November 30, 2000
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.
A conversation about the current state of digital journalism.
How have traditional newspapers been affected by the World Wide
Web? How are new media being exploited by traditional newspapers?
How are journals born on the Web differentiating themselves
from their counterparts with roots in the print medium? What
is known about the audiences for on-line newspapers? Is the
content and even the mission of on-line journalism different
from that of older media? What are the future prospects for
journalism in cyberspace?
Steven Johnson is co-founder and editor in chief
of the online magazine FEED,
and author of Interface Culture:How New Technology Transforms
The Way We Create and Communicate (1997). His work has appeared
in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Lingua
Franca, Harper's and Brill's Content. Johnson is
currently working on Emergence, a book exploring the
self-organizing behavior in cities, brains, software and media,
to be published in 2001.
Rich Meislin is editor in chief of New York Times Digital
where he oversees The New
York Times on the Web and New
York Today, and coordinates The Times' digital
operations and the newspaper's newsroom. He joined The Times
in 1975 and spent a decade as a reporter, foreign correspondent
and bureau chief, and then developed and served as head of The
Times' news graphics department. Meislin also served as
senior editor for information and technology at The Times,
planning the paper's online presence and coordinating the introduction
of electronic page layout and color production in the newsroom.
MEISLIN, New York Times Digital: The New York
Times newsroom is a pretty amazing institution.
Every day it coordinates the work of something like
1,100 reporters, editors, photographers, artists, clerical
personnel and general hangers-on and produces a compact,
well-organized, beautifully designed, instantly navigable
portable disposable news device. Then it starts all
over again and does it the next day as well.
think that our website
is an increasingly impressive extension of that pretty
amazing institution. We can take a newspaper report and
update it to reflect changes up to a moment ago; we can
amplify the report each day with additional photography,
which makes our photo staff happy. We can add audio or
video; we can link stories to pertinent background information;
we connect readers who want to talk about the news with
each other; and we can make available years of New
York Times archives for readers to explore on their
clearly not the only people doing this; we are part
of a much larger trend among the major media organizations.
The Washington Post does a remake of its site every afternoon called PM Extra. This seems to me slightly misguided because this practice
confines the online Post to a newspaper model,
to publishing separate editions instead of recognizing
that the web permits continual updating throughout the
protracted presidential election is turning out to be
the breaker of all records on our website. On Election
Day we served nine million page views to readers. That’s
about 50 percent higher than our normal audience. Think
of what the web has to offer in a situation like that.
Dan Rather’s talking about Missouri and you want
to know about Tennessee. On the web, you can see Tennessee.
It’s the kind of instant news gratification you
couldn’t get before the web existed.
change involves taking projects initially created for
print and putting them online. Probably the most successful
collaboration we’ve done with the newspaper is
the series dated earlier this year called “How
Racism Is Lived in America.” It was surprising
to us how many people came to read this online even
though these pieces were from 6,000 to 9,000 words long.
The idea of reading it on your screen, much less your
cell phone, seemed terribly daunting, but people did.
I’d like to show you a couple of things that were
done as part of that series.
the website at www.nytimes.com/library/national/race/magnolia
web version of the story remarkably extends and enlarges
the newspaper version because it involves so many different
media. In addition to a range of compelling photographs,
the web story about the Magnolia Plantation in Louisiana
included quick-time video, maps, human voices, and even
in-depth tours of this historic site. It communicated
and enhanced the impact of the story in ways print alone
could not have done.
JOHNSON, Feed Magazine: I am going to give
you a sneak preview of our new logo at Feed magazine.
the website at www.feedmag.com.
started Feed with Stephanie Simon. We were both
journalists writing about culture and technology: she
for The Wall Street Journal, and I for the London
Guardian and other publications.
launched in May of 1995, aiming to experiment with this
new media form. We thought the web would enable us to
do some new and amazing things that you couldn’t
do in print.
see a paradox in the evolution of the web, which has both
fulfilled but also confounded our expectations about interactivity.
