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September 9, 2003

Special to PressThink: Interview with Michelle Nicolosi

The editor of Online Journalism Review talks about the end of passivity at the receiving end of news. Blogs as journalism. Press authority online. Plus she gives good link.

Michelle Nicolosi is the editor of Online Journalism Review and the founder of Japan Media Review. She also teaches journalism at USC. I interviewed her by e-mail in August, and here is what she had to say:

PressThink: The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post have effective online sites, but they aren’t especially interactive. Neither, for that matter, is Salon. Is your impression different? Where do we see emerging forms of journalism you would call interactive and what’s different about these forms?

Michelle Nicolosi: A number of publications go beyond the Web basics (comment section, email contacts, online chats) to create interactive storytelling. These kinds of projects can be expensive and time-consuming; I expect that’s why these are more special treats than daily fare. Here is a list of great interactive journalism. For some of my favorite examples of online storytelling, see this site.

MSNBC’s baggage check “game” challenges readers to find weapons in luggage while passengers moan and groan about how long it’s all taking, and can’t you hurry up? The game was an effective way of helping readers understand the issues surrounding airport baggage screening. The Seattle Times recently invited readers to balance Washington’s budget. Over 600 readers took the time to do the exercise. The Sacramento Bee did a similar project, and invited readers to send their ideas to legislators.

In March, The Seattle Times “You Build It” project invited readers to solve the city’s tranportation problems. Nearly 2,000 readers completed this exercise — most of them said they would find ways to fix the problems without a proposed 1/2 cent tax. The project influenced decision makers’ actions. According to a Seattle Times story, “King County representatives on the district board agreed … that the regional tax package should be revised to better reflect the preferences chosen in The Times survey.” The Everett Herald invited readers to take charge of redeveloping four waterfront properties in Everett. The paper created a drag and drop map that let readers experiment with how they would develop the properties if they were in charge. Nearly 2,000 readers participated.

As technology makes more interaction possible, I think we’re going to see more of what people are calling “participatory journalism” — readers contributing to the news product. In Japan, where video and photo-enabled phones are common, a video of a major car accident was recently broadcast from the scene by a driver who called the TV station, used his mobile phone to send the station his video and then did a report from the scene. Could newspapers and other media outlets be doing more interactive storytelling? Sure, but they could be doing more investigations too. These things are expensive, and media outlets have to pick their shots.

I think part of the problem is that the Web was oversold: It was advertised as a place where news organizations would be doing grand interactive, multimedia projects all the time. While it’s true that the Web means every story can be accompanied by video, audio, animated graphics, elaborate surveys, most are not. Most of the time we just post the story as it ran in the paper.

Sometimes we decide a story deserves more. We do that as often as we can afford to; for many outlets that’s not very often. If news sites were making money, I’m sure we’d see more people taking better advantage of what we can do online. But many news sites are losing money. Many have cut back staff and are on shoestring budgets, and so can’t afford to do much more than the basics.

PressThink: One way to track the development of online journalism is to focus on the people called journalists and monitor what they do as they move online and produce more and more stuff for the new medium. Another way is to concentrate on the people who seem to best grasp the new medium and monitor what they do as they move closer and closer toward journalism. The second approach, it seems to me, inevitably brings you to things like and the blog revolution. In your view, is there journalism happening there yet? What kind of journalism is it? And, what I am most interested in, how is journalistic authority generated there?

Michelle Nicolosi: What is your definition of blog? What is your definition of journalist — and journalism? When is an online publication a blog, and when is it a magazine? We’ve got some broad working definitions that seem to be somewhat accepted, but they leave a lot of gray areas.

Here’s my basic definition: “A blog is an online publication that posts items in reverse chronological order.” Most bloggers mainly comment on and link to stories reported by the mainstream media. Most blogs are opinion based. (See OJR columnist Mark Glaser’s recent guide to the blogosphere.

What happens when a blogger, by this definition, does some original reporting? What if my blog mostly comments on and links to stories reported by other media, but sometimes I get the urge to call up a source, do an interview and post his comments? What if I do the occasional Q&A? What if I do some research on the topic I’m commenting on and post the results of my original research? Am I a journalist now? Is my blog just a blog, or is it a magazine?

Let’s change the question: Is any original reporting and writing happening at independent publications online? Yes, some. When people who have worked as reporters or editors at mainstream publications become independent online publishers, the results can be good. When you give a printing press to people who have no training — who don’t understand journalistic ethics, copyright, libel laws, and who have never had it beat into their heads that they must double and triple check every fact they report — bad things can happen.

That said, there are a lot of interesting things being written by people who aren’t journalists by training. I’m glad the Internet gives them the power to publish, and gives me the ability to hear all these new voices. Is it all journalism, is it all good? No, of course not. Some of it is horrible. Some of it is great. Bottom line though is that I dont need to be a millionaire to publish my book or start a magazine anymore. If I’m in Belarus or Timbuktu, if I’m Salaam Pax hunkered down in Baghdad, my voice can be broadcast to the world. I think that’s a good thing.

Independent online publishers develop “authority” the same way offline publications and broadcast stations do: They prove over time that they are reliable — that they have good news judgment, that they get it right, that they are a competent guide to issues that are important and interesting to their readers.

Romenesko is a great example of this. Why do journalists so faithfully flock to him? He never misses an important story, he knows what his audience wants and dishes it up in an accurate and interesting way. I read him every day. I trust him to tell me all about the topic he covers, and to make sure I know everything important going on in that field.

Any independent publisher can develop authority — and the loyal readership that goes with it — if he is constantly accurate, reliable, timely, interesting, comprehensive and authoritative on his topic.

PressThink: A computer and Internet-using public, it seems to me, is not really in the same geneological line as readers, listeners, viewers, consumers. They were all receivers of information. The Net user, it has been said many times, doesn’t fit that mold. It’s a much more active identity, which is why it hardly makes sense at all to talk about an Internet “audience.” Thus “user of” is replacing “audience for” in Net terminology. What are the consequences (for journalism as it moves online) of this more active, tool-using image of the people out there on the receiving end?

Michelle Nicolosi: The consequence to mainstream media of course is that all these new voices and publications online are competition. The reader doesn’t just passively read your paper any more. Now he can click away from you in a heartbeat to review dozens or hundreds of other sources of news and information. What with the Salaam Pax reporting from Baghdad, Nick Denton covering tech news, New York Times and The LA Times and BBC and The Guardian and the local paper (usually) all online for free, with Google News giving me the latest headlines updated constantly — and now letting me search for just my local news, too — a reader might get to feeling like he doesn’t really need to buy the paper anymore.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 9, 2003 12:18 PM