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Immediacy, original content make online news for real, journalists say

By Paul Eisenberg
Media Studies Center

5.12.99

A Real Audio version of the panel is available.

  • What do you think? Have your say in The Forum.

    Rich Jaroslovsk...
    Rich Jaroslovsky
    NEW YORK During its first day of public trading yesterday, the stock of online financial news service TheStreet.com clawed skyward, offering proof that investors are still bullish about Internet stocks. The auspicious initial public offering also signaled a "thumbs up for quality journalism online," Jamie Heller, the company's executive editor, told a roomful of online news professionals last night.

    "The Internet is a very good medium for communicating quality news and journalism and that for a long time was in doubt," Heller said. "When I was trying to recruit for TheStreet.com, people were asking, 'Is the Internet here to stay?' The skepticism was overwhelming."

    Eroding that skepticism today is a marriage of immediacy and original information, said Heller and fellow panelists during the discussion, "Online News: What Is It Good For?" It was the inaugural program of the Online News Association, an educational organization for professional journalists working online. About 90 people attended the discussion in Manhattan.

    Jamie Heller...
    Jamie Heller

    Because TheStreet.com is subscriber-based, Heller said, "we feel we have to give people something they can't get anywhere else, and that's why we've been dedicated to original journalism. The people we've brought to TheStreet.com are journalists who are smart and creative who want to do their own work and are not interested in editing the wires. There are a lot of jobs for writing online now because people are seeing the Web as an unbeatable medium for financial journalism."

    Real-time financial information and perspective are key to a successful online news organization, agreed Rich Jaroslovsky, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, which has 280,000 subscribers, 70% of whom are not print Wall Street Journal readers.

    "For them, we are The Wall Street Journal, and therefore when I hear the debate about using print content online" a practice disparagingly referred to online as "shovelware" "I have to step back and say those people need The Wall Street Journal-caliber news and information and it's not really relevant to us as the providers of that information what medium we use to [convey] that."

    Underscoring that point, Jaroslovsky says, is that among the Journal's print and interactive editions, original material circles back on itself. "The Wall Street Journal Europe is interested in and will probably begin publishing our e-commerce column. So ultimately it becomes irrelevant where that information originated. What becomes critical is, are you providing valuable information to your subscribers and users?"

    Janice Castro...
    Janice Castro

    Janice Castro, editor of Time.com, also took exception to the shovelware dig, noting that a good news site is a mix of newness and the brand that subscribers have come to know. About half of the site's content is original, but "there's always a very substantial interest [online] in the stories from the magazine and I'm sort of tired of the word shovelware," she said, noting that the site's traffic always spikes on Sunday, the day before the print magazine hits the stands. "What we're doing online is trying to create an information experience ... a menu of content."

    "One of the unique values we bring to the Web," Castro added, "is [recognizing] that interactive and community are so important."

    She noted a feature begun on the site about a month ago that allows users to ask Time.com staff questions about Kosovo. "We've gotten hundreds of thousands of letters and the questions are so good ... what our news organizations can do in effect is invite you into our virtual newsroom," Castro said.

    Once in agreement that online news is good for absolutely something, panelists offered the assembled news professionals tips for how to ensure quality journalism online:

  • Just because it works in print doesn't mean it works online. "Give people choices and let them drive the learning experience," Castro says. Just as writers must have a sense of their readers, online journalists must have the same sense when providing content and interactivity. Even with something as simple as offering hyperlinks in stories, Castro says, "ask yourself, what would they like to learn next?"

    Jaroslovsky also noted that a headline doesn't serve the same function online that it does in print, which is why his interactive staff rewrites headlines for print edition stories that find their way online. "We used the print journal headlines [online] and immediately got bashed by many of our users for wasting all the space in the browser window."

  • Communicate with your readers. Bolstering Castro's point about audience interaction, Heller says TheStreet.com employs a large customer-service department that answers every subscriber question. Jaroslovsky added that online news professionals can't be afraid of their readers. "People are invariably impressed when they get a response from a managing editor," he says, so much so that they sometimes reply to his reply and ask if it was really he who responded.

  • Be on your toes in every way. The expectation by the reader for updated news and information is intense. "Ten minutes, a half an hour late is very late, and when they come to that site they want it to be fresh," Heller said. "That's very demanding on you as a writer or an editor and it demands a lot of staff as well, depending on how prepared you are to meet that expectation."

  • Hire solid and technology-savvy journalists. The common thread for all hires is solid news judgment and experience, the panelists said. At Time.com, said Castro, "we look for daily-news experience in particular ... what we do is so time-responsive and so fast that if you're coming from a weekly framework you probably won't like it on the Web.

    "Always," Castro added, "we're looking for people who are intuitive about technology. We need people "who are comfortable with things that never quite work right, that will change as soon as you master them."

    Jaroslovsky is president of the Online Journalists Association. Heller is treasurer and Castro is secretary. Last night's panel was moderated by Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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