journalism and cyberspace

Thursday, November 30, 2000
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.

MIT, Room 56-114


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.


RICH 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.


I 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 own.


We’re 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 day.

 This 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.

 Another 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.

Projects the website at                                      

This 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.

STEVE JOHNSON, Feed Magazine: I am going to give you a sneak preview of our new logo at Feed magazine.

Projects the website at

I 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.


We 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.

I 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 us

predicted at an individual level. The best way to think about this is to look at the history of hypertext.

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.

Projects the website at

How 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.

Slashdot 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.

It 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.


TOM 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 coming years?

MEISLIN: 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 dandy.

JOHNSON: 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.

MARGARET 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?

MEISLIN:  We’re generating revenues – we’re just generating more expenses.

WEIGEL: How is it paid for?

MEISLIN: 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.

As 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.

QUESTION: 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?

MEISLIN: 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.

Ultimately, 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.

Are 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.   

DAVID 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.

Can you give additional examples of how the partnership between old and new media is yielding new forms or possibilities?

MEISLIN: 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.

JOHNSON: 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.

The 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.

ANITA 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?

JOHNSON: 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.

There 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 reviewers.

MEISLIN: 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.

That’s 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.

REGAN: 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?

MEISLIN: 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.

On 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.

JOHNSON: 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.

DAVID 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?

JOHNSON: 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.

SPITZ: Powerful strikes me as a term with political resonance.  

JOHNSON: 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 work.

Apparently, 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.   

SPITZ: 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?

MEISLIN:  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.

MARY 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?

MEISLIN: 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.

JOHNSON: 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.

THORBURN: 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?

MEISLIN: 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 out story.

But 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?

JOHNSON: 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.

So 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 find out.

MEISLIN: 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.

JOHNSON: There is a site called

MEISLIN: 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.

JOHNSON: 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!”

But 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 system.

Compiled by Brad Seawell