Want a peak inside web journalism in San Francisco, the internet capital of the world, then read this piece by former Herald Sun scribe and John Brumby media adviser Joel Deane.
Web journos are a lot like transvestites — forever in multimedia drag.

Depending on our inclinations, we can dress ourselves up as TV filth, print hacks or talkback radio jocks — tarting up our story in just the right combination of eye-catching media. And, although our vamping can sometimes come off more like Dame Edna than Elle MacPherson, when we do get it right there’s nothing more fetching than the new media’s cross-dressing approach to a big story.

Take, for example, the the San Francisco-based Web site I work for, www.zdnn.com, gave to a recent spate of high-profile denial-of-service attacks.

Between February 7-9 this year, computer hackers either slowed to a crawl or knocked offline eight of the Web’s most popular sites, including Amazon, eBay, E*Trade, Time Warner’s CNN.com, Microsoft’s MSN.com and ZDNet itself. And why were these attacks considered important enough for reporters to doorstop President Clinton? Money, of course.

It’s estimated as much as 10 per cent of the US economy is currently moving online. Consumers and businesses are doing everything from buying books at vendors like Amazon to day trading through brokerages like E*Trade to filing their taxes through the IRS.gov. Even primary campaign long-shots, John McCain and Bill Bradley, turned to the Web for concerted electronic fundraising and targeted advertising efforts. All in all, that’s one of the major reasons why Wall Street acts like a prepubescent Leonardo DiCaprio fan every time there’s a decent “dotcom” IPO. It remained to be seen what would happen to consumer confidence in the new economy after the lights were turned out on the Web’s biggest retailer (Amazon), biggest auctioneer (eBay), biggest search engine (Yahoo!) and fourth-biggest brokerage (E*Trade).

Bearing all that in mind, ZDNet News gave the full Dame-Edna-treatment to the Web attacks story – part print, part TV, part radio. We wrote text briefs and stories and posted them on ZDNN.com; we Webcast in live streaming video a press conference that Attorney General Janet Reno called to announce a FBI investigation; we ran radio talkback-style interviews and updates on our Internet “radio” station; we launched a special report, complete with interactive graphics; we Webcast an update from a White House Internet security summit in live streaming video; we ran polls that let readers vote with a click of a mouse; we attached message boards to every story that let readers post responses to those stories, like a bottomless letters page; and we linked concerned readers to our software library, where they could download security software.

End result: February was our biggest month ever, traffic-wise.


At first glance, ZDNet News most resembles a wire service.

Our San Francisco office is a windowless submarine-shaped room equipped with generators that kick in whenever there’s a power outage (the kind that San Andreas Fault-sized earthquakes tend to bring on). Reporters, editors and production staff are lined up like battery chickens, their heads visible above the walls of their cubicles. We have new bureaus in New York and Boston, ZDNet affiliates around the world, and are, according to December’s Media Metrix numbers, the most popular technology news site on the Web — bigger than the online ventures of the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal and News.com.

My title is senior news producer, and I am supposedly responsible for ZDNet News’ features and special reports, but, day-to-day, find myself doing anything and everything. Yesterday, I was in San Francisco writing a column on the Super Tuesday primaries, editing a feature package, fending off PR flacks, and reporting a news article. Today, I’m in San Diego reporting on a conference about “cyberslacking” and, via my laptop connection, tweaking the Web site remotely from my hotel room. Next week, I might be in Boston for some business schmoozing or appear on TV as a tech pundit.

Life in the Web-trade wasn’t always so glamorous.

My first Web job back in 1996 was as a staff writer for a startup called NetGuide. NetGuide, an $8 million white elephant that touted itself as the TV Guide of the Web, was sequestered in a rabbit-warren suite of in a Gotham City-style skyscraper in the heart of San Francisco’s seedy Tenderloin District. I used to work the night shift – writing reviews of everything from online casinos to online universities to eye-watering porn sites. Some genius thought Web surfers would rather read about a site than go visit it. We wrote 100,000 Web reviews, then went bust.

My second Web job, in 1997, was great while it lasted. I was a producer for The Site, a magazine/news show on MSNBC and the Web that won an armful of Emmy awards and Web awards until it was killed by Princess Diana. The Site was on the verge of signing on for another season with MSNBC when Di died. I was in New York at the time. I remember watching MSNBC in my hotel room. They’d blown out their entire lineup and gone into full mourning mode; a week later they were still doing Diana 24-hours a day and The Site contract was taken off the table. It was never put back.

My third Web job was ZDTV — a cable TV channel devoted to technology and the Internet. ZDTV, which is now owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, was like most startups — I ate free pizza in front of my PC, drank too many vodka martinis, ran three Web sites simultaneously, and slept under my desk during the final rush to launch. I did everything from HTML coding to video and graphics crunching to writing and production to promotions to management. And, by the time I finished, I felt like I needed a decompression chamber.

Looking back, it’s remarkable how fast the Net industry has evolved over the past four years. Back in 1996, no one was talking about IPOs; nowadays even the cub reporters expect stock options. At NetGuide I hand-coded Web pages, published blind, and was read by a few hundred cranks — maybe. Fast-forward to 2000 and building a Web page is, technically, about as hard as buying a book on Amazon.com. Also, if I write a story it can be posted on ZDNet News, MSNBC, Yahoo!, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal to be read by hundreds of thousands of people.

There’s still a hell of a long way to go, of course. Newspapers, radio and TV are settled mediums with accepted protocols for everything from reporting and editing to layout and graphics. Web sites, on the other hand, are still a dog’s breakfast.

If I went to a dozen news sites, odds are, I’d find ten different attempts to deliver a killer news Web site. That’s ten Dame Ednas.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.