I think that in a strange way the web has become
much more interactive, and, in another sense, much less
so. It is much more interactive at a collective level
in terms of groups of readers or users. And it is much less interactive than most of
predicted at an individual level. The best way to think
about this is to look at the history of hypertext.
exploded into the popular consciousness in a way we
couldn’t have imagined. In the space of five years,
we have gone from having to explain to almost everybody
how to follow a link and what a link is to the point
that now my 84-year-old grandmother is surfing the web.
She’s following links on a digital page and navigating
through virtual information spaces using hypertext.
Nobody could have predicted it would happen that quickly
and be adapted with such speed and penetration.
the website at www.slashdot.org.
many of you are familiar with Slashdot? It’s a news source
and community devoted to the open-source software movement.
Its audience is a technologically sophisticated one,
which is an important part of the story. Slashdot covers new technology consumer products, anything related
to open-source software, anything related to Linux,
but also the sciences. It has an eclectic mix of material,
but a mix that is immediately recognizable to anybody
who is a member of the community. It’s precisely
those kinds of interests that define this community.
is what I call in my book a parasite because its content
in the traditional sense resides on other people’s
servers. It’s a log of interesting stories that
have appeared elsewhere; stories that professional editors
and writers have produced for pay. Users come to Slashdot,
leave Slashdot to read a story elsewhere, and then return to Slashdot to talk about it with their fellow community members.
is a truly different model of how you get your news.
We think this kind of interaction is going to become
as mainstream as interacting with hypertext has become
over the last five years. In fact, in five years we
may think of ourselves as belonging to communities like
Slashdot more than we think of ourselves as consumers
of large media brands. We will belong to our little
cluster of like-minded people, and we will go around
in groups filtering the web, interacting with each other,
and sampling from many different sources. The primary
unit there will be that cluster of like-minded people.
And that trend starts on the web because the web is
the best place to do it.
REGAN, Christian Science Monitor:
My sense is that among traditional media companies there
is great fear about organizations like Slashdot.
There’s this thought that somehow something’s
more valid if it is in analog form rather than digital.
If it appears on the web, people ask, “Is it news?
Is it journalism?” How will this evolve in the
People come to a news experience with different expectations
and I think one of the wonderful things about the web
is that we can serve a lot of them simultaneously. There
will always be an audience – at least I hope there
will always be an audience – that thinks there
is some value to the judgment of the editors of The
New York Times. At the same time, it doesn’t
offend me one bit to think that people may have alternative
ways of looking at the news. If The New York Times
is the base from which they work, and they want to provide
news judgment of their own as to what’s important
to them or their community of like-minded readers, that’s
We got interested in the Slashdot model initially
because we were interested in how much traffic they
were sending our way. We’re not a traditional
news organization the way The New York Times is, but we’re closer to The New York Times than we are to Slashdot right now. We do professionally
edited pieces that are not contributed by our users,
and we have a division between the user-commentary area
and the stuff that goes on the main stage even if we
may be blurring that distinction in the months to come.
So we started looking at them because they were driving
so much traffic to us, and we said, “they’re
doing something really interesting and it looks like
it’s really cheap to do,” which was also
appealing. I think the two models not only can exist
together but also need to exist together. Without the
big news organizations creating stories for audience-centric
sites to link to, those sites would just be a bunch
of Unix programmers talking to each other.
WEIGEL, Comparative Media Studies (CMS): Rich, you mentioned
offering subscriptions to the print version on your website.
Has general circulation gone up? You also said the website isn’t
generating revenue, so how is it being paid for?
We’re generating revenues – we’re just generating
How is it paid for?
