Reporter's familiar refrain: 'You're a what? With who?'

Passing through Birmingham, Ala., News.com's Daniel Terdiman is reminded of his earliest days working in Internet media as a cyberjournalist for Zatso.com.

The headquarters of Birmingham, Ala., CBS affiliate WIAT-TV. As a cyberjournalist for Zatso.com, I covered news for WIAT from San Francisco. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.--Back in 1999, in the salad days of the dot-com economy, when anyone with a start-up could launch an IPO and see their stock hit $80, I took my first steps into the world of reporting on the Internet.

Living in San Francisco and trying to get my foot in the door, I took a job with a company called ReacTV. It was quickly renamed "Zatso," as in "Is that so," and its business was producing Web-based newscasts for the online sites of local TV stations around the country.

Those of us who were hired as reporters were called cyberjournalists, and each of us was assigned to one TV station, somewhere out there in the U.S. My station was WIAT-TV, channel 42 in Birmingham, and this city's CBS affiliate.

I found myself driving through Birmingham on Sunday on Road Trip 2008, on my way from Kennedy Space Center, where I reported on the Space Shuttle landing Saturday, to Huntsville, Ala., where I'll be attending Space Camp on Monday. And I realized I had to stop for a little bit of nostalgia.

The way Zatso worked was this: Each morning, I would call the station's news director from my desk in San Francisco and get the rundown of the stories they were working on for that night's newscast. We would pick five stories, and then I would go and basically do my own reporting on the stories, looking for additional angles to supplement what the channel 42 reporters were going to report on the news.

Then, once we were all done, my stories would go onto the WIAT Web site along with video from the five stories that we'd chosen. We did everything because back then, these stations weren't yet capable of doing this kind of work themselves.

The humor of the situation, of course, was doing the actual reporting. More often than I can recall, I would find myself reporting on some small crime story, and would have to call the dispatch center for some small sheriff's office way out in the country, miles and miles from Birmingham.

I'd get a deputy or the dispatcher on the phone and I'd say, "Hi, I'm Daniel Terdiman, I'm a cyberjournalist calling from Zatso in San Francisco, and I want to talk to someone about the drunk driver you arrested last night."

There'd be a pregnant pause, and then they'd say, "You're a what? With who?"

Can you blame them? It would be like an alien arriving at your doorstep and announcing that they're there to talk about the election for school board.

Well, Zatso was a good idea. Sort of. The problem was that the business model depended on working with stations in cities like Birmingham and Tuscaloosa and other smaller places. We hadn't managed to sign on any clients in New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco.

And the service really required high-speed Internet to work.

So, as you can imagine, there weren't that many people in Birmingham or our other cities with high-speed in 1999.

Suffice it to say, Zatso didn't last, though for a few months there it was considered a high-flying company with a bright future.

That was partially because we had some real talent there. Besides myself, there were two other Zatso reporters who ended up working for CNET News.com, and an editor went on to work for PBS' Frontline.

Now, though, barely anyone remembers what Zatso is, and I'd be surprised if many of the WIAT folks do either. Since it was Sunday evening when I rolled through town, I decided to just stop and take a picture of their building and then live-blog this, but not to stop in and say hi.

After all, if I showed up at the door of a TV station in Birmingham and said I was a reporter from San Francisco doing a road trip project driving around the South, the likely response would be, "You're a what? With who?"

Please stay tuned to Road Trip 2008 here on this blog, as well as on Twitter and on my Qik channel.

 

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