Alliances are Critical to New Media: A Look at Who's Watching the Corporate Bosses
Alliances are attractive because they allow the partners to take advantage of a traditional newspaper or TV station's strength--its journalists' skills and knowledge of how to create and produce news. Microsoft executives realized several years ago that they would not be a full news service organization on their own; partnerships would be needed, such as the one with NBC to create MSNBC. Such alliances sometimes present conflicts of interest. For example Disney, which owns ABC, has an agreement with Microsoft, which has a relationship with NBC. Microsoft will provide Disney content online. How will such arrangements compromise reporters? Will a negative report about Disney, for example, appear on MSNBC? Will reporters and editors engage in self-censorship? Will any reporters at The Tribune Co.'s media outlets criticize Warner Bros. Television Network, in which it has a significant interest; or "Geraldo," which is produced by its entertainment company? (Harper, 1996).
Alliances among new and old media organizations could indeed compromise reporters in terms of self-censorship, but new media managers and editors also face conflicts in trying to balance the traditional news values of accuracy, credibility and fairness with the business of online publication. Fred Mann, general manager of Philadelphia Online, wonders whether managers of online media will compromise their credibility by putting ads on a home page. (Mann, 1996: 5). He wonders about accuracy when he has to update the publication every eight minutes and can clarify and correct mistakes before most anyone sees them. The new media manager worries about advertising rates, subscriber revenue, bandwidth and marketing. There isn't time to think about journalism.
Mann sets out the dilemma that online editors and managers face: some values lose their special status when others set priorities for them. Alliances between the parent company and service or content providers may force the online editor to link to outside information, such as weather, sports, and news. How does the editor determine the accuracy and validity of the information if it's not from a traditional news service? Will the editor be compromised by providing links to a press release created by a company owned by the parent company? For example, readers hitting a Chicago Tribune page may trust the paper because it has a "brand" name, and not be able to distinguish between a link to a public relations advocacy piece and a story with a variety of viewpoints written by a Tribune reporter.
In Breaking the News (1996), James Fallows attacks the credibility of news organizations, and particularly big-time news celebrities for undermining the public's trust. If readers are losing confidence in traditional news organizations, then what future does news have? Yet some still some brand names that retain credibility, such as The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.
"People will want the filtering and editorial judgment that newspapers bring to bear on an otherwise overwhelming flood of new digital information," wrote Gregory Favre, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in a 1995 Editor & Publisher article. "Who will they trust to do that: A brand they trust now - their newspaper?" Journalists may also need to be "branded" to have appeal in the online environment (Fitzgerald March 1995: 34). It is the content and the news gathering skills that newspaper people argue make them superior to staff at new media online news services who may lack traditional journalism backgrounds. But more and more non-traditional new media companies, such as Microsoft, are hiring "real" journalists from top organizations, such as The Association Press and The Washington Post, who bring traditional newsgathering skills and are willing to learn new ones.
Online staff are required to have different kinds of skills compared with traditional print staff. They must be team players, able to collaborate with technical as well as advertising people, skilled in information gathering, HTML and in some cases multi-media skills. Editors may collaborate with advertising staff to decide what news is free and what must be paid for (Outing, Feb. 1 1997: 24). The whole notion of "journalism" has a new meaning online, because publications feel the pressure more intensely than their print cousins to earn revenue and find a niche.
Profitability pressure encouraged Microsoft to revamp its Microsoft Network with a television-like structure, even pulling the plug on half its 20 "shows" four months after their launch because they didn't get enough hits. The move affected 200 contract workers, and executives said they were following the Hollywood model (Internet magazine, Feb. 28, 1997; Reuters, February 27, 1997).