Well, it is a division of The New York Times Company, which
is covering the difference between the revenues and expenses
from its considerable profits. This is considered an investment
in The New York Times’ future, and they’ve
quite literally put their money where there mouth is.
for your first question, New York Times subscribers are
increasing, for which we are thankful. A lot of other major
newspapers in the U.S. have suffered small-to-moderate circulation
losses over the last couple of years. Meanwhile, our website,
which puts up the unique barrier of having all users register
before they can use it, has approached or exceeded 14 million
users in the five years since we’ve been in existence.
That’s almost double over last year.
Rich, I just wonder why you have chosen not to charge for access
to your website? I know The Wall Street Journal has done
that quite successfully. Why don’t you do that at The
New York Times? Also, do you see other revenue models for
news on the web other than advertising?
Fortunately, my involvement in the business side is reasonably
minimal. But I do know at least part of the answer to your question.
We experimented briefly with charging international customers
only. The philosophical basis of that was that if you live in
a place where The New York Times does not reach you,
then a subscription would be of as much value to you as to a
home delivery subscriber. Fewer than 10,000 people believed
that philosophy. In the week that we stopped charging for access,
we got more than 10,000 online subscriptions. International
subscribers are now 15 percent of our audience.
you have to decide whether charging brings the audience level
down to where your advertising base is too small to support
you. We will never be Yahoo; we are not going to reach
audiences of that magnitude. In a way, The New York Times is a niche product because there is no mass audience for the kind of information
it provides. On the other hand, it has an extremely desirable
audience for advertisers, so we get considerably higher advertising
revenues per thousand views than a site such as Yahoo. Somehow or other, that math has to be made to work.
there other ways to make money? Yes, we hope there are. We are
looking at special services on our site for which people are
willing to pay. People are already paying for our archive services,
and that’s not a small amount of money. We are looking
for alternatives, but it’s not easy to find them. There’s
nobody out there who’s come up with the magic bullet,
as anybody running a news site will tell you, other than having
a rich corporate parent.
THORBURN, Communications Forum director: One theme both
of you have touched on has to do with what I’ll call the
myth of a new technology displacing or entirely replacing an
older one. You both described something more complicated: the
emergence of hybrid formats that combine old and new technologies.
One simple but also powerful instance of this partnership between
the achievements of print technology and cyberspace is visible
in the book reviews in the Times on the Web. When you
read a review of a current novel in the Cyber Times,
you have access to all previous Times reviews of that
author and often such ancillary matter as recordings of the
writer's voice from public readings or Times articles
by or about your chosen author. A single review, then, may ramify
widely and deeply.
you give additional examples of how the partnership between
old and new media is yielding new forms or possibilities?
One example is how NBC does a particularly deft job of promoting
people from the television to the web. In our case, newspapers
don’t push traffic to the web the instantaneous way television
does. But, we do have writers who are stars in their fields,
and the ability to collect information over time. You mentioned
one of those collections, the book review collection that is
on the web. We plan on doing the same thing with our recipes
and other information collections. You’ll be seeing that
in the months ahead.
From a personal perspective, I spend a lot of time at home
watching television and surfing the web at the same time. I
have a wireless network in the apartment, and I’ll be
sitting there watching television with my wife and we’ll
say, “What was that?” and I’ll pop open my
laptop and look it up. In my office, I am often taking in simultaneous
streams of information on the same subject. You can keep the
television stream going in the background and still read intently
on your computer screen.
multiprocessing idea that was more of a metaphor 10 years ago
about our post-modern, schizophrenic state is really becoming
true in terms of people doing this. I don’t think this
has been fully recognized in terms of how the media deal with
it. MTV has been out front of this doing relatively inane things,
but recognizing nonetheless that their viewers are online and
watching television at the same time.
CHAN, CMS: I really liked your comment about the relationship
between Slashdot and older forms of media: that it is
a sort of a parasitic relationship. I did a project on Slashdot
and spoke with the two editors of the site, and they really
want to distinguish their site as not being a news site. “We
generate commentary, we collectivize this community, but reporting
is not our shtick.” What are the ways traditional media
are reacting to or incorporating this community-based model
of forums and conversations?
