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a News Alternative
Jay Rosen, New
York University, Author of the blog PressThink
Jay Rosen: Neil, you started online MarketWatch, which was a company and a site invented for the Internet age. And it was pitched, as far as I understand its logic, at a very old need and a very new need. The old need was people always need reliable business information who are involved in business and trade and investing, and there is always a demand for it because good information is always itself an economic good in that environment and a business write-off. Then there was this popular side as well, people in the stock market who wanted good information.
So MarketWatch succeeded spectacularly, with the CBS name attached to it. It really was a new thing. And you were managing editor there, right? And now you’ve switched over to The New York Times, which is, in many ways, the opposite, as a core institution. It comes out of a totally different world. Its authority has been accumulating since the 19th century, and it had to be brought into the online world, as opposed to starting there like MarketWatch did.
. . . What have you learned, what is your mind suddenly preoccupied with today that maybe it wasn’t then? What is different about your puzzle, as you go to work every day?
Showing How It’s Done Instead of Saying, “Just trust us”
Neil Chase: You, Jay, and some of the others have written about the idea that bloggers, like any medium, like any news organization, at some point there was a Day One when the news organization started. There are news organizations out there—take the Washington Post—which was once a very far-less-than-great news organization; it was the sixth most popular newspaper in a five-newspaper town. A family took it over and led it and made it into a quality journalism organization.
We started CBS MarketWatch—I wasn’t there on the first day, so I can’t take credit for this—out of nothing and with the idea that—here’s this word again—the financial markets lacked transparency. Wall Street was this secretive club of old white men who did nothing but trade your money around. You could invest, you could give your money to a broker, and a broker would take that money and do something with it and charge you a fortune for it. You didn’t know what was going on, you had no control. That’s the way it was always run, and people blindly trusted that for decades. For decades they blindly trusted this old New York institution. Sound familiar?
Along comes a time when people want more information, a time when people want more control, a time when people have more control in other parts of their lives, and, at the same time, a technology that lets them have more control. And the first reporters at MarketWatch were sitting there saying we can get this information, we can get it out to people, we don’t want to charge for it, we want to make it free, we want to get it out there as fast as we can, and that coincided with the rise of online trading. It turned into a very successful business.
But it was all based on MarketWatch’s having information people wanted. Doing reporting, doing journalism, they brought in top-notch professional journalists, for the most part, to run it. They built up a very credible news organization, one where the secret sauce there is that it looks like a newspaper front page.
It made this thing look like a newspaper to engender the trust you would have—they milked the 150, 200 years all of us have spent building up all these great newspaper reputations, MarketWatch walks in and makes it look like a newspaper and instantly adds credibility. . . Big headline at the top designed and organizes things in a way that tells a story. You can look at this and figure out which story editors think is most important.
And they built this up over a period of years. And then one night, maybe two years ago, my boss takes me and the other managing editor out to the bar one night after work, which we’d been known to do once or twice, and says, well, I got a little bit of news for you. The chief columnist, the founder of this site, is going to be busted by the SEC tomorrow. And the way the SEC makes a bust is, it announces an investigation into this person’s conduct in relationship to these newsletters he was writing, whether he owned the stocks or was hyping the stocks or was doing something other than fairly reporting the news. And this was the kind of scandal that, everybody cringes, everybody thinks, oh my God, it’s all over.
But the site had developed a strong reputation of delivering quality news to people. A lot of business stories are based on press releases. They’re not all deep investigative journalism, but they’re things people want to know. And MarketWatch got through that, like the Washington Post got through its scandal twenty, thirty years ago now with “Jimmy’s World” and the New York Times got through its, and every other news organization, many other news organizations have had to.
At MarketWatch it was, geez, this thing actually works. We built this thing up. People trust us. We worked hard to get that. I went to the New York Times and I thought, this is going to be a challenge—yeah, the Times has been on the web long before MarketWatch, they’ve been doing this for ten years.
But there are a number of people at the Times who have somewhat more years of experience than I do, as was pointed out to me when I first got there. A lot of people who love what they’re doing. I expected resistance, I expected people to look at me funny, I expected—I wasn’t sure what I was walking into. But in every single interview I had for the job, every single meeting with a department head, all I get is, “Help us. Tell us, how do we do more.” And then the editor announces, a couple of months after I get there, we’re going to move the whole web newsroom back into the print newsroom, back where it belongs.
This is a bunch of people who think this is the right thing to do, and they want to do this. It was a wonderful thing to see. And it goes along with posting original documents on the Web, like you were saying, and being able to tell people, here’s where we got the thing, it’s audio and video where appropriate, it’s telling the story the best way we can on the web and, at the same time, explaining what we’re doing.
So it’s a tremendously open environment, a place where, whatever demons were there ten years ago, about how we can’t ever change things, are gone. There’s a strong consensus among this group with very diverse experiences to want to move forward. It’s a very user experience thing. The people who call in first with a breaking news story, to get it to the web site, are the ones in Iraq, where they don’t see the newspaper, and they sure as heck don’t want the AP reporter sitting next to them to see an AP story on the front page of the New York Times when the Times reporter has it too.
Jay Rosen: Leonard Apcar, who is your boss, the editorial director of the Times site, told me once that the Times is conservative about journalism. It’s slow to do certain things. It always has been. In a funny way, that makes it more radical when it does act. And I think that’s very true about that particular newspaper. . .