From AJR, November 1999 issue
Navigating a Minefield
There are pitfalls aplenty in today's fast-paced, internet-driven media landscape. That makes maintaining basic standards more important than ever.
By Michael Oreskes
Michael Oreskes is an assistant managing editor of the New York Times.
T HIS IS AN UNSETTLING time for journalists, to put it mildly. Two quite distinct, and large, developments in our society have converged, to borrow that popular phrase of the moment, to create a crisis and a challenge for our craft.
The first, of course, is the rise of digital communications, which at a minimum will transform the techniques for distributing our work. The second, which actually began first, is the fall of our standing with the public.
To some on the cutting edge of cyber-enabled culture, the solution to the second problem, the lack of faith in journalistic institutions, is to leave them behind and use the power of digital communications to let everyone be their own editor. That is basically silly, and not just because it would put me out of a job. If everyone is a journalist, surfing the Web for government documents and mid-level officials to tell them the truth, who will have time to be a doctor, a mechanic or a software designer?
But as with many bad ideas, there is an important bit of truth here (in the old-fashioned meaning of bit). Journalism's twin challenges are very much connected. To persuade readers to stick with us in the electronic age, we have to reassert our basic value to them and to the society we are all a part of. That value is something a lot of people express doubts about these days.
Bruce W. Sanford, a Washington lawyer, has written a new book titled "Don't Shoot the Messenger: How Our Growing Hatred of the Media Threatens Free Speech for All of Us." Just as the Internet is challenging the business underpinnings of our profession, public antipathy is shaking society's support for what we do.
That's the rough reality we face these days. It is why some people even in our own business think we are dinosaurs, doomed to oblivion. (Personally, I prefer the Titanic metaphor, as I will explain later.) The dinosaurs died because they didn't have time to reinvent themselves after that asteroid hit. We do. But we have to make the right changes. I have become convinced that the best approach for journalists to the challenge of public criticism and to the changes being wrought by the Internet lies in the same principle: Now is the moment to reassert our highest standards. The news organizations that do the best job of making it clear they have something reliable, useful and special to tell people will be in the best position to draw a crowd, online and off.
Yes, the Internet is different, and there are many new skills journalists will need to learn, from linking texts to streaming video. Those skills will be necessary but not sufficient to secure success. Bells and whistles may catch a reader's eye. But substance at the core will keep them returning. For success we need to look back as well as forward, because standards, not just skills, will make the difference. Standards are not about new technology; they are about basic rules and values.
To steady our footing as journalists in the electronic future, we should establish and then explain--both to ourselves and to the public--why we do the things we do. What are our central values? And what are just familiar and comfortable practices that could be shed or changed without compromising our basic standards?
Inside the profession, finding clear answers to these questions will guide each of us through the transition ahead, where it will be important to defend what matters, while reinventing what can be changed. Outside the profession, being able to give clear answers will help rebuild our credibility and the sense that we serve a vital purpose.
This is a time of considerable confusion for journalism as a profession and news as a business. That means it is also a time that calls for clearheaded and careful thinking about what we are and what role we hope to play. We have to be able to move fast in the digital world, but that does not mean we should rush to judgment about how to fit in. Calm under pressure is something journalists are supposed to be good at, although admittedly our track record from O.J. to Diana did not always show us off to best advantage.
Let me give you one example of how confusing the thinking can be these days. I was reading a quote from Lisa Allen, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc., in the business section of the New York Times, my employer. "Online publishing," she was quoted as saying, "blends content and commerce increasingly as if the old lines between editorial and advertising are disappearing."
I found this disconcerting, to say the least. I sought reassurance from some of the New York Times Co.'s top executives. They disagreed with Allen, they assured me.
Comforted to a degree, I sought out Allen (by e-mail). She sent me the full report she had based her remarks on. The Forrester folks, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are analysts of Internet companies and issues. This particular report was titled "The Content-Commerce Collision." My stomach began to knot up again. The report's first sentence said, "The Internet is destroying the classic divide between media and commerce." One of journalism's most basic values was being dismissed in a flash, I thought, as I read, "Forrester believes that the Net is destroying the distinction between media and commerce--advertising and transactions--and creating a single hybrid business model." So there it was, maybe not the end of history. But surely the end of journalism. But I read on. After all, what else was there for me to do with all this time on my hands as my career skidded to an end?
