Ten years of MarketWatch: Biz site celebrates its anniversary

On October 30, 1997, MarketWatch.com launched as CBS MarketWatch to offer stock market news and information for individual investors. Now known as MarketWatch, the site celebrated its 10-year anniversary last week. OJR spoke with its editor-in-chief, David Callaway, who joined in 1999, on the phone to talk about how financial journalism online has changed over the years. An edited transcript follows.

OJR: Walk me through MarketWatch’s milestones over the last 10 years – what the industry was like and your thoughts as editor-in-chief at each point. You joined MarketWatch in 1999. What was it like to be an online journalist back then?

Callaway: Well, back then, no one in mainstream media took online journalism seriously. In spring 1999, a radio host asked me on the air if I could think of anything lower on the food chain than an online journalist. No one is looking down their noses at the Web anymore. I believe it’s the biggest change the world has adopted – first by the readers and then by the media.

OJR: What prompted you to leave Bloomberg for MarketWatch?

Callaway: The excitement of building something in the online world. I was fascinated by the Internet, and MarketWatch was a new company. It had been up-and-running for two years before I joined. Things were very primitive. We had a very primitive webpage – in fact Microsoft had developed the platform for running yearbooks. I think at the time we had 20-25 journalists. We have about 100 today.

But our biggest goals back then are essentially what the biggest goals are now: to level the playing field. We aim to recreate the experience created by Reuters and Bloomberg for free on the Web. We try to move at the same speed as the people on Wall Street.

We are four times the size now, but every day we compete with those same competitors. Those are the companies that break news on a global basis, 24 hours a day.

OJR: In 2001, MarketWatch was one of the first websites to install an introductory message ad unit with Budweiser campaign. Why did you do that?

Callaway: We were very nervous because we thought readers would hate it. We talked a lot about how long we’d allow them to run. Back then, a couple magazine sites were doing them, some entertainment sites. Now everyone is doing them.

OJR: In 2003, MarketWatch acquired VirtualStockExchange.com, an online trading game site.

Callaway: Right, it was a website put together by college students. We used it to build out the community aspect of MarketWatch so that our readers would not only read the news but also be part of the action. It was a unique thing. It had plenty of online games not too different from fantasy football or baseball. CNBC also had big online games section, actually even bigger than VirtualStockExchange. We got a respectable amount of traffic on it.

OJR: In 2004, MarketWatch partnered with Thomson Financial to license your financial news content for institutional use.

Callaway: 2004 was a big one for us. MarketWatch originally catered to a retail crowd – it was started for small, active investors – individuals who couldn’t afford big news services. Thomson didn’t have a news service, so they came to us and asked us to create one. It doubled the size of the news operation. Thomson was running Dow Jones; they lost Reuters, and they wanted to have more than one news service.

OJR: In 2005, MarketWatch was acquired by Dow Jones.

Callaway: A huge event. It’s worked really well in the last three years. Dow Jones is a 100-year-old, preeminent company for sophisticated investors and folks on Wall Street. They wanted our readership.

Dow Jones now has the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones news wires, Barron’s, and us. Among the four, MarketWatch is closest to Dow Jones news wires – the editorial team focuses on real time news. But we work very closely with them. We appear on their site, and they appear on ours. Within the empire of Dow Jones, we maintain enough editorial independence to keep our readers happy, while helping them with their product.

OJR: And of course, in 2007, Dow Jones and News Corp. announced their merger.

Callaway: It’s not yet closed so I can’t say much about it because I honestly don’t know what will happen.

OJR: You link to a few blogs on the site and have one MarketWatch blog by Herb Greenberg. When did you start taking notice of blogs?

Callaway: Two years ago. I just started noticing a couple blogs that were pretty good or interesting. We have one blog on the site but plans for two to three for the end of the year. They’ll cover the election, healthcare, and the stock market.

OJR: How do you deal with false information – things like bad stock tips or false stories like Engadget’s post back in May saying that the releases of the iPhone and the Leopard operating system would be delayed, causing Apple’s stock to plunge?

Callaway: It’s a serious, serious thing. It’s something that everyone needs to watch out for. We look at stuff carefully and try not to link to everyone to keep that stuff out.

