Online news leads a precarious life

Some Web sites win awards while laying people off

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When it comes to the Internet, if it's election news you want, there's plenty of it - but don't get too attached to any quirky news sites unless they have deep pockets.

While some online outlets are reveling in all-time high traffic, nervous investors are pulling away from others, even as they receive critical praise. This has left journalists looking for jobs and Internet users deleting bookmarks.

"In this dotcom environment, it's hard to tell where we'll be in 60 days," says Hoag Levins, executive editor of crime site APBnews.com, which watched its funds dry up earlier this year and laid off dozens of staffers before finding a new owner.

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Sites like APBnews, Salon, and Thestreet have all had problems this year - which some industry-watchers attribute to trying to do too much too fast, and to the elusive formula for bringing advertisers and Web surfers together.

But even as sites are downsizing and disappearing, others are cropping up, suggesting that what is happening may be as much natural media turnover as it is Wall Street misgivings.

"To some extent what we're seeing is not just retrenchment, it's churn," says Janice Castro, a veteran of media Web sites and now an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

Indeed, many in the online news industry are optimistic about its prospects.

"For those of us who can claim financial security, the climate has never been better," says Merrill Brown, editor of MSNBC.com, which along with Slate.com is backed by Microsoft.

Thanks to the never-ending election, news sites MSNBC.com and CNN.com had record traffic in November, according to Web-site tracker Media Metrics. Major events, like the death of JFK Jr. or the Monica Lewinsky debacle, bring new Web users on board and keep them coming back, Web sites say.

In 2000, about 1 in 5 Americans went online for news about the election, according to a study released this month by the Pew Internet Project. In 1996, only 4 percent of people got their election news off the Internet.

Mr. Brown points out that the Internet has allowed news media into a place it wasn't before - the workplace - even though online media are still trying to make inroads into households.

"The eyeballs are there, they just haven't found a way to translate that into something advertisers are willing to buy into," says Sreenath Sreenivasan, an associate professor at Columbia's graduate school of journalism, and the administrator of this month's first ever Online Journalism Awards.

Ironically, that ceremony highlighted some of the industry's problems, as several winners were products of struggling Web sites. APBnews and Salon were winners (see list, right), as was writer Emily Prager, whose column was cancelled after eight months when Oxygen.com let her and other freelancers go.

Ms. Prager is enthusiastic about writing for the Internet, but says the temporary nature of the jobs takes some getting used to. "[You think] 'Wait a minute, I did a great job, why am I not working?' But that's the way of the Web."

Mr. Levins of APBnews says his site's critical praise and ability to go from 0 to 24 million page views per month in its first year and a half is significant, although traffic has dropped by half since March.

"We proved hard journalism really worked and really is able to pull in a large audience. The problem was, we couldn't figure out how to sell that audience to advertisers who are still looking for household access," he says.

While sites sort out the advertising problem, they are trying other ways to bring in money, from charging customers to syndicating original material.

"It's a very exciting time to be involved with the Web," says Ms. Castro, calling digital information delivery a startup industry, "but there are going to be some adjustments and bumps along the way."

This month, the first ever Online Journalism Awards were presented by the Online News Association and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York. The winners in each category are listed below.

General Excellence in Online Journalism: Original to the Web

Salon.com (www.salon.com)

General Excellence in Online Journalism: In Collaboration

MSNBC.com (www.msnbc.com)

Breaking News: Original to the Web

CNET News.com: Aftershocks from the Microsoft breakup (news.cnet.com/news/0-1003-201-1993334-0.html)

Breaking News: Collaboration

ABCNews.com: Chaos in Seattle [Coverage of World Trade Organization protests]

(more.abcnews.go.com/ sections/us/DailyNews/wtoseattle991201.html)

Service Journalism: Original to the Web

BabyCenter.com: Your Baby's Health (www.babycenter.com/ babyhealth)

Service Journalism: In Collaboration

Cleveland Live: Choosing Nursing Homes (www.cleveland .com/nursinghomes/)

Enterprise Journalism: Original to the Web

Salon.com: Drug Czar

(www.salon.com/news/feature/ 2000/01/13/drugs/)

Enterprise Journalism: In Collaboration. Co-winners: Associated Press: No Gun Ri (wire.ap.org/AP packages/nogunri)

The New York Times on the Web: How Race is Lived in America

(www.nytimes.com/race)

Creative Use of the Medium: Original

APBNews.com: The Great Basin Murders (www.apbnews.com/crime solvers/unsolved/)

Creative Use of the Medium: In Collaboration

TimesUnion.com: The Diallo Case (timesunion.com/diallo/)

Online Commentary

Emily Prager: 'The Read,' Oxygen.com (www.oxygen.com/ read/archive/essay/000113essay.html)

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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