The website navigation on each of the top U.S. broadcaster sites is the same litany of typical news categories: U.S., World, Politics, Business, Health, Science, etc. But at ABCNews.com, the list is slightly different: U.S., International, Investigative — that’s right, the Investigative category lands in the No. 3 slot in the site’s navigation, while MSNBC, CBS, Fox News and CNN don’t even bother breaking out investigative reports.
It’s no accident that ABC’s investigative unit is in the spotlight online, as the special web page for ABC’s chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross (pictured here) and his crew has been pounded with traffic ever since they broke the story of Republican Congressman Mark Foley’s instant message come-ons to Congressional pages. That story wouldn’t have been possible without the use of The Blotter, the ABC Investigative Team’s group blog.
While other news outlets also had the more tame instant messages between Foley and a former page, Ross & Co. posted that information online at The Blotter, which led to more former pages coming forward with even more salacious messages. Not too long after that, Foley was resigning from the House of Representatives, and Ross and his blog were now on the media map after an under-the-radar launch last April.
In a phone conversation with me, Ross was enthusiastic about the Internet as a powerful force in aiding investigative reports. Ross is a grizzled veteran of the investigative scene, having helped break everything from the ABSCAM Congressional bribery scandal story in 1980 to the story about secret CIA prisons for terror suspects last year. He has won an awe-inspiring five investigative George Peabody awards, four duPont awards, five awards from the Overseas Press Club and nine Emmys.
Ross has a no-nonsense demeanor, and sounds like a cross between Edward R. Murrow and a narrator of a hard-boiled detective movie. Despite all the laurels he’s received in the broadcast arena, Ross now has the online religion, and has boosted his web presence with daily original video webcasts. While “World News Tonight” is still the primetime showcase for the most prominent investigative work at ABC, the web and The Blotter are perfect repositories for less ambitious work or works in progress.
Unfortunately, the site still has some vestiges of Big Media Oldthink, with a welcome note from Ross with the tagline: “We’re journalists, not bloggers.” Even when introducing the blog as they are on this page, they are worried they’ll be seen as less serious if they are known as bloggers. Hopefully we can get past the pajamas stereotype of bloggers now that enough serious journalists write blogs.
Ross, for his part, laughed at the way ABCNews is doing terminology gymnastics around the blog term, and is a big believer in his audience knowing more than he does. He also told me that the growing importance of the group blog at ABC will change the way investigative producers are hired in the future, as they’ll be required to be good writers. The following is an edited transcript of our phone conversation and email exchange.
Have you been a longtime reader of blogs or online news, and when was your “a-ha” moment when you realized the importance of the Internet as a news medium?
Brian Ross: I am not really a longtime reader of blogs, but in the last year I have dramatically changed my reading habits. [I started] reading the New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times late at night online when their stories are first posted [from the next day’s print paper], and like many others, scanning other sites throughout the day. For me, the “a-ha” moment really came with a story we wrote about CIA secret prisons that appeared only on the ABCNews website — not broadcast — but was reported around the world in just a few hours. The impact is powerful and immediate, and cascades over to the more mainstream outlets.
How big is your investigative team and how many people work on the online component?
Ross: It’s about 12 to 14 people. I’m pushing everyone to make contributions [to the website] on a daily basis, so that our site, The Blotter, is constantly coming up with new items, from little nuggets to big stories. Day to day, you never know what’s going to hit.
For me, it’s becoming a very important part of what we do, because it’s a way for stories that are not front page stories — which would be on “World News Tonight” — to still have a place to be seen. I find that’s helpful for a variety of reasons — to help develop sources, and as we saw with the Foley story, how that story unfolded. It took the first turn of the little story to get the bigger story, and if we had not run that first story, we never would have got those pages’ instant messages. For me, that is a way to have an almost — I don’t want to say a dialogue — but to have instant feedback [from the audience].
I don’t know that somebody would figure out a way to get through to the ABC switchboard. Would you call me? Would you want to do it? It probably wouldn’t work, but this worked out beautifully.
Is that what you were thinking when you launched The Blotter in the spring?