"Two thirds of content sites we interviewed are feeling the heat from investors or upper management to generate transaction revenue," the report said. I set aside my queasiness about the ubiquitous use of the word content and tried to focus on the big picture. Advertising, the report explained, which had sustained the newspapers I had worked at for 25 years while being kept at arm's length from the work I did, was morphing on the Internet into direct marketing and selling within publications. "Content and commerce are really just parts of the same customer marketing cycle," the report explained. "Commerce networks will attract eyeballs with content to serve as a springboard for the commerce transaction."
I was so depressed I got out my tape of "The Front Page" and sat watching the good old days flash before my eyes. But I picked up the report and read on. I came to a section called "trust."
"While many consumers have come to accept the perils of contextual merchandising, commerce networks cannot abuse public trust by mixing content and marketing too directly...winning sites must also make sure that marketers have no knowledge of editorial or influence on the selection or spin of stories." Suddenly, the core value that was seemingly killed off in the first part of the report was being revived in the second. Substitute the word marketer for advertiser and I was right at home with the pressures and values of the new world. After all, making sure that news is insulated from business pressures is one of the basic responsibilities of a journalist.
"Saying that commerce has become an integral part of the medium isn't the same as saying that there isn't, or shouldn't be, a clear distinction between what's editorial and what's commercial," says my friend, Richard Mieslin, the editor of the New York Times on the Web and an outstanding journalist of long standing.
What the Forrester report was saying, by the time you got through it, was that preserving the distinction between editorial and commercial was going to be as vital in the online world as it has been in the off-line world, maybe more so. But it is a subtle point, one that will demand constant vigilance from journalists, one that even Allen did not fully grasp in her initial quote to the New York Times. Or maybe she just hadn't read the entire report.
It said: "Content-commerce mergers will not cast aside the traditional church/state separation between editorial and commerce. Forrester believes the opposite: Consumers themselves will demand that the wall stay in place."
The report recalled the backlash Amazon.com had faced when customers learned (in the New York Times) that publishers were paying to have their books placed on the site's recommended list. Customers were outraged, and Amazon stopped the practice and offered refunds. "Faced with the threat of a negative viral marketing campaign, leading sites will move quickly to stem even the smallest hint of advertorial bias--as Amazon did recently."
Talk about burying the lead! Two professions were merging into one, Forrester was predicting. But they are advertising and marketing, not journalism and either of the others. Editorial independence was still vital! I turned off "The Front Page" and hustled to work.
A YEAR AGO, I was asked to give a talk to a group of New York Times executives on what it is like to run the Washington bureau these days. I spoke, of course, about the ways the Internet was already changing things. I predicted then, and the Forrester report further dramatizes, that the business challenges the Internet poses to news organizations will prove to be the most difficult. But the journalistic challenges, which of course cannot be completely separated, are very real and threatening, too. I said then that a key role of the journalist has always been to preserve standards under the continuous and inevitable pressures for compromise--whether they are commercial pressures, logistical pressures, or deadline, social or political pressures.
Pressures are often greatest at times of change, and so it follows that times of change are when standards matter most. That above all is why I began talking in that speech about how important I thought it was to define and articulate our standards.
That is not an easy task. For one thing, we have always, rightly, resisted getting into conversations about who is a journalist. The cyber folks have this right. Anyone can be a journalist. The Internet did not invent that, although it vastly increases the potential reach of the individual voice, journalistic or otherwise. Thomas Paine and I.F. Stone would have killed for a Web site.
To me, a journalist is anyone who gathers information and distributes it, by any technique, while adhering to journalistic standards of trying to ensure the integrity and reliability of the information disseminated. That makes journalists very different from many seemingly similar entertainment and communication trades that are properly protected by the First Amendment but are not journalism. To put it as bluntly as I know how, Matt Drudge and I are not in the same profession.
It is becoming increasingly clear that in an age of information, journalists will be more necessary, not less. Facts are not knowledge. Homer Bigart, the best reporter many of us ever knew, used to say that an editor's job was to separate the wheat from the chaff, and then print the chaff. During his years as one of the finest correspondents in America--at the New York Herald Tribune and New York Times--Homer earned the right to that little newsroom dig. I think things sometimes turn out better than his quip suggests, but basically he had the mission right. The more glutted we are with information, the more vital will be the role of those who help us sort through it.