Once you start getting into the question of the community actually
creating the content rather than just responding to content,
I think there’s a big gap between traditional news journalism
and what we call service journalism. Traditional news journalism
is going down to Tallahassee or going to the Supreme Court and
reporting on what’s going on. Well, web-based communities
don’t do a very good job of that and The New York Times
will always do a better job of it, and there will always be
a need for that.
is a lot of room for the growth of community-based content in
service journalism – where the information is not so much
breaking news, but rather information about some product. Under
this service model, you can lean on large distributed bodies
of people who are not on your payroll to provide useful information,
often more useful information than that provided by official
That’s one aspect of it, the creation of communities.
Another is the value of communities in providing a secondary
filter for information. We present The New York Times
every day, and different people read it in different ways. One
of the things I’ve wanted to do is to recruit people who
are interesting – who think in interesting ways –
and track their movements around the site and then tell people
this is how so-and-so read The New York Times on the
Web this morning. I would love to have someone I trust pre-read
The New York Times for me every morning because there’s
too damn much information every day.
something we can do on the web that the newspaper can’t
possibly do because it has to happen in real time to have any
value. I am totally open to that kind of stuff, it’s terrific.
When the web first started, people said newspapers are dead
because readers will go to the direct source of the news. But
no one wants to spend that much time gathering information every
day. There is a value to people who can filter information for
you, and until free communities get as good at that as the skilled
and well-paid editors of The New York Times, they’re
not going to replace The Times.
Interactivity is one of the buzzwords around technology, but
it doesn’t take place between writers and their audience.
Some sites provide e-mail addresses for their reporters, some
don’t. Do you think that in the future being a journalist
will mean constant interaction with the people who read your
material, and is that a good or bad thing? Or, will the firewall
that now exists continue to be left up?
We talk about this all the time. The policy is that our writers
can make their e-mail addresses public voluntarily. Those people
suffer the torments of e-mail hell because every activist group
in the world sends them tons of Spam every day. I’m on
the list. I get literally 300 pieces of email on an average
day, of which one-third is garbage that results from me being
on that list, but I think it is important for me to be there.
the other hand, if you are a reporter and you have a life and
a hard job and you think your responsibility is to do that job,
then you might not give out your e-mail address. I can understand
that. If we could control it so that if you made your e-mail
address public and the bulk of what you get is valuable communication,
then most people would be for it, but I don’t think the
technology has gotten to that point.
Well, we don’t put it into the contract, but we positively
evaluate a writer’s willingness to participate in the
follow-up discussions in what we call The Loop, the community
area at Feed.
SPITZ, CMS: Steve, can you elaborate on why this decentered
news model we’re talking about is a powerful thing and
why, in your opinion, it works best in the service arena?
Well, when I say it works best, I mean it’s a more economical
way to generate quality information. Another side of it is that
there’s so much more breadth. If you open up your discussion
forums and you have a million people coming to your site and
you say, “Talk about whatever you want related to home
electronics,” they will cover almost everything. This
is the philosophy of open-source software development –
it’s no accident it shows up at Slashdot. If you
have enough people looking at a problem they don’t all
have to be geniuses, they just have to be pretty smart, and
collectively their intelligence will be much greater than that
of a traditionally engineered project run by a small team.
Powerful strikes me as a term with political resonance.
The politics of it is fascinating. This is what my new book
is about, so I’ve been wrestling with this a lot. From
one angle, you can say this is kind of a grassroots struggle;
it looks like traditional lefty politics, very much on the ground. But, on the other hand, it’s a distributed system and
looks a little bit like the libertarian idea of how ideal markets
some of the anti-WTO, Seattle-kind-of protestors have started
talking about a sort of decentralized political organization
as a way to build a movement and avoid the problems that the
Left has had in the past with too much centralization. We’re
just at the beginning of thinking about these things, but it
will be interesting to see where they lead.
