Net Election

Are Web Deals Good News for Newspapers?

Slate, the Industry Standard, and join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

The name of the media game right now is “strategic alliance.” Two relatively new Web-intensive media alliances involve major newspapers and TV networks and are using the election as the main subject matter for their corporate pollen-swapping: a Washington Post-NBC join-up and one involving the New York Times and ABC. The hope in such ventures is to achieve synergistic fabulousity à la Toyota/General Motors. The fear is that the resources of both companies will be strained in the bargain and that their cultures won’t happily mix.

In the Washington Post-NBC deal, the paper seems to be giving more than it’s getting, as least so far. Post stories appear on the MSNBC home page, and Post writers turn up with increased frequency on such shows as The News With Brian Williams. (Ditto for Newsweek, which is also part of the deal.) At this point what NBC gets is mainly an instant credibility upgrade.

The situation is slightly different with Times-ABC, which attempts a more seamless meld of the two organizations’ assets with a daily live 15-minute interview and political news Webcast, “Political Points.” But even here the Times seems to have a firmer hand, with the paper’s reporters hosting the show most of the time and asking most of the questions (though some also come from the ABC reporters who regularly participate and from online viewers).

Indeed, on “Political Points” the values of print seem to be keeping the values of television happily in check. Yes, there’s the overblown intro fanfare and the drumbeat of TV-style pluggery, but the production values and haircuts are refreshingly terrible. Even with a broadband connection, the sound somehow travels faster than the picture, making everyone on the show resemble a character in a Hong Kong martial arts flick. When the Times’ Johnny Apple appeared on the maiden Webcast back in January to explain in good detail the difference between a primary and a caucus, he was the most rumpled and least animated man to appear on television since Dick Cavett had a guest die. This is great!—when form falters, content has a much better chance. And the newspaper folks have been exhibiting a concision that’s unheard of on the weekend chat shows, with the result that viewers get more questions answered. (But let’s not get carried away here—the show is also just another venue where, for example, Sen. Chuck Hagel recently did not talk about his vice-presidential conversations with the Bush campaign.)

The Post appears likely to take pride of place in its hook-up too. The pieces reporters have been providing for the newspaper’s Web site between one day’s hard copy and the next are indistinguishable from those that run in the paper. And for the most part, the cogency of the paper’s marquee reporters like David Broder and Howard Kurtz still comes across in live Web forums with readers.

But there are threats to quality journalism here. First, if the secret to making the new ventures good is using the newspaper people as much as possible, then there will be the temptation to overuse them, with the result that they’ll do much less well at everything, including their main newspaper jobs. There have already been hints of this trouble at the Washington Post where reporters have sometimes chafed at having to take time out of their reporting to file a Web story. (And at having to do this for no extra pay.) At the Post, although it’s not absolutely obligatory to help fill the Web maw, reporters tend to feel that it will reflect badly on them at performance-review time if they don’t. Michael Oreskes, the Times’ Washington bureau chief, says no one at his paper is required to appear on the daily Webcast, yet certainly the presence on the show of many of the paper’s hot runners sends a clear message. But Oreskes says he’s very mindful of dilution. “I believe,” he says, “that protecting journalistic standards is the single biggest issue as journalism moves on to the Web.”

Second, everything will change if the scale of these operations changes. Right now, newspapers are finding it relatively easy to do things their way: Where reporters’ stuff has ended up hasn’t affected what they do or how they do it. But this may just be the freedom of movement that comes from flying below the network radar. For while these new ventures are seen as having increased the reach of the papers (especially in the case of the Post, which has no national distribution), they have not as yet done much for the TV partners’ audiences. But if these ventures ever actually produce revenue, especially as steadily improving broadband capability makes the Web more watchable, then the TV sides will start trying to make the broadcasts more TV-like by cramming 5 pounds of information into a 30-pound sack. And as the chat shows have shown, celebrity, although good for journalists, has been bad for journalism. If the Web sites and Webcasts become additional sources of celebrity for reporters, they will become yet additional sources of adulteration.

When the Post deal was announced, the paper’s executive editor, Leonard Downie Jr., was asked about NBC working its way into his paper. “TV people perform best on TV,” he responded. In other words, newspaper people think their ultimate defense against any threats to quality created by the joint ventures is maintaining a firewall between their values and those of television. So far, so good. But if the money starts rolling in, good luck to the newspaper folks.