Web Journalism's Sticky Pages
Around the same time, another "traditional" journalist and a recently departed features editor at Fox penned an essay for Columbia Journalism Review lamenting the state of digital journalism. Recalling a typical news day, Frank Houston wrote, "The reporters who will cobble together copy to post on our site are getting their information from television. And the Web is at that moment recycling it to millions of news surfers, most of them probably turning to the Web at work because there are no televisions on their desks." And that was accurate. We were reporting on what Fox News Channel was reporting. And Fox News Channel was reporting on what Sky TV was reporting. Like a grownup version of Pass It On, something was getting lost in the translation. Meanwhile, I watched in silent horror as some of our "reporters" filed stories from Jakarta at 10 am and then Moscow at noon--a remarkable feat for writers who never left the West 18th Street office. No one in charge seemed to understand that the dateline implied that the reporter was physically in that city. The news executives didn't know a style guide from a turnstile.
On the day NATO-led bombing began in Kosovo, the Fox News Channel was reporting that an Italian television network was reporting that a NATO plane had been downed. The senior vice president of news asked me, "Why isn't this top of the site?" I told her we had no story from the wires confirming it. She said I didn't need to wait for a wire story. I should just write the story myself, complete with my byline and a bogus dateline. I refused and was eventually run out of the news department. Needless to say, someone else was willing to write the piece, despite the fact that no NATO plane was downed, at least not until five days later.
If Motavalli had ventured out of the boardrooms--for that is his focus--and bothered to interview the newsroom underlings, he might have understood the full scope of how bad things were. In one rare instance, he interviews a former features writer at iGuide (Rupert Murdoch's precursor to Fox News Online). Pavia Rosati's account was quite telling of the industry at large: "A reporter would take a digital camera to the field. She would come back, and HTML her story and press a button and publish it. And sure enough that is what I did. The first week I was there, Jerry Garcia died, a crowd had gathered in Central Park, and I was assigned to cover it. I was barely a journalist, certainly not a reporter by any stretch of the imagination," she recalled. Despite being a sometime-journalist (the book jacket identifies Motavalli as the first computer/Internet columnist for the New York Post), he doesn't ask, "Where were the editors?" He never questions the wisdom of letting nonjournalists have so much editorial autonomy. He flinches only when he notes that another writer in Rosati's office was earning $20,000 a month for a music column that hadn't even debuted. Never mind that the product is garbage--how much did it cost?
Motavalli even criticizes a move by the American Society of Magazine Editors to clean things up on the web. In June 1997 the ASME issued guidelines for online publications. These guidelines included reasonable suggestions, such as a separation of advertising and editorial content, including all banners being clearly marked as advertisement. Expressing contempt for the idea, Motavalli asks, "But what hold did it have over the Web, and, for that matter, who appointed ASME as overseer of the new medium?" A better question would have been, "How might these standards have improved the subpar content of online news outlets?" While these guidelines may not have held up as industry tenets, at least someone recognized that the journalistic anarchy was unacceptable. Had online content providers adopted universal standards, it probably would have been a huge step forward for Internet news.
But instead of worrying about pesky ethical questions, Motavalli focuses on the monetary barometer when judging the industry's successes or failures. Throughout the 1990s, technology money was flowing unabated. Before the spring 2000 dot-com crash, the Nasdaq grew 795 percent, peaking at 5048.62 on March 13, 2000. News companies, including time-honored institutions like the New York Times, were investing tens of millions in their digital divisions, which were often subsequently spun off with great fanfare. But nothing else rivaled the sheer scope of the AOL Time Warner marriage, which is probably why he spends a good chunk of the book examining it. On Monday, January 10, 2000, America Online announced its merger with the world's largest media company, Time Warner--"merger" being a somewhat inaccurate noun. AOL, which was founded a mere fifteen years earlier, bought Time Warner. That seismic aftershock, Motavalli notes, was probably Henry Luce rolling over in his grave.
In 2000 Gerald Levin lorded over a Time Warner empire so vast that it probably would have struck Ben Bagdikian as implausible in 1983 when he wrote his prescient book Media Monopoly. But Levin frittered it all away for a chance to join forces with the new online superpower. Levin's fiefdom included everything from Time to CNN to Warner Bros. Studios and a whole lot in between. Steve Case, head of AOL, merely oversaw the most successful Internet onramp, albeit an onramp for beginners. Not since Cortez embarked on his quest for El Dorado has a man been as duped as Levin.