WSJ's Real problem with online news

We're living in an age of opulence, mes amis, and last night's Webby Awards seemed bent on proving it.

6 min read
Carl Reiner: Were you impotent?
2000-Year-Old Man: On the contrary--I was opulent!

--The 2000-Year-Old Man in the Year 2000

We're living in an age of opulence, mes amis, and last night's Webby Awards seemed bent on proving it. Never did the Green Room at Herbst Theater see more chrome clothing or hair in the air; never was City Hall so overrun by so many well-dressed and wealthy young entrepreneurs. Where were all the pale and pimply geeks who make the digital trains run on time? Languishing in some Y2K dungeon, undoubtedly, well out of sight.

Opulence--you own everything! Never mind that we stepped over homeless people on our way from McDonald's, that this city of $15 million two-bedroom apartments has a two-bit public transportation system. Never mind that the Rumor Mill wasn't nominated. My son Vermel and his paramour Ammonia Blossom had a grand time, as did I.

There were fake paparazzi greeting guests with blinding flashbulbs, a well-oiled awards show (the five-word limit on acceptance speeches may turn out to be the most significant idea of the epoch), free alcohol, and free feather boas. At Intel's after party in the Pleasure Dome of Willie Brown, I absconded with a turquoise-dreadlocked Finnish ballerina to the roof, where we stood in front of the floodlights and cast lewd shadows on the dome, giving me one of those "only in San Francisco moment" chills. There are no turquoise-dreadlocked Finnish ballerinas in my hometown of Quebec. Not even one.

Such is the opulence of the age that even reliably penurious professionals like journalists are feeling their yachts lift in the rising tide. This topic came up last week at an online journalism talkfest at Orville Schell's Graduate School of Journalism at U.C. Berserkeley, where panelists debated the Information Age phenomenon of "millionaire reporters."

"When you've got a roomful of millionaire reporters whose stake is linked to the stock market, how can they cover the stock market? How can they cover Internet stocks?" asked a reporter from the venerable Wall Street Journal, which knows a thing or two about millionaires. "Newsrooms are getting giddy."

Now never mind that the Journal is a uniquely successful Internet venture in its own right, raking in subscription fees where few dare to try. Never mind that Journal publisher Dow Jones is a publicly traded company, and that its ink-stained wretches get stock options just like their toner-stained counterparts on the Web. Let's move on to the Journal-ist's second point, which was, according to San Francisco Chronicle media critic Dan Fost:

Online writers are "not the best journalists"--instead they're "linkalists" because their stories are (Fost's paraphrase) "basically links to other Web sites."

Linkalists! Now, linking is certainly a bad thing--why do in pixels what you can't do on paper? But to be fair, in my online "reading" I've noticed a few halfway decent sentences spirited in here and there between the links. A gratuitous touch, perhaps, but at least these millionaire reporters are making a stab at it.

Meanwhile, the quoted Journal-ist claims she was misquoted.

"I'd like to point out that I did not ever say or mean to imply that online journalists in general were not good," she wrote in an email correspondence with Fost. "The first quote you attributed to me that the high-flying Internet stocks of some online news companies presented some interesting ethical issues was spot-on, but the next one was not. I think I said (or was trying to communicate, OBVIOUSLY badly) that SOME online reporting could be seen as questionable."

At the risk of turning this into one of those increasingly common and dreary "media on media on media" columns, could the problem here be that the Chronicle's new media column didn't quote its sources accurately, as its quoted source suggests? Somehow between the Chronicle and the Journal, the idea that "online writers are not the best journalists" materialized. Perhaps the idea is floating in the air, held aloft by the hot air of paleo-journalists with a collective axe to grind against evolution.

Meanwhile, Wall Street went wild following a Journal report this week of a rapprochement between Real Networks and Microsoft. The story broke all kinds of neato news about IE 5, including a "junk email filter," "improved video-conferencing technology," and "Microsoft Agent technology."

Trouble is, the antispam filter was canned by a California state judge who ruled it unfair to e-greeting card firm Blue Mountain Arts. And according to Microsoft, the NetMeeting video-conferencing and Agent wizard features underwent only insignificant changes in IE 5.

But it was the Journal's account of a "deal" between Microsoft and Real Networks that moved markets on Wednesday. Real shares shot up to 134 before closing at 121, up 6 for the day, drooping perhaps because Microsoft was quoted midday flat-out denying there was a deal. Real spokespeople were real cagey when asked about it by a News.com colleague.

Turns out the Real deal is that RNWK is one of dozens, if not ultimately tens of thousands, of Web firms that plan to use IE 5's new "Web Accessories" extensions, which were announced with the beta in November.

So was there a deal?

"As Clinton might say, it depends on what you mean by 'deal,'" replied the Journal reporter who reported it. In an email to a News.com colleague, he defended his report as "strictly factual." But Microsoft appears to disagree, leading us to wonder: Did the Journal try to confirm its unsourced facts with Microsoft? If Microsoft declined to confirm, did the Journal confirm with three independent sources? (The Journal reporter did not reply immediately to these or other follow-up questions.)

But what do I know about all of this? I'm just an unscrupulous rumor-monger on the Web.

Opulence! Before we leave the topic of well-heeled hacks, it's worth including a little tidbit about PC Magazine columnist extraordinaire John Dvorak, who got lucky on the CBS Marketwatch bonanza. Turns out Dvorak's old SF Examiner editor Larry Kramer, a commentator on Dvorak's cable show Silicon Spin, offered Dvorak some "friends and family" shares. That means he got the shares at $17 per share, not $95 like the rest of the suckers.

Well, technical difficulties in the age of technology are nothing new, but if voice and video converge the way they did at Monday's splashy Nortel Networks event in San Jose, we could all be in for some real trouble. Technical difficulties left an expectant group of press and analysts watching Microsoft Domo Bill Gates mouthing the words, "testing, testing, one, two, three" via satellite from Redmond. After several false starts--including a test that made a Nortel exec sound like Lou Gehrig at his Yankee Stadium finale--audio order was restored.

Gates, no doubt, enjoyed all the bandwidth blathering going on in San Jose--a welcome respite from his company's problems with the feds. But familiar issues, such as integration between the OS and IE, quickly reared their pesky heads during a Q&A session following the IE launch held in Redmond--conveniently scheduled just before the Webbies. The familiar interrogation spurred Gates deputy and antitrust trial survivor (broadly speaking) Brad Chase to complain, "It didn't take us long to get to these questions," with a pronounced roll of the eyes.

Those engineering wizards at Alexa Internet not only include some of the loveliest ladies on the Internet, but some of the wittiest. Turns out that when IE 5 users do an Alexa-powered "Show related links" command from the Microsoft home page, the second option is linux.org. Between all the lovely ladies, the free booze, and the media backstabbing, I'm getting giddy indeed. Sober me up with your rumors.