Like new territories throughout history, the wild, wild Web is being civilized. Those who want to take their cult Internet stardom to a wider audience are learning that they will, increasingly, have to abide by mainstream news ethics-especially if they want to set up shop on Web sites attached to major news organizations.
Signs of the times:
- In early April, veteran Web-centric journalist Bambi Francisco resigned from Dow Jones & Co.’s MarketWatch, for which she had produced columns, news stories, blogs and video blogs, after questions were raised about her stake in Vator.tv and her business ties to one of its backers.
- Amanda Congdon, a tight-T-shirted darling of the Internet blogosphere, found herself in the middle of an ethics dust-up in late March about her paid product endorsements, which had not been questioned before she became a regular contributor to ABCNews.com. Indeed, ABC News still maintains publicly that Ms. Congdon cannot be equated to ABC News journalists.
- CBS News producer Melissa McNamara was fired in mid-April after it was revealed that she had purloined major points from a column in the Wall Street Journal for what was meant to be a personal essay by “CBS Evening News” anchor Katie Couric on her “Couric & Co.” notebook page on CBSNews.com.
Such are the bumps in the road toward media convergence in the news business.
On her ABCNews.com page, Ms. Congdon heard from supporters and critics of her commercials extolling various chemical products on DuPont’s Web site. To one critic, she replied: “I’ve been doing commercials for years. Don’t try to squeeze me into your antiquated paradigms. I have seen not one real argument as to why this was wrong in any way. Calling me a ‘shill’ does not constitute an argument.”
But calling someone a shill does raise the specter of conflict of interest, a situation that news organizations such as Dow Jones and ABC News work hard to avoid. Ms. Francisco maintained she had done nothing wrong, but in journalism, even the appearance of a conflict of interest can be an actionable offense.
The plagiarism committed in Ms. Couric’s name by her ghost producer occurred on a technological platform where much success has been achieved by linking -often with the label “exclusive”-to work done by others.
Even though CBSNews.com is operated by CBS Digital Media, it resides under the CBS News roof and takes CBS News standards “very seriously, said Betsy Morgan, senior VP of CBS Digital Media and general manager of CBSNews.com.
“We carry that CBS News torch,” she said. “As we link off to other news sources, every source has been vetted.
FoxNews.com VP and senior executive producer Ken LaCorte said he isn’t sure he buys the notion that there is a distinction between material destined or a computer screen rather than paper.
ABCNews.com senior executive producer Michael Clemente addressed the issue of having one foot in old-media formats and the other foot in new technological platforms when he said, “We knew there were legacy things” when Ms. Congdon was hired. She is part of an attempt to bring younger, Web-savvy users who knew Ms. Congdon from RocketBoom.com to ABCNews.com.
“We are not changing the game. We are listening and experimenting with new things,” said Mr. Clemente.