OJR: How exactly do you make that judgment call?

Callaway: It depends. For example, if a blog is pushing people to buy certain stocks – we don’t recommend stocks to buy. We look for blogs that comment on the market and add interesting angles.

OJR: What about the idea of social media? How do you use user-generated content?

Callaway: We started a new community page – our biggest effort yet to bring our readers in so that they can talk to each other and look at each other’s ideas. It’s our first real effort to develop a broader community.

Ranking stories based on how many comments they get is fun and entertaining, but it’s not news. We do that in our community page but not on the news page. All these sites are doing it, and there’s a home for that in the social networking area of the site. But it doesn’t replace hard news. I definitely believe in the separation of news and discussion.

OJR: Is there a place for citizen journalism in business news?

Callaway: Citizen journalism works best at events that require someone to be there. Newsrooms, generally speaking, are shrinking. They don’t have the staff to be everywhere. So, citizen journalism has been a huge help on bombs or things happening on the street corner that someone can record on their cell phone. In financial journalism, it’s a little different. There are not as many events for us. For the reasons I mentioned before, we want to be careful of people giving advice. That’s for the community section.

OJR: What are some bad practices in online business journalism?

Callaway: There’s a tendency for reporters to be lazy and allow sources to push their agendas. Online specifically, I see more of this through the use of e-mail. Lazy journalists are inclined to use materials from e-mails from people who want to be quoted, to just grab something without checking it out. In financial reporting, people try to take advantage of a lazy journalist to push a stock or move a stock, which is unfair and against the law. For instance, some people copy a Yahoo template and change keywords in order to push a stock.

OJR: Where do you see MarketWatch in five to 10 years?

Callaway: I’ll preface this by saying that 10 years ago, when MarketWatch started, there was no Google, no MySpace, no Facebook. So take my predictions for what they’re worth.

MarketWatch will be recognized as a pioneer for being an online-only news service. Most other online news sites are repurposing what they’re put out in print. When small and medium papers go online-only at some point, they’ll save a lot of money but face a lot of challenges too. When you own your content, you can do whatever you want. You can lead with the story you want to lead. You can throw any journalists you want at a story. The news services that own their content will be the ones that win.

I think in five to 10 years, we’ll see more news services that are only online.

OJR: But by then, MarketWatch as an online-only publication will no longer be unique.

Callaway: But hopefully we’ll be bigger.

Painting with the palette of the Web: a pointillistic approach to storytelling

Backpack journalist and multimedia storyteller Kevin Sites stopped by USC Annenberg this week to talk about his new book and documentary, In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars and how solo journalists can innovate within new media.

One-man band

The increasingly popular one-man news bureau – a solo journalist who gathers news using multimedia tools – should leverage each medium to further engage the reader, said Sites.

In September 2005, Sites became Yahoo News’s first original content correspondent, pioneering the “one-man band.” Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone showcased an ambitious undertaking: a one-year trip to all the major conflicts zones around the world reported by Sites, with video, text, and still photography.

Carrying over 60 pounds of equipment, Sites leveraged each medium’s unique strengths to tell his stories. Video was for the “inherent drama,” the “motion” of the world – capturing verbs like dancing, singing, talking, exploding. Text was for “nuance,” the “details that bring a story to life.” Still photography was reserved for portraits to create a powerful “connection to someone’s face,” explained Sites.

Reporting simultaneously in three dimensions is “not a replacement for mainstream media… but an amplification of it,” said Sites. By putting a human face on the global conflicts and “stringing those stories together so that when you see them online, perhaps collectively, cumulatively, they provide a greater idea of what’s happening in that conflict zone.”

Sites views news in new media as not the “last word… but the first word” to pull the reader into the story. “The computer that delivers news is also a tool for you to respond to the information.” Under the intimate portraits and videos of ordinary people caught in war, Sites provided links to the chronology of the conflict (BBC country profiles) and to possible solutions (NGOs and political organizations).

The site drew two million viewers a week. Sites’ workload was heavy: Spending about ten days in each war zone, he transmitted a 600-1,200-word story, five to 15 photographs, and two to three videos every day.

