouTube. YouTube is big because it’s not the polished sitcom stuff that’s on the network. It’s raw, it’s shaky video, it’s … its real, it’s gritty and I think that appeals to younger viewers.

When I took the job, I asked myself whether the anchor, Charlie Gibson, was the right man for the job for the younger audience? I have been so pleased with how he embraces the show. He values the show and he gets what we are trying to do. We don’t have him be anything other than what he is which is a very intelligent, passionate. He is not trying to pretend like he is young and hip. But the content of the show is different and he embraces that.

There are plenty of days where he will see something on the webcast and he will put it on the newscast. That has happened more than once.

I think in many ways we are almost a breeding ground, an experiment, if you will, to see what might work going forward for the news division.

Advertising, editorial lines blur as bloggers' salaries tied to traffic

Most freelance writers wait in dread for The Call — their equivalent of the “Dear John” letter from an editor who is calling (or sometimes e-mailing) to say they’re no longer needed. A number of years ago, The Call came to me from my editor at CNET, but with a twist. They were killing my humor column because it didn’t get enough page views. I even got a rundown of the numbers, though they were meaningless to me.

The Internet has been lauded for providing advertisers with exact metrics on how their ads perform, but it also can be turned against writers and journalists, especially at sites that live and die by traffic. pioneered pay for Guides that’s tied to traffic growth, and now Gawker Media is also paying a base salary for its stable of bloggers, along with bonuses for increased traffic. Plus, the new breed of “stand-alone journalists” such as Rafat Ali at and Chris Nolan at Politics from Left to Right take on both editorial and business roles at their online publications. While this blurring of the Chinese wall between advertising and editorial could hurt the credibility of the nascent operations, few journalists can ignore the economic viability of their publications.

In a Q&A with OJR, CEO Peter Horan explained how Guides are motivated to build traffic. “One of things we’ve institutionalized is that folks understand that time they put in to optimize the content is really an investment in their page growth,” Horan said. “There’s been enough success stories with the Guides, that basically they sell each other on the idea that this is a good thing to do.”

While the Political Humor Guide pulled in $20,000 per month around the U.S. election last fall, the average Guide only makes $1,500 to $1,600 per month, according to Horan, making this a part-time freelance gig, for the most part.

More highbrow online publications such as Slate and Salon have never paid writers according to page views. Slate editor Jacob Weisberg told me he is opposed to the idea for a number of reasons.

“First of all, how we promote stories has more effect on their traffic than what the writers do,” Weisberg said via e-mail. “Second, I wouldn’t want to push writers to pander for hits by writing only sexed-up stories. Third, all hits are not created equal. A small number of additional readers who come regularly to a less popular feature may be more valuable to us than something that swells traffic greatly but temporarily. Fourth, it would create an unproductive kind of competition among our writers.”

Salon editor Joan Walsh concurred and said the site had never tied pay to page views in any way before — though she wouldn’t rule it out in the future. But Walsh believes that letters from readers are more interesting indicators than traffic.

Calacanis, Denton diverge

But if Salon and Slate are Web 1.0 for online journalists, then Gawker Media and Weblogs Inc. are Web 2.0. Both of the newbie blog empires have tried out new models for paying writers, with mixed success. Gawker has been paying writers a base salary plus bonuses tied to traffic, while Weblogs Inc. ditched a scheme for paying bloggers based on ad revenues and now compensates them with a flat fee.

Nick Denton, publisher of Gawker Media, told me he modeled his system on the model. “I’m sure the writers would prefer to take the maximum they could make in a month, and take it as a flat salary,” he said via e-mail, “but we’ve never offered flat salary. Pay has always depended on number of posts, with a bonus for appealing to readers.”

While Denton wouldn’t get into the details of his pay structure, one of his writers told me more about the complex system for compensation, though declined to be named for fear of losing the work. According to this writer, a blogger with high traffic growth can “accrue a lot of potential money.” The problem is that the bonus is “banked” and the entire sum can’t be taken out in one month, leaving it to drop as the traffic drops in future months. To make it even more complicated, traffic bonuses are weighted according to a multiplier depending on the subject matter of the blog.

“There’s a maximum withdrawal per month,” the writer said. “So you could actually make $50,000 in traffic bonuses per month, but you could only take out $5,000 or so. But by the time a few months have gone by, your traffic could have trended downward, and it could have eaten up the traffic bonus you had earned. … It makes sense for Nick, but it makes all of us really uneasy.” Lockhart Steele, managing editor at Gawker Media, wouldn’t explain the details of the pay structure to me but said that any bonus plan involves a certain amount of complexity.

“What if there’s an act of god, a surge of new visitors, none of whom comes back?” Steele said via e-mail. “What if a writer cashes a freak bonus, and then coasts, or walks? Should a writer really be penalized if their topic has a small niche audience? Our formula ignores huge spikes in traffic, so that an editor is neither ludicrously over-compensated in a freak month, nor penalized when traffic then declines. On the other hand, should writers on the Web just ignore traffic? No.”

Joel Johnson, who writes Gizmodo for Denton, called the pay structure “Byzantine” but says he’s happy with the amount he’s paid. “The worst part, though, is that so much of the pay is based on increasing hits, but we as editors don’t have any control over anything but the editorial content,” Johnson said via e-mail. “That’s the most important part, sure, but it sucks to think you might lose money because somebody decided to give you a retarded elf or a queer ninja as a mascot. … I’d rather be writing than learning how to trick Google.”

