Michelle Nicolosi is editor of Online Journalism Review, and editor and founder of Japan Media Review. She also teaches print and online journalism at the University of Southern California. From 1990 to 1999, Nicolosi was a reporter with the Orange County Register. She was a lead reporter on the 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of a University of California fertility clinic, where doctors took eggs and embryos from patients and gave them to other patients without consent. She's freelanced for Salon.com, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and Shape Magazine. She communicated with JournalismJobs.com via e-mail recently about the state of online journalism.
Michelle Nicolosi: Since the heady early days in the mid-90s when newspapers first started going online, we've gone from irrational exuberance -- many media companies thought at first that they were going to make a bundle with news Web sites -- to realizing that the Web is a great new way to publish journalism, but it's not going to be a big money maker.
Most news Web sites these days are either losing money or barely breaking even. Some digital divisions are in the black, but many are profitable because they're counting non-website revenues as income.
I suspect newspaper Web sites won't ever be a huge moneymaker, but I'm not sure they really need to generate tremendous revenues to be worthwhile. From a business perspective -- to borrow a few lines from the marketing department -- the Web is a fairly cheap way for media companies to extend their brand and reach, and to build customer loyalty.
The Web also allows you to do much more than you can do on paper or on TV: Your news reports can include searchable databases, audio, video, animated graphics and interactive "games" that allow readers to experience, for example, how hard it is to spot a weapon in a routine airport baggage check.
Net-native Web publications that are not supported by offline publications -- like Salon and Gawker.com and ArtsJournal.com -- are in a different boat: They need to make money to survive -- and so far few have figured out a winning business model. Some online publications are trying to charge for online subscriptions, but that doesn't seem to be working all that well for anyone besides the Wall Street Journal.
Some pundits are now saying that online advertising revenues are improving, that advertisers are increasingly willing to spend their money online, and eventually advertising will support news Web sites. We'll see.
JournalismJobs.com: How does the Online Journalism Review support itself?
Michelle Nicolosi: We are funded by generous grants from the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, the Annenberg Foundation (administered by the USC Annenberg Center), The Ford Foundation and a number of private donors. Japan Media Review, the other site I edit, is supported by a three-year, $700,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. If we had to support ourselves with advertising revenues and subscriptions, we wouldn't be able to do it.
JournalismJobs.com: A few years ago news sites were publishing material before all facts were verified. Is the rush to be first still a problem?
Michelle Nicolosi: This problem isn't unique to online -- not too long ago the New York Times admitted they'd published more than a little material before all the facts had been verified. All news outlets are concerned with getting the news first. Sometimes in the rush to get it first we don't get it right. And sometimes we're duped by unethical employees and freelancers. That's true for print, broadcast and online.
JournalismJobs.com: Slate.com recently turned a profit for the first time. Should online content providers be excited about this development, or is this an anomaly?
Michelle Nicolosi: Slate made more than it spent in the first quarter of this year. I'm not sure I'd call that turning a profit. Slate has been around and losing money since 1996.
JournalismJobs.com: Some journalists keep a blog in addition to holding a regular job. Should their employers be concerned?
Michelle Nicolosi: Earlier this year, Hartford Courant writer Denis Horgan launched a weblog after his newspaper column of 21 years was cancelled. According to an article OJR ran on the incident, "When Horgan launched the blog on March 17 as a way to keep the column -- and his commentary -- alive, (editor Brian) Toolan immediately called Horgan into his office to tell him it was a bad idea." Toolan told the Hartford Advocate "the idea of someone with Denis' profile, writing opinion pieces on the people, the topics and the issues that the Courant has to cover, and doing it in an unsupervised way, is an intolerable one."
Many newspapers bar staffers from freelancing for other publications in the same market. If you work at the Orange County Register, you can't freelance for the Los Angeles Times. Many reporters agree to that as a condition of employment. It seems reasonable to me that your employers would expect you not to directly complete with them.
On the other hand, some media outlets are more than happy to have their reporters blog on the job. Sacramento Bee political columnist Dan Weintraub keeps a very popular blog, Dan Gillmor at the San Jose Mercury News has a popular tech blog, MSNBC makes good use of blogs at their Weblog Central, just to name a few. My advice to newspapers and other media outlets is don't be afraid of blogs. Blogs are a great tool. If you give your reporters a home on the Web -- a place where readers can check in to see what your science or environment or health reporter has found out or is thinking about lately -- you give people interested in these topics a place where they can come for regularly updated reports on their favorite topics. This is a great way to build traffic and loyalty.
I spent part of the morning trying to convince Orange County Register science reporter Gary Robbins that he needs a blog. He knows so much, he's finding things out all the time, lots of the items he discovers don't exactly make standalone news stories, but they're interesting... where to put them? In your blog.
More papers should think about setting up reporters with blogs. Working on them should be optional -- not mandated -- and reporters should be given the freedom to have a little personlity in their blog, to link offsite, to post pretty much as they see fit. If they do a bad job, cancel it. But if you try to control it too much, the blog will not really be a blog -- it'll be briefs. Newspaper style briefs are boring. They don't have the same appeal and won't draw the same kind of crowd as a personality-driven insider's look at a given topic. (See this recent OJR story on journalists who blog.)
JournalismJobs.com: What effect will convergence have on online journalism?
Michelle Nicolosi: Convergence is consultant-speak for the idea that media companies can ask their print, online and broadcast teams to work together and share resources (video, reporting, writing) to create multimedia reports that can be used on all platforms -- in the paper, on TV and online. As MediaNews Group CEO William Dean Singleton put it in a recent OJR story on convergence: "If a newspaper can take their vast newsgathering resources and put them behind a radio or television station, that radio or TV station they put it behind will have far more information than they could gather on their own ... While I wish everybody read the newspaper, not everyone does. Those that don’t tend to watch television and listen to radio. If we can put more information in the hands of people who watch TV or listen to radio, then we have done a public service for the whole community."
I think news outlets across the country are still experimenting with what convergence means, and how best to take advantages of some of the synergies that come into play when you own a newspaper, a TV station and an online operation. For example, the Tampa Tribune -- perhaps the world's most high-profile experiment in convergence journalism -- is "moving away from the notion of, if you will, extreme multi-tasking," senior vice president Gil Thelen told OJR freelancer Tracy Wood. Two years ago, Wood writes, "the image of reporters covering a story, writing for the Web, showing up to discuss it on television and writing for the newspaper 'would have been the model,' Thelen said. But few newspaper reporters were good at television appearances, and TV audiences were quick to notice the imperfections. So most reporters now don't go before the cameras. Information from their copy still is used for TV news, Thelen said, and they still write for the Web."
JournalismJobs.com: What's on the horizon for online journalism?
Michelle Nicolosi: Even in this last year, we've seen a major new addition to online publishing: Mobile publishing from phones and other mobile devices. According to an interview we're running next week in Japan Media Review, an average citizen recently sent a live feed of a huge traffic accident to a TV station from his video-enabled cell phone. "Even though he was not a cameraman, he was just a "normal" person, he was able to do the work of a journalist by virtue of just being on the scene," said Yoshikatsu Suzuki, president of the Japanese wire service Jiji Press America.
As video and camera phones become more common in places besides Japan, we're going to see a lot more people publishing news directly to the Web to their own personal sites, and sending feeds to news organizations. That's going to make for some interesting twists. And it's going to make the world a much more watched and documented place. (See Howard Rheingold's recent essay in OJR about how moblogging could change journalism.)
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