“In some ways I felt that doing this project was a bit of penitence for my journalistic sins of past,” said Sites.

He was referring to November 2004. While covering the battle of Falluja as a pool correspondent, Sites shot a highly controversial video of a U.S. Marine shooting and killing a wounded, unarmed Iraqi insurgent stretched out on the ground of a mosque. Most international networks ran the full tape. All the American networks blacked out the shooting.

“It was absolutely the wrong decision,” recounted Sites, who supported censoring at the time. He explained, “That videotape to me had the potential of creating more bloodshed,” and that conflicted with the journalistic ethic of minimizing harm.

“We failed the public,” Sites admitted. “It wasn’t the government. It wasn’t the military… We censored ourselves.” Subsequently, Sites wrote a 2,500-word open letter to the Marines involved in the shooting on his blog, retelling the story of the shooting and putting it in context. That piece was picked up by newspapers and TV stations around the world.

“What that demonstrated to me was the power of online media in telling a more complete – and sometimes more accurate story than traditional media,” said Sites.

Focus on characters

After Sites’ return from the Hot Zone (and a year off scuba diving to decompress), he and Yahoo continued their foray into original reporting in May 2007, albeit with a dramatic change of subject. “People of the Web” is a series of articles and four to four-and-a-half-minute videos featuring people who use the Internet to “bypass the traditional world.”

He profiles people who circumvent traditional approaches to acting (lonelygirl15), music (bands on MySpace), and art (Phil Hansen).

“What I wanted to do was reach into the computer, and pull out that human being,” said Sites. He looks for stories that contain a strong Web component, a colorful central character, a compelling visual, and an element of social relevance.

For example, Hansen, an X-ray-technician-cum-artist became famous not through galleries, but by broadcasting his art-making process via YouTube. His art is interactive. One particularly impressive project – on a ten-foot, circular canvas-wheel canvas – was created with the words of his viewers. Hansen asked people to write him a moment that changed their lives. Each letter appears as a tiny dot on the canvas, but the blended result was that of a picture of the artist’s own face, cradled by four hands.

Sites said that he’s beaten the mainstream media on most of these stories. Fox News, for example, reported on an online dating service for farmers after Sites covered it.

Reporting in color

The media of video, print and photography contain finer shades that journalists could explore, Sites said.

Within solo journalist broadcast reporting, for example, are at least four techniques that “don’t compete with each other,” demonstrated Sites. Each technique offers a subtly varied angle ranging from micro-view to macro-view.

First, in a traditional first person stand up, the reporter holds the camera at arm’s length and films himself speaking over events in the background. A variation of this technique is one in which the reporter does not himself appear on camera. In both cases, the solo journalist can pan the scene using himself as the center, turning in place, and drawing a circle with his arm and camera.

A third technique uses POV plus nat sound. Sites showed an example of a video of a Sudanese woman singing a rebel fight song to lull her malaria-stricken baby to sleep.

Using a fourth technique that Sites calls “post-impressionistic narration,” the reporter provides a sort of director’s-cut commentary. He watches a video with the viewer, talking over the footage. The time lapse and informal narration offers a macro-view of the events on screen.

“Everyone talks about the Internet as the death knell for newspapers,” Sites said, “No, it’s TV that’s really bad online.” Whereas newspaper websites have become great sources of info, Sites said – they just need to learn how to monetize the Web – Sites criticized local TV websites for simply parking their aired stories on the Internet.

When asked if offering so many retellings of the same event would over-saturate the viewer, Sites replied, “It’s a matter of palette… It makes the journalist work harder.” And in the end, it benefits the viewers and the sources.

“The mediums are not displacing but enhancing each other, playing off each other in ways that are relevant,” Sites said. “TV didn’t kill radio. It transformed it.”

To rally an online community, start with controversy

After serving as agricultural editor and columnist at the New Zealand Herald, Philippa Stevenson now leads the Rural Network, a six-month-old online community for the country’s georgic population. Her blog “Dig ‘n’ Stir” is more than a commentary on New Zealand’s primary industries, science and the environment; it elicits debate and connects farmers with scientists, journalists and each other in hopes of building a political voice for the far-flung rural community.