Denton admits his writers have had “the occasional spasm of self-doubt” but have nevertheless come up with great ways to build traffic. He ticked off some of their accomplishments: “Johnson at Gizmodo (page views up by 276% since March 2004) won an interview with Bill Gates and the Bloggie award for best tech site. Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette (up by 125% since a year ago) has promoted the title heavily in television interviews and panel appearances. Jessica Coen of Gawker (up by 133%) has ridden the big celebrity stories with élan. John d’Addario of Fleshbot (up 440% in a year) links to earlier posts to keep readers on his site for longer.”

Meanwhile, rival blog publishing house Weblogs Inc. has ditched its original idea of splitting ad revenues 50/50 with bloggers. The company’s chairman and mouthpiece Jason McCabe Calacanis admits he was wrong about the concept, and that only 1 in 20 writers went for the deal. Now he’s paying a flat fee for bloggers ranging from $100 to $3,000 per month, and is signing up two to five people per blog because of the focus on part-time help.

“We’ve separated the concept of pay and traffic as I think it can be very dangerous to link the two,” Calacanis told me via e-mail. “The biggest problem with traditional media is that they are always chasing ratings, which is an extension of their 10Q [earnings report]. People are coming to blogs because they are NOT playing the ratings game! What difference does it make if a blog gets 10% or 20% traffic [spikes] if it alienates the core audience by playing the ratings game?”

Of course, the Weblogs Inc. honcho couldn’t resist a jab at his arch-nemesis in blog publishing, Denton. Calacanis mentioned how Gawker received a lot of traffic related to a Fred Durst sex video — including a lawsuit from Durst.

“I’d rather our bloggers focus on creating unfiltered, honest content,” Calacanis said. “It’s my job to make the money, it’s their job to make great content. Also, we don’t need to make a profit on every blog. … Chasing ‘nip slips’ is good for ratings, sure, but I wouldn’t build a brand around them. For a gossip or porn magazine, going for ratings isn’t such a major ethical issue, but it is a slippery slope like many things.”

Wearing the dual editor/publisher hats

While bloggers working for Gawker or Weblogs Inc. toil under a freelance contract, the new breed of “stand-alone journalists” have no one to answer to but themselves. And in these cases, the writer is also head marketer, head ad sales rep and head arbiter of ethical issues.

Longtime journalist Chris Nolan coined the phrase “stand-alone journalist” and currently fits the role well at her blog, Politics from Left to Right, which focuses on California politics. Nolan has written columns for the San Jose Mercury News and the New York Post, and is now even “syndicating” (i.e. repurposing) her blog into a column in eWeek.

Nolan doesn’t think the ethical dilemmas of a stand-alone journalist are much of a departure from the old-style conflicts in a newspaper newsroom.

“The idea that all bloggers are corrupt because they have to deal with the business side of their enterprises is a little bit of a red herring,” Nolan told me. “Newsrooms are filled with people who say, ‘You can’t write about Joe because he’s a friend of the publisher,’ or ‘you can’t write about Sue because she’s married to so-and-so.’…What you do is constantly balance the needs of the business against the editorial integrity, just like a real newsroom. The difference is that these are much smaller efforts, for starters, and second of all, we are not monopolies. If you don’t like what I’m saying, you’re free to go somewhere else.”

Nolan says she had to deal with one advertiser who was asking her to write about a subject that didn’t fit in her editorial purview. She simply ignored the request — but didn’t lose the advertiser. She’s currently raised $50,000 for her site from investors and is looking for more money to help expand the site with more writers. How will she pay them?

“[That’s] as clear as mud,” Nolan said. “This is a startup. We are not going to compensate people while they grow an audience. We’re going to try to see how they do. Once we see a decent ad revenue there, we’re going to do a split. We might also do a stipend or lump sum if we can syndicate it. There are a lot of different ways this thing could go…There are going to be as many solutions to the financial workings as there are going to be sites on the Web.”

One stand-alone journalist who has already hired five contract people to help his operation is Rafat Ali at Ali has struggled at times to divide his editorial and business roles, and hasn’t been shy about writing about sponsors and job listings in the main editorial space of his blog. But now he will be bringing on Robert Spears to handle the advertising and business development side.

“One thing I’ve realized over the last few years, is that as much as I like the journalism part of it, I also like developing products,” Ali told me. “But one of the tricky things is advertising. How do I go to the same companies I’m writing about and sell advertising? That’s the central conflict. It’s up to the individual to disclaim it up front. There’s no science to it, but it depends on whether you have ethical values to make the editorial separate from advertising.”

Ali will not usually do blanket coverage of every product launch by vendors who cater to the media business and advertise on his site. And he also has tight controls over who can advertise on PaidContent — thereby making the advertising more relevant for readers. He doesn’t like Google AdSense ads and is on the verge of kicking them off his site for being irrelevant, and doesn’t like the non-standard sized ads on BlogAds — or their content.

“The vendors are part of the site’s ecosystem, it’s a fact of life,” Ali said. “I am very happy when my advertisers are doing well business-wise, and I sometimes mention it. A company like Entriq has been doing well and expanded into the mobile space. I know these guys editorially and on the business side as well. So I’ll mention it and say that these guys advertise with me as well. … There’s no science to it, it’s just where you draw the line.

“It’s increasingly blurred, but what really helps — this may sound elitist — but being a journalist by training helps. As a journalist, you grow up being skeptical. I’m sure other people without a journalism background can develop sensibilities, but we come with an in-grown sensibility and that helps a lot in dealing with business issues.”