Linda Greenhouse has been covering the Supreme Court for the New York Times for nearly 20 years. When she started, only a handful of other people had an opportunity to read the court's decisions before her reports on them were distributed in the next morning's newspaper. Now, anyone anywhere in the world with access to the Internet can read the decisions before Linda can get her story written. Many lawyers do. I have not heard anyone suggest her work is less valuable today than it was 20 years ago. The context, perspective and judgment she brings add value, as the business folks like to say.
Indeed, Linda provides a small but nifty example of how the electronic revolution creates the need to rethink journalistic standards and, in this case, the opportunity to raise them. Linda now insists that anyone who wants to comment on a decision she is writing about must have read the decision before she will interview them. She will be happy to give you the court's Web address.
I HAVE SOME STRONG views about what journalistic standards should be. But I am going to resist the temptation to press for my particular rules and standards. My friends and colleagues know what an act of restraint that is for me. But I have a reason. My argument is that we must define standards and express them clearly for our own good and to reestablish ourselves in proper society. I don't want that idea, right or wrong, to get caught up in an argument about what I think those standards should be.
In that speech last year I described how I believed we had come through the Monica Lewinsky saga in the Washington bureau of the Times by adhering to some straightforward and clearly articulated standards. One of them, I said, was that stories should have at least two separate sources that were independent of each other. I think that protected us from a number of mistakes that other good news organizations made (by taking as confirmation what were actually only rumors sources were telling each other).
But after I said this, a colleague, a very respected journalist with a Pulitzer Prize to his credit, told me he thought my view was too rigid. We can debate that another time. Good journalists will disagree on details. But we cannot get to those debates unless we agree on the basic proposition that times of change are when standards matter most.
Since I began saying this to people around the country in various walks of life, I began to realize that what I was saying from my experience as a journalist was quite similar to the conclusions that others were arriving at from other directions. "Although we have been going through a Wild West period in the communications arena in recent years, we are now entering a time in which new commercial, cultural, social and institutional norms will begin to be established for the long term," writes Zoe Baird, president of the Markle Foundation, a not-for-profit philanthropy focusing on the media. "This is a period of definition for the communications industry and its influence on society at large. The decisions made today will have lasting impact."
She's right. And we should take it as our responsibility to try to shape those decisions for the good of our profession, which I believe is also for the good of society.
Everywhere you turn these days, you can see people giving a second, deeper look to how they need to operate to succeed on the Internet. I met in San Francisco last spring with a group of executives from Charles Schwab, one of the pioneers in online brokerage. As I described my conclusion that standards mattered more and more in the digital world, there was a moment of recognition. After first embarking on the theory that speed and low cost were the heart of winning business in digital trading, they had come to realize their online customers wanted more--more service, more information, more reliability. Their other customers, of course, wanted the lower prices. "Clicks and Mortar" was the way David Pottruck, co-CEO of Schwab, summed it up. The best of the old world and the new.
A young lawyer named Andrew L. Shapiro has written a valuable book, "The Control Revolution," on the challenges posed to society by the transition to the digital age. His focus is the proper role for law and government on the Internet. The Web will change society, probably a lot. But it does not follow, Shapiro writes, that we should therefore simply scrap all the laws and practices previously adopted to deal with everything from pornography to elections.
You cannot simply apply old rules, adopted in the age of television, or telephones or telegraphs or sailing ships, to the new world. But you can't just scrap all human experience, either.
What Shapiro recommends is something he calls principles in context. What he means is that society needs to identify the basic principles that have been accepted in a given area and then figure out how to apply them in the new context of the Internet.
Here is a small example of how I see that kind of thinking applied to journalism. Letters to the editor are a fixture of newspapers. Chat rooms are a fixture of cyberspace. While they are not identical, they fill similar niches. Yet, many newspaper chat rooms easily tolerate something that few letters' editors would consider: anonymity. But why? Because it is the culture of the Internet, some online editors tell me. But whose culture? We as journalists have as much right as anyone to say what we think is or is not acceptable online, particularly on our own sites. The standard good enough for letters to the editor is good enough for journalism chat rooms, too.
