Small staff, building credibility are major hurdles for Web sites
From the Summer 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 49.
By Erin Uy
With the Internet becoming an everyday tool, online journalists strive to be part of the evolving medium. Instead of an open invitation, however, sometimes the only journalists welcome at the party — or at least those who can most readily gain access to the corridors of power — are part of the mainstream media.
The list of Internet publications that have received credentials for the Senate Press Gallery supports the contention. The likes of WashingtonPost.com, New York CyberTimes, USAToday.com and Newsbytes.com are represented in the press room.
What new and independent Web sites likely lack are the resources that the big media conglomerates already have firmly established.
“There are only a limited number of people in any medium that are going to devote the resources to be full-time or nearly full-time coverage on Congress or something else,” said Joe Keenan, deputy director of the Senate Press Gallery. “A lot of them don’t have resources to fund and maintain a full-time reporter.”
Maintaining a staff for any online news site requires more investment than the free start-up fee. Costs include the financing of journalists, editors and Web site technicians. Also, to receive accreditation from organizations such as the Senate Press Gallery, half of a reporter’s income must be generated through the site.
The high costs of funding a fully functional journalism site may be why sites such as Washingtonpost.com, ESPN.com and USAToday.com are among the few big competitors in the Internet news media world. As in any business, name recognition and funding play a large role.
“Those organizations that do have an analog, if you will, in another medium, whether it’s broadcasting or print, and thus a recognizable name, probably have a better chance of getting credentials to events when journalistic space is limited,” said Rich Jaroslovsky, president of the Online News Association. “But that really shouldn’t be the barometer.”
However, prominent media outlets are not immune from credentialing predicaments, said WashingtonPost.com Executive Editor Douglas B. Feaver. He said the site, while owned by the Washington Post, had a few uphill battles obtaining credentials.
“It is frustrating,” Feaver said. “But we were able to work these problems through on a case-by-case basis.”
When Internet news sites debuted, Keenan said the Senate Press Gallery braced for a flood of online journalists seeking credentials. Instead they got a mere trickle. A few years later, the gallery reached the high water mark when it accredited about 30 organizations. Now, a scarce 10 remain. Some of the earliest requesters, such as PoliticsNow.com, went out of business before they even picked up their press passes.
The Senate Press Gallery provides credentials for covering both the House and Senate. Accreditation decisions are made by the Standing Committee of Correspondents, a committee of five journalists elected by accredited members of the galleries.
The Senate Press Gallery was not the only group to anticipate a big boom, said Jaroslovsky, who is also a senior editor at The Wall Street Journal.
“I think a lot of places and lots of folks — when the medium sort of exploded on the scene — had this immediate reaction ‘Oh my God, this means we’re going to be inundated,'” Jaroslovsky said. “There was a lot of knee-jerk reaction or fear,” Jaroslovsky said. “But I think that was sort of an immediate panic reaction to what they really needed to worry about long-term.”
If a Web site manages to conquer the first hurdle and maintain a dedicated staff, the next step in gaining the credibility that leads to access would involve establishing itself as a journalistic organ — at least in the eyes of the public. The stigma that online journalists are not bona fide stems from the notion that “anyone can put up a Web site,” and a universal definition of an online journalist has not been established.
“Journalism does not have a certification board as doctors and others do,” Feaver said.
Even Joshua Fouts, a journalist for 10 years, and currently online news editor for OnlineJournalism.com, had difficulty convincing the Republican National Convention last summer of the publication’s legitimacy. The Democratic National Convention did not impose as much of a burden but Fouts was still disappointed with the treatment online journalists received.
“We had an easier time at the Democratic Convention and it was good that we got the credentialing, however we felt the online journalists were not treated with the same level of respect as the other journalists,” Fouts said. “We were sort of the second class citizenry of journalism, if you will.”
OnlineJournalism.com was established in 1998 by a group of professional journalists who wished to monitor the development of journalism online.
Validity of particular online journalists remains a question and not all government offices have decided what to do about it. While some organizations like the Senate Press Gallery have instituted criteria for credentials, the Pentagon has not considered a specific guideline.
Jaroslovsky typically gets questions about how to handle online journalists from public relations offices and people hosting events who are not prepared for such requests.
“My message to them is to always do your homework,” Jaroslovsky said.
Spurred by their first online request in 1996 by PoliticsNow.com, the Senate Press Gallery drafted criteria for online journalists seeking credentials. The expectations run similar to those of the print media. Rules include requirements that the content include original reporting and that the publication charge a subscription fee or carry paid advertising at market rates.
However, Fouts said he believes that some people don’t do their homework and are not prepared for the new media. There are “people who don’t want to go to those lengths and the number of independent voices are becoming shorter and shorter,” Fouts said.