OJR spoke with Stevenson on the phone earlier this week, and an edited transcript follows.

OJR: For those of us who are not very familiar with New Zealand – could you describe the country’s media landscape?

Stevenson: There are two major newspaper companies: APN News & Media, which owns our biggest paper, the New Zealand Herald, as well as half of the provincial newspapers; and Fairfax Media, which owns most of the rest. There are two major online websites: the New Zealand Herald site and stuff.co.nz. Recently, Fairfax Media made a major purchase: It paid 750 million NZD for our version of eBay called Trade Me, a move to try to get the advertising that had been lost to Trade Me. I think Trade Me is the biggest site in New Zealand, in terms of online forums and the volume of trades.

OJR: How popular are blogs in New Zealand?

Stevenson: They are popular. One of the earliest blogs is called Public Address. It was started by Russell Brown, a leading blogger, and he has been struggling to make it pay. The blog’s been going for 10 or more years and his advertising’s rising so he’s hopeful.

Runway Reporter, a fashion site by a fashion reporter, wasn’t profitable when it was bought by ACP Media. Another online magazine, nzgirl, has been looked at by Fairfax Media. Print publishers are looking for opportunities to use successful online sites to bring them into the fold.

When Rural Network was started, my idea was that we’d try to be the rural equivalent of Public Address. There are a lot of political blogs out there, but not another one like Rural Network.

OJR: How did Rural Network get its start?

Stevenson: It’s an interesting genesis – Rural Network started in the reverse way from normal publications. It was started by an advertiser, Dow Agrochemicals (though the site now also has other sponsors). It was their idea was to launch the online platform, and they approached me to contribute editorials. The original idea was agricultural news, but that’s a difficult and expensive commodity. I suggested the blog. I thought that the blog could attract interest and it’s proved to be the case.

Dow is looking at interactivity and what it could bring them. None of the rural papers here have gotten into interactivity. They just put print stories up online. They go as far as putting up polls, but they’re not managed as blogs. Dow thought they’d set up their own site and get the whole rural community around them.

OJR: Was the site meant for readers to discuss Dow’s products?

Stevenson: No, it’s not, although people can and do ask questions about persistent weeds and how to deal with them. It’s more like if Dow created the community online, then they’d be associated with us – just like any other publication with advertisements around editorials. They also wanted a range of other sponsors. I think over time the site will draw more people to it — it’s still in the early days of proving itself. Already two other companies have come on board. It also comes down to when companies spend their budgets. Sponsoring the site might come into discussion in their next budget round.

It’s openly disclosed on the site that Dow is a sponsor. If a blog is going to be successful for a long time, I think it has to have a financial underpinning. But with somebody putting in money, there are issues of editorial independence. The thing I did right from the beginning was to set up some very simple editorial guidelines. I gave them to the sponsor and said, these are the conditions under which I will work for you. They were open to it. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to second guess them. I needed the freedom to do what I think would be successful.

OJR: How often do you blog?

Stevenson: Monday through Friday, at least once a day. Sometimes more. We don’t get a lot of weekend traffic but I do keep an eye on the comments over the weekend.

I spend about half my time now looking at the blog and doing things associated with it. The rest of the time I work as a freelance journalist or supporting other freelance journalists.

My freelance colleague Kim Griggs and I have a site called Freelance Market, and we organize an annual freelancer’s conference that’s New Zealand’s biggest gathering of journalists (around 200 people each year). We hate the idea of people working for nothing for publications. A lot of freelancers want to do that to get clips, but every time they work for nothing, they undercut someone else. We’d much rather they blog to build an online CV.

OJR: Has Rural Network caught on?

Stevenson: We’ve achieved in the first six months what we’d hoped to achieve in a year. People have to register on the site to take part, but many more people visit than are registered. A lot of rural people are on dial-up connections and we knew it’d be difficult for them. We’re trying to make sure that the site improves. We don’t think we have the ideal format yet.