B UT I AM STARTING to drift into what I said I would not do: urging specific standards to define journalism. We should all join that debate. Indeed, a colleague I respect greatly told me he thinks chat rooms should not be thought of as electronic letters pages but more like town meetings, where making people name themselves would be superfluous and probably impossible. I don't agree, but pick your analogy and argue away. While you do that, let me address some broader topics that relate to standards.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing about how the speed of the Internet puts pressure on journalists, causing them to make more mistakes. I have even heard some good journalists say things like "the Internet is about speed, not accuracy." I think this is a mistake in two different respects.
First, competition is nothing new to journalists and neither is the need to work at high speed. The title of the 1957 history of the United Press was, after all, "A Deadline Every Minute." One obvious element of my definition of a journalist is someone able to produce reliable work under the pressure of time. We all understand this is a rough first draft of history. An editor's reach must exceed his grasp, or what good is a second edition? But we must not lose sight of the long-cherished idea that deadlines are not an excuse for our imperfections.
Long before the Internet, the basic guideline of the old International News Service was get it first, but first get it right. A motto worth remembering in this new age, a motto that would have protected some of our newspaper colleagues from well-known blunders in which they rushed onto the Internet with stories they later had to retract in whole or part. A Web site doesn't change a simple editing rule: You shouldn't run something before you know it's true.
TV and radio journalists, and our colleagues at the wire services, have lived with live news for many years, but many newspaper people have gone a little soft on working quickly. In many ways, we are returning to something our predecessors in the age of multi-newspaper towns knew how to do well. The Washington Post made this point explicitly in September when it introduced the midday update of its Web site, which it calls PM Extra and compares to the great tradition of afternoon newspapering. The Post's approach won it a swipe from Editor & Publisher, that "bible" of the old media, which said its hearkening back to afternoon papers showed the Post just didn't get that the Internet was a new medium with no deadlines at all.
Sure the medium is new. But that doesn't mean all history and every lesson we ever learned is now useless.
The "continuous news desk" that the Times has established in our newsroom and in the Washington bureau to update our electronic edition resembles nothing so much as the rewrite bank that I knew well, and was even a proud junior member of, when I worked years ago at the New York Daily News. (That was during the Summer of Sam, by the way, when under intense pressure of time my prose ran to phrases like: "the crazed but calculating killer who stalked New York by night"). So we are learning to do what we once knew how to do: write and distribute reports quickly. That should not be a challenge to our basic standards.
But there is a second reason why we need to get comfortable with reintegra-ting quick work into the profession. Yes, the Internet is about speed. But it is also about depth and reach and an amazing ability to speak individually to people. Right now, the people who use the Internet are more likely to be men than women, white than black, rich than poor and, perhaps most significant, at the office rather than at home.
The quick update seems to be what this audience right now wants. But what happens when and if the Internet is as commonplace as the television? The truth is, nobody knows.
So as journalists, the task ahead is to get moving on our update desks and then get ready for what are likely to be even bigger changes ahead.
But if you listened to a lot of newspaper journalists these days, you would think they were just passengers on The Royal Mail Ship Titanic, soon to vanish into the unforgiving technological seas of the future. They are correct to think that the story of the Titanic, one of the most instructive sagas of our soon-to-depart century, is relevant to us. But they have the moral of the story all wrong. Those who don't study history are doomed to not see they are repeating it.
Remember, when she sailed from England in April 1912, RMS Titanic was the technological marvel of her age. Bigger, faster, more powerful than anything that had come before. She would make the world a smaller place, her owners said, and they pushed the captain to demonstrate her speed on her maiden voyage. But when she ran into that iceberg, she left us with an important lesson: No matter how revolutionary your technology, the difference between progress and disaster is setting the right course and speed. Having the right person at the helm matters still.
Like our forebears at the beginning of the century, we at its close are living through a remarkable moment of technological change. A lot of things are going to be different. But nobody really knows yet exactly how different.
The impact of the Internet on society is bigger by far than just the future of journalism. But I am a journalist, and this is a magazine about journalism. We are professionals and we are citizens.
In both roles, we have a responsibility to be a part of the debate about change. That is, by the way, a debate that is really only beginning to get started. We have just come through a period of extravagant claims (newspapers could be dead in three years!) in which it sometimes seemed the only possible positions were to be for or against entering the digital age. One thing about being a journalist: You learn the importance of knowing the right question to ask. "Do you want to enter the digital age?" sure isn't it. We are in it.
The question is, what kind of age will it be, and can we use our skills and standards to help shape it?