Tom Regan, executive director of the Online News Association
...on the inevitable move to subscription-based news
He tells us why blogging is journalism, why readers should accept website registrations and why CSMonitor will inevitably move to a subscription-based model.
The internet is the best damned thing that ever happened to us, says Tom. The whole world is just one click away…
What does the ONA do? The ONA provides a voice for people in the online news industry and deals with their concerns. The web is a different medium to newspapers, but web journalists often get lumped in with print.
We organise the annual online journalism awards, which are one of the main - if not the major - awards that recognise the online journalism. Web journalism often falls outside the major categories in other awards schemes.
For example, earlier this year I won an online columnist award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists - but even then journalists had to write for a newspaper to qualify. The ONA awards make no distinction; they only differentiate between audience size.
We also publish a twice-weekly newsletter on issues faced by online journalists. One of my goals is to put a firewall on the ONA site so that our information is only available to members, adding value to their membership.
Where do you stand on the argument about mandatory registration on news sites? That's like asking Tony Blair if there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq! But I'll give an honest answer – yes and no.
The key is that the people that operate online media now expect sites to turn a profit. We used to be under the radar, working in the corner of the room just putting the publication online and, in those days, the most important thing was to build the audience. Now we're expected to make money.
The way I see it is that rather than pay, users can register their details and that's a fair deal. They have to give something back in return for the free product.
You get access to the New York Times for free, for example. Years back when I was living in Nova Scotia I'd have to pay $6 to get a copy of the New York Times every Sunday - now it's online for free.
If you look at it from 30,000 feet, as a friend of mine says, registration is a pretty good deal!
Many people now use news aggregators to find their news. So news publishers like McClatchy allow one or two visits each day or week, and recognise that those 'drive bys' are visitors that aren't likely to come back. The regulars, those that drill down for six or seven stories, are their local audience - those are the readers they most want to target.
Smart publishers are realising that they can have their cake and eat it too; 'OK - if you want more, you have to pay'. But if you want six or seven stories you need to give more information or you need to pay. In most cases that's a win-win situation.
CSMonitor will also be moving to a subscription-based model.
This is still a new industry – new enough that we can work our way through these issues. I believe that in the UK and Europe, the Guardian, the BBC, Sky and all those major publishers will begin to offer this model.
Can you tell me about your background in journalism? Well, I think it was somewhat in the blood! My father was press secretary for Prime Minster Lester B Pearson of Canada in the 1960s, so I was just around that kind of stuff.
It struck me as crazy that when I was working in Boston, there was no available news from Canada. The only news I could get was on a short wave radio that my Mum had given me.
I stumbled on the web by accident in 1992 and paid $300 for an internet connection; within six months the fee had gone down to $30! I asked for a rebate, but the supplier said "Tom – it costs to be on the bleeding edge!".
In 1993 I was working for a small newspaper in Canada called the Halifax Daily News. I went to the editor to ask if I could put the newspaper on the internet, and he said yes. The site was up by 1994 and we were the first newspaper on the internet in Canada - about fifth or sixth in the world!
I eventually moved back to Boston and ended up working at CS Monitor radio. When they wanted to set up the website, they came to me and in early 1995 we began building the site.
That year David Rhode, a New York Times journalist, was captured in Kosovo and went on to win a Pulitzer prize for his coverage of the war graves in Srebreniza. We just had to get that story up, so we hammered out the basic site. The full site went up in May 1996.
Luckily for me, the editor didn't really care where stories were filed from so I could telework. In 1998 I covered the Clinton/Lewinsky impeachment from Windsor, Nova Scotia, thanks to the phone and the internet.
What are the best news sites on the web? The BBC of course, and I do like the Guardian. They have done some very innovative things, particularly with blogs. CS Monitor has also has been using blogs for more than three years and has 11 now. We caught on to that trend very early!
Is blogging journalism? Oh yes! I have never understood who gets to decide whether you're a journalist or not. I believe journalism is something that can't be taught - journalism schools can only teach the craft. Some of the best journalists have not done a day of journalism school. Journalists need curiosity, attention to detail and an overwhelming passion to find out the truth, or as much as possible - those things make a good journalist.
Not every blogger is a journalist, obviously, and it is kind of a fuzzy area. I know that many traditional journalists turn their noses up at bloggers. But I'm a big believer. Good journalism is not necessarily about big media organisations, and blogs are one way to get that alternative voice heard. The internet and blogs are the best damn thing that ever happened to us!
People ask me about the future of newspapers. Well, I have three kids under the age of eight and even the two-year old is computer savvy. If I ask if they want the TV or computer, they say the computer every time.
Many old farts like me look at computers and see the hardware, not the content. But people of our generation look at a TV and don't see the TV - they see the shows.
Kids don't see the computer - they see the content. Getting information from a screen will be a natural as us watching the evening news on TV. It will be interesting to see what choices this younger generation makes about news, once it gets to 30.
Another big challenge will be for large national newspapers who provide news that is easy to get online elsewhere. I can go and get news direct from Middle East sources, so why do I need to read this news in other places? Another advantage is that international news is not so Western-centric.
The internet allows people to make that choice.
What advice would you give to new online journalists? Good journalism is good journalism is good journalism.
Whatever medium you work with, the most important thing is to learn to be a good journalist. Take every opportunity to practice your craft; writing, video, whatever.
You can be taught to code or splice tape, but it is hard to teach someone to ask that extra question or to deal with a politician when he's trying to stare you down.
What are your goals for the ONA? I want to broaden our organisation beyond the US. I have dual citizenship myself to the US and Canada, a country with a great tradition in journalism.
At the moment our international mandate is to focus on English-speaking sites, but I think it would be very interesting to push beyond that.
As I speak to you, I've only been on the job for 10 days! But I do intend to make the ONA a more international organisation. It would be wonderful to have no boundaries to what we do - like a UN alliance!
Compiled by Jemima Kiss
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