Rich, it strikes me that the most important thing at the
newspaper is its talent. So, how do you keep the top talent
writing for the digital version, or do they all want to fly
to the newspaper as soon as they can?
We put the news operation for the website in The New
York Times newsroom and hired people as New York Times
reporters. They are subcontracted to us and we are their only
clients, but they are on the payroll of The New York Times
and are hired to the standards of a New York Times reporter.
HOPPER, CMS: Is there a difference in the perception of
the reporters when their work appears in the digital version
versus the print version in terms of how they feel about the
legitimacy of their work?
I think the web is less and less regarded as a second-class
citizen. As reporters realize their exposure on the website
is the same as or, in some cases, greater than their exposure
in the newspaper, and as they realize they are getting credit
for being first on the web with a story, it helps reinforce
the web’s legitimacy.
I would say my career as a journalist has been as webcentric
as any, but when my writing shows up on The Times op-ed
page, I am not printing out the page from the digital version
– sad to say, Rich. The one I like to see is the one in
the newspaper, so there is still that kind of edge to it.
There seems to be a widespread belief that writing on the
web must be short, that readers won’t sit still for long
pieces. I’ve noticed that some Times stories are
longer in the print version. Rich, is this a common practice?
The people who do breaking
news for us tend to write somewhat shorter, if for no other
reason than we expect them to respond quickly to the news. We
also figure that people who are coming online for updates expect
just that, and are willing to wait for a more fully fleshed
stories from The New York Times newspaper are the same
length on the web as they are in the newspaper, and occasionally
longer if an otherwise worthy story is cut back in the paper
simply for space reasons. Also, keep in mind there’s considerable
web viewership each week of The New York Times Magazine,
which traffics primarily in long pieces.
CHAN: Can you both comment
about Salon, an online
publication that was started by traditional journalists, and
what you think about its recent problems?
They went a different route from that of Feed. They raised
a lot of money, and they grew really big. It seemed like it
was the right thing to do at the time they were doing it. There
was a period from 1998 to April of this year when the markets
were saying, “Your growth is all that matters, and you
really don’t need to worry about losing money. We’ll
figure out how to make money down the line.” And so Salon
followed that route and spent a lot of money and got up to about
140 or 150 people. The markets just turned unbelievably quickly,
and so they’ve had to scale back.
there’s the big question of whether a mid-sized, stand-alone,
upscale magazine-format site that pays a lot for content and
doesn’t have a corporate patron can make it right now.
Whether they can make it right now is certainly a question.
It’s a longer-term question of whether those things are
even sustainable on the web. I suspect they probably are, but
I don’t know if Salon has enough cash on hand to
You said Salon and I heard Slate. Slate
has Microsoft backing them, and that makes life a lot easier.
We have The New York Times. It is a very difficult world
out there for people who are either in the public market or,
God forbid, who were waiting to get into the public market to
finance a content company.
There is a site called Thesmokinggun.com.
That’s funny, I was just thinking about them. It is exactly
the opposite kind of growth from Salon. You start out
very small and you essentially don’t spend until your
revenues start covering it.
Right. I saw a story that they sold to somebody for $600,000.
Did you see that? The thought that occurred to me at the time
was, “you know, that’s the way it should have been.”
You start your one- or two-person webzine. Maybe you grow it
up to five people. It takes off and things go really well for
you, and you end up selling it and you make $600,000! If you
did that in 1994 or 1995, we would have said, “That’s
amazing, you don’t sell out and you make $600,000. That’s great!”
somehow, $80 billion showed up as the goal, and now we’re
saying, “If I don’t make a billion with my contentzine
my parents are going to be very disappointed in me.” But,
maybe we’re moving back; maybe we can just kind of forget
the last three years happened. When we started Feed,
we had absolutely no financial goals for it at all, but it was
hard to resist the feeling that perhaps there was a big payday
somewhere down the line. Perhaps there is a payday, but if it’s
a much smaller one, then maybe that’s a more sustainable