A Media Watchdog Let Loose on Cyberspace

Computer hackers and sloppy cyberjournalists beware: There's a new media watchdog gearing up to cast a critical eye your way.

For decades, the transgressions of American journalism have been chronicled by the Columbia Journalism Review and legendary press critics like George Seldes and A.J. Liebling.

It was probably just a matter of time before the Internet got a watchdog of its own. On March 2 a small group of journalists and graduate students in Los Angeles launched OJR, the Online Journalism Review (www.ojr.org). The e-zine is published at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California.

"What the Columbia Journalism Review has done for the media world is what we hope the Online Journalism Review will do for the online world," says Geoffrey Cowan, the newly minted dean of the Annenberg School and OJR's publisher.

Mr. Cowan should know: His father, Louis Cowan, co-founded the Columbia Journalism Review.

OJR staffers believe that journalists in cyberspace should follow the same rules of fairness, accuracy, and independence journalists in print and broadcast media follow. "We see our role as applying those rules and finding out who deserves to be in the penalty box," notes OJR's mission statement.

OJR is published as part of the Annenberg school's online journalism program, operating in a newsroom lab teeming with graduate students banging-out copy on 23 computer terminals.

"The goal is to be thought-provoking, not just another dull journal," says Larry Pryor, who managed the Los Angeles Times Web site and is OJR's executive editor. So far, Mr. Pryor has made good on that objective.

In its first edition, OJR surveyed the state of online news in Nepal. Last month OJR profiled "Hip Mama," a Web site produced by a former welfare mother. Also in May, the review included an opinion piece on the Internet news industry by Ken Layne, editor of the notorious gossip site, tabloid.com.

Monitoring content in cyberspace may seem a Sisyphean challenge. An estimated 3,000 new sites appear each day on the Web. Search-engine sites such as Yahoo!, Excite, and Netscape have become major news providers. So have thousands of e-zines like Wired, ZDNet, and CNET.

But Pryor says OJR's editorial agenda will be selective, not comprehensive. "We're not human search engines," he jokes. "We rely on our fellow Web denizens to guide us to where we should be looking. We get 20 to 30 e-mails a day suggesting articles we should write or stories we should look into."

One issue OJR will tackle is whether the business and editorial sides of Internet sites are becoming too close for comfort. "Web sites are often so underfunded that the only way they survive is to blur the lines between their advertising and editorial sections," Pryor says.

Operating costs for OJR's first year will be about $100,000, part of a larger grant by the Annenberg Center to the school, says Cowen, whose previous job was director of Voice of America. That's a modest budget for four editors, seven writers, and a small army of freelancers.

Unlike other journals of journalistic scrutiny, articles in OJR can appear any minute, any day, and reader reaction via e-mail tends to be swift. In its first month, the site received about 50,000 visits. "Think about what it would cost to start a hardcopy publication and draw that kind of readership," Cowen says.

Of course, instant readership also brings immediate reaction that is not always friendly. One e-mail correspondent complained, "You see yourself as judge and jury of what is acceptable on the Internet. Your arrogance is breathtaking." Another wondered whether the Internet, by definition a non-hierarchical, chaotic medium, really needs an online watchdog.

Paul Janensch, a journalism professor at Quinnipiac College in Connecticut and former editor of the Louisville Courier Journal, believes the need is real and says OJR fills an unclaimed niche.

"People who spend a lot of time on the Web may not completely realize that someone like Matt Drudge falls into a different category of information than that of The New York Times," Mr. Janensch says. "Having somebody tell us that certain Web sites follow a different set of rules in gathering information is a useful contribution to the public," he adds.

Mr. Drudge, whose unsourced stories have made him a controversial figure on the Web, would appear to be a likely target for OJR.

Not necessarily, Pryor says. "Matt Drudge is a reporter without an editor, and therefore isn't a journalist," Pryor says. "But his coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal has been perfectly valid. I find Drudge to be enormously entertaining and informative. He's got some of the best links of any place on the Web."

Besides, Pryor says, the Internet is a place where legitimate information comes in all shapes and sizes. "We're not trying to define online journalism. Once you do that you establish a wall, designating that everything within it is journalism and everything outside it isn't journalism. Then you've got a big problem."

The birth of OJR could be a sign of more muckraking media reviews to come, says Adam Clayton Powell III, director of technology and programs at The Freedom Forum. "This could be just the beginning," Mr. Powell says. "Every university across the country could begin to analyze Web sites in their communities."

Why couldn't Howard University, with its tradition of serving African-American students, publish an online journalism review for publications devoted to Africa, Powell asks.

But then who would watch the watchdogs?

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