Oct. 22, 2002 – The Online Newspaper Association has more than 900 members, and nearly 200 of them made it to the organization's third annual conference and awards presentation in New York City on Friday and Saturday.
Keynote speaker Merrill Brown, senior vice president of RealOne Services and former editor-in-chief at MSNBC.com, the online news service that he helped launch in 1996, called the Internet the "fastest-growing medium in history." And with access in half of U.S. households after just eight years in existence, he said, "there’s no turning back."
Perhaps more important for the journalists who made up most of his listeners, Brown added, "The need for our services has never been so profound." A growing audience expects Internet news coverage to be "instant, intense and, yes, stable," he said. "What we do today is vital from a journalism point of view, a business point of view and a community service point of view."
Brown called the Internet "the most important news medium of our time … using new storytelling techniques … and without distribution barriers."
Buzzwords at the conference included "convergence" (the coming together online of print, audio and visual mediums) and "commoditization" (casting the news as a marketable process and product). Another "C" word, "credibility," got a lot of attention, too, with the consensus at a panel on convergence journalism education being that Internet users "are not getting a lot of protein" in their online news diet.
There was much discussion of narrative vs. linear journalistic storytelling, of the integration of visual images with text, of the communication evolution from interpersonal (one to one) to mass (one to many) to interactive (many to many).
A hot topic among publications with both print and Internet editions was the sometimes adversarial relationship between the two. In response to a comment that online publications are often treated like stepchildren, Anthony Moor, new media editor for the Gannett chain's Rochester, New York, Democrat and Chronicle, said, "In 10 years, the children will likely be taking care of the parents."
St. Thomas Source was one of four small, independent Internet publications nominated for General Excellence in Online Journalism, as a medium "that successfully fulfills its editorial mission, effectively serves its audience, maximizes the unique abilities of the Web and represents the highest journalistic standards." Judging was of "excellence of content, interactivity, multimedia, design, navigation and community tools." First place in the category went to a news site about Benicia, California, that emphasizes interactivity with site visitors, inviting feedback to stories and publishing viewer comments at the end of news reports.
V.I. Source founder/publisher Shaun A. Pennington said, "Probably the biggest single reality check I got at the conference is that there aren't that many people doing what we are doing — running an exclusively online daily newspaper."
According to Bruce Koon, ONA president and executive news editor at Knight Ridder Digital, there will be more and more of them — and soon. "There were only a few represented this year at the conference," he said, "and as far as I know, there are only a few out there. They are the first wave. By next year's conference I expect to see more."
Koon acknowledged the financial struggles faced by the frontrunners in this new field, but said, "You just have to hang in there. It is the future of news."
The economic challenges for online publications, from small independents to affiliates of the major networks and newspaper chains, was a topic touched upon often at the conference. Many speakers talked of staff reductions and other cost-cutting measures their publications had been forced to make.
GothamGazette.com, an award finalist in the same category as the Source, is a not-for-profit enterprise supported in part by funding from the Rockefeller Foundation.
Participants on a panel looking at paid content agreed that the subscription-based model hasn't worked and would not work for most online newspapers. However, a recent article in Editor & Publisher by the news director of the Albuquerque Journal's Web site, which went to paid access a year ago, told a different story.
Peter Krasilovsky, vice president of Borrell Associates, noted that New Mexico is an isolated area served by no other major local online news media. Another selling point is great interest in the area (including Santa Fe, Las Cruces and Los Alamos) from outside, from a tourism perspective.
Albuquerque is not unlike the Virgin Islands in these regards, Pennington noted. A significant difference, however, is that the Albuquerque online paper is an affiliate of an established print product, while the Source newspapers have no print counterpart.
There are no plans for the Source to go to paid subscriptions, Pennington said, "but there are other revenue streams that do work." One is SourceDirect, the headline and quote-of-the-day e-mail service that was launched on April 1 and has some 200 subscribers. The service "is one of the offerings that many suggested as revenue-producing possibilities" at the conference, she said.
In a panel on Web site design, Dixon Rohr, a consultant to AOL Time Warner and IBM, said online newspaper users want "the focus on storytelling, without the need to focus on functionality — it's just there." Moor, on a panel discussing convergence, said, "It's about the reporting — in the form and at the time people want it, leveraging reporters in the places where they can be most useful to audiences."
Claude Albert, a multimedia editor at the Hartford Courant, said the challenge to those charged with developing online news services is to "make the technology work for you, focus on what matters most, and change the newsroom mindset while serving the values that journalism embraces."
Representing the Source at the conference were Pennington, senior news editor Jean Etsinger and reporter Molly Morris.
First-place award winners
The 2002 ONA award winners:
General Excellence, under 200,000 visitors: Independent — BeniciaNews.com of Benicia, California. Affiliated — PBS.org/Frontline-World.
General Excellence, over 200,000 visitors: Independent — CNET News.com, a technology news site. Affiliated — WashingtonPost.com.
Breaking News: Independent — CNET News.com, for coverage of the end of Excite broadband service. Affiliated — CNN.com, for Sept. 11 coverage.
Enterprise Journalism: Independent — CNET News.com, for a look at loopholes in online banking. Affiliated — WashingtonPost.com, for investigating the police department with the nation's highest rate of shooting suspects.
Service Journalism: Independent — GothamGazette.com, for ideas on rebuilding New York after Sept. 11. Affiliated — ChicagoTribune.com, for its "report card" on the region's schools.
Feature Journalism: Independent — DigitalJournalist, for a multimedia project collecting photojournalism images (13.4 million so far) of Sept. 11. Affiliated — CSMonitor.com (Christian Science Monitor), for its look at Amtrak and the future of rail travel in America.
Creative Use of Medium: Independent — Slate, for an explanation of the Enron story. Affiliated — MSNBC.com, for a national report on airport security.
Commentary (one division): Mark Fiore, MarkFiore.com.
For more information on the conference and the award nominees and recipients, visit the Online News Association Web site.

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