With my experience, I can sometimes tell what works and what doesn’t. But there’s really no secret to getting traffic. It’s controversy. Blogging is the same as journalism: Get a good story, reveal it to people, and you’ll attract interest. Just in the last two weeks, we’ve had two angles on the topic of fertilizer companies. It’s a very hot topic. A company selling snake oil as fertilizer was sued under the Fair Trading Act and found guilty for misrepresenting their product. But there are people who believe fervently in this product. They had a lot to say in the New Zealand version of 60 Minutes. I blogged about the program and condemned it. The expert witness on the case is a soil scientist who also blogs on the site, so he was already attracting attention. He has very strong opinions. One particular week during this debate was the best week for us.

OJR: Do you interact with the readers?

Stevenson: I do interact on the comments. If I feel that responses are needed, then I go in and comment. First, I do it because it’s nice that people who comment aren’t ignored. If something’s erroneous to me then I also feel duty bound to add the proper side or my side. Also if I see a comment that’s been made about somebody, then I will make sure that he’s aware of it so he can comment as well. I find that one of the ways to get things known is not to expect people to find the blog all the time but to email them and alert them if a comment has been made that’s related to them.

I think about who would be interested, who might comment, and I send them a couple lines to the blog. I agree with Glen Justice, one of the people who commented on OJR [“Why journalists make ideal online community leaders“] that it is almost a matter of appealing to people one by one.

OJR: Which issues get the most reactions?

Stevenson: There’s a very strong agricultural science body in New Zealand, and we’ve had a lot of scientists debating things, especially as related to fertilizers. There’s quite a bit of debate on climate change between some of the local scientists on the IPCC. When I get comments, they’re usually very lengthy. Sometimes I say to the writers: Don’t just comment, send me a blog. There’s a good response to that as well.

OJR: What hasn’t worked on the site?

Stevenson: I’ve tried a lot of things to see what would catch people – things ranging from getting kids to blog to sports. I’ve asked people to give their feedback on crime or family issues. The softer things don’t seem to have worked. They might work over the long term when there are more people on board.

We don’t have a general news feed on the site – just the latest rural and agricultural stories. I don’t even feel that we have to tackle all the rural news issues. It’s enough to tackle a few of them. I am a journo-blogger, not just a blogger, so I look for my own stories to do, too. I look to mainstream media for stories to comment on, but I also look for my own stories and invite guest bloggers to come up. The blog’s targeted to the rural reader, but it’s not technical. I don’t want to narrow it down. I’m trying to have a broad appeal.

OJR: What is your vision for Rural Network?

Stevenson: I’d like to see a large discussion going. What I’ve always said to the readership is that this is a 24/7 forum. You don’t have to wait until you go to town or to a once-a-year conference. People on farms by definition are isolated. They don’t get to town all the time. Rural Network is an ideal forum for them – a chance to express themselves and have a conversation any time they want. It’s a real breakthrough for rural people.

I’ve been an agricultural journalist now for 30 years. I’m well aware that there isn’t enough discussion on the important issues. The discussions that take place are hijacked by the most powerful or the most verbal or the ones with money. I watched people going to conferences boiling over with frustration because they haven’t been able express their views. There are huge pressures on farmers. This site is a safety valve. We can discuss important issues and not be dominated by the most powerful.

We had a lively debate about methane, New Zealand’s biggest contribution to greenhouse gases. Farmers have to trade carbon emissions because of the methane coming out of their cows and sheep, but we say that our farming is cleaner and greener. About 80% of our farm production is exported. Because animals are kept outside all year, we don’t have industrialized farms. There’s huge amounts of interest in climate change. People are debating: Is it happening? What’s the effect on agriculture? Will the north of New Zealand go from subtropical to tropical?

Dairy is New Zealand’s biggest industry, accounting for 20% of our export earnings. Most of the production comes from one company. Every year they have one annual meeting. So you only have one opportunity a year to stand up and express all the issues you may be concerned about. You’ve got to worry not just about your livelihood but the livelihood of the industry. Wool is another major industry, but as an economic unit, it’s on its last legs. There are huge issues there that people need to debate.

Because I’ve been around long enough, I know so many people. Hopefully I can get to the person right at the top and say, you need to respond to this. This is an important issue. I think given enough time, this is what the goal of the blog would be. I guess I have big ambitions for it.