Newspaper readers and writers curious about the impact of the Internet on journalism would find c/net’s recently launched News.Com — — an intriguing place to investigate.
While most newspapers and magazines — even cable TV’s CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, for that matter — merely rehash reports from traditional mediums to their Web sites, for News.Com the Web is its medium.
“We think this medium can be faster than newspapers or TV,” says Chris Barr, editor-in-chief of News.Com, as well as two other c/net websites, CNET.Com and Gamecenter.Com. “We feel we can beat our competitors because we don’t have weekly or monthly deadlines. If we find news, it’s up in 10 minutes.”
Now, it’s important to note that Barr’s staff of 20 editors and reporters aren’t covering the White House or Wall Street. Nor are they interested in how many burglaries were on your block last week. Their beat is computers and technology.
Barr’s attitude and enthusiasm in the hunt for stories is encouraging. He maintains a newspaper reporter’s eagerness for breaking news and swears no allegiance to sacred cows.
“I have a strong editorial background,” says Barr, who served stints as senior editor for PC Magazine and executive editor of PC World before joining c/net almost two years ago. “The deal I have here is that our advertising department doesn’t talk to editorial. We don’t write for advertisers — we write for readers. I believe that if we create a great site, people will come to us. It’s the only way you can be if you’re going to have any credibility.”
And while the daily papers, weekly and monthly magazines inch slowly toward online journalism, Barr sees an opportunity to set a shining example.
“This is such a fledgling medium that it’s important to set the ground rules early,” he says. “The first rule I set up: No compromises. People who come to the Net for news can only trust the things they read if they come from credible sources. And we are a credible source.”
c/net is an acronym for “Computer Network.” First intended by founder Halsey Minor as a TV network specializing in computers, it has become a media octopus. The original “CNET Central” cable TV show on the USA Network has spawned three spin-offs, “The Web” and “The New Edge,” which run with “CNET Central” on the Sci-Fi Channel, and the syndicated series, “TV.Com.” In addition to the three Web sites Barr oversees, Minor has six more: Download.Com, Shareware.Com, ActiveX.Com, BuyDirect.Com, Search.Com and TV.Com.
Employment at c/net has grown from 30 to 300 in the last two years and the company reports that visitors to the eight c/net sites see 1.47 million of its pages daily.
Online, c/net not only reports on breaking technology, it usually is among the first to try it out. That means a Java news ticker, akin to the electronic ribbons in New York’s Times Square. Soon it will mean an upgrade from RealAudio sound bytes to live streaming audio news three
times daily from c/net Radio.
Anyone who subscribes to c/net’s free weekly e-newsletter, “The Digital Dispatch,” knows Barr & Co. have a sense of humor about their work. And they aren’t afraid of poking fun at the Web’s 800-pound gorillas, Microsoft, Netscape and Intel, frequently making them the subject of cutting “Top 10” lists such as “Top Ten Slogans Microsoft and Intel Won’t Dare Use to Promote NetPCs” (including: “Like television, but without that pesky reliability”). The best list, however, generated laughs over the failure of Wired magazine’s planned stock offering (including: “Wired too hip for NASDAQ and AMEX, wants to start own exchange”).
“Netscape and Microsoft have taken issue with what we’ve written at times,” Barr admits. “If there’s a mistake, we correct it. Otherwise, we stand by our word.”
One of the things that scares old world — print — journalists about writing for the Net is its immediacy. It’s too immediate. Barr’s comment about posting news within 10 minutes strikes some as careless, the kind of irresponsible rush to report that led NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw to report that the FBI “probably have enough to arrest (Richard Jewell) right now, probably enough to prosecute him” for the Olympics bombing in Atlanta. (NBC recently paid Jewell for its hastiness and avoid a libel suit.)
Barr deals with such concerns by posting the gist of a breaking, developing story, then adding details as they are confirmed. And unlike his counterparts in other media, he has not one but six daily deadlines, each tied to Eastern and Western U.S. time zones.
Looking toward the new year, the c/net editor-in- chief expects new developments in many of 1996’s hottest stories.
“The biggest one is probably the Communications Decency Act,” Barr says. “That’s a huge story that has to do with content on the Internet and First Amendment rights, as well as setting standards.
“Privacy is another big one,” he continues. “What are your rights as a consumer or as a user? If you’re a deviant or a pervert, should there be ways to track who you are?”
Anyone tracking Barr’s 12-hour days online would be surprised that he sustains a family life. On the other hand, part of his daily interaction with his wife is via email. But when his 3-year-old son marches into the room and says “Talk!,” Daddy knows he’s been at the computer too long.
“We know the stuff we’re working on is revolutionary,” Barr says of his long hours. “I know one day we’ll say this medium is really tapped out — but that could be 15 years from now.”