Ross: What I was thinking was, when I look at the landscape of news and how people get their news, it’s clear to me that this is an important part of the future, and I want to be part of that. And I also knew that a lot of work we did, a lot of stories we did, never quite made it to “World News.” It wasn’t quite big enough, or it didn’t quite have the elements to be an interesting [TV] magazine piece, it didn’t have the characters or individuals. Sometimes we had good old-fashioned hard news stories that, if you work for a newspaper, might get published. But where I work, they weren’t getting out. I saw this as a way to essentially make better use of all the work we did.
We did all the work, we had it all pulled together, but it wouldn’t make it on “World News.” So I saw this as a way to establish ourselves in an important new medium. And also, a lot of stories that wouldn’t have been published, we can get them published [online].
Did you get resistance from people within management?
Ross: They’ve been very supportive, there’s been a lot of encouragement about this. Everyone’s excited about this. You occasionally run into this: Who should get it first? Some stories are in fact front-page “World News Tonight” stories. Then the question is, and it’s been an ongoing discussion here, where should it go first? The information I get is that the viewership of the news site peaks around 11 in the morning, and by 5 in the afternoon it’s pretty much done. It’s a big audience, so I’ve been pushing to get our stories that will be on “World News” that night out on the web earlier in the day. But one of the concerns is, well you’re giving NBC and CBS a five-hour headstart to catch up.
It’s hard to figure that, because there’s no doubt there’s been several stories where they have jumped in and tried to get ahead of us or match it for the evening news. And that’s still the flagship broadcast so that matters. But more and more, and with Foley especially, it became clear for the most part, it’s two different audiences and we serve our audience best if we serve everyone. And if it’s really that big, you can’t be sure that no one else already has it, so why not put it out, and if you have it absolutely exclusively then no one else can match it.
We have the debate: What happens if you knew that Osama bin Laden was captured and you had that information at 2 in the afternoon? Would you hold it till 6:30 or would you put it out? My argument is that you have to put it out. The world has changed; it wouldn’t be that way four years ago.
We’re going toward platform-neutrality. You have the news and you get it out however you can when you have it. And you try not to have fiefdoms within the news organization.
Ross: That’s right. Well, here there’s a lot of effort by [ABC News president] David Westin to diminish that fiefdom aspect. It seems like it’s good for everybody.
How often to you post to the blog? I saw that you have webcasts as well — are those original to the web or repurposed from TV reports?
Ross: They are original or extensions of material from TV. The standard for us is that we always make them original or different in some way. We started those webcasts in the last couple weeks and they’ve been very successful.
I try to do at least a story a day [for The Blotter], or two stories, and I will personally write it. If we have a major story, then that will be the first story I write even if I have a “World News” piece.
We call it The Blotter. We had a whole discussion here whether… the “blog” suggests to the bosses that it’s just random gossip and opinion. I don’t know how that definition came to be, but we decided that we won’t call it a blog, but how about The Blotter? Instead of being a blogger we’re a Blotter. [laughs] I don’t know that it makes a difference, everyone calls it a blog, but that satisfied some people here. I am very much involved in that every day.
Do you have different journalistic standards for what you’ll put online vs. what you put in a broadcast?
Ross: No. It’s sort of the magnitude of the story. They’re all vetted in the same way by the same group of lawyers or standards people on a controversial story. Would this make the hurdle as one of the top five or six stories on “World News” or not? But in terms of standards of reporting, no. We still make every effort to reach everybody we’re talking about, the same standards of reporting, sourcing, etc. It’s still all a product of ABC News, there’s just more of it.
After the Foley story broke and it became a big deal, did you feel like it justified doing your big online splash with The Blotter?
Ross: Yes, very much so. Some of the people inside the building were saying this is a kind of watershed moment for ABCNews.com, at least. It broke because it was online and we got the feedback from those who read it and gave us more. It was a big moment, that was driving editorially the news division. At the height of it, we were posting things every couple hours, and there was a large number of viewers reading those things [online]. I don’t think we’ve ever had that, 11 million viewers over that first weekend.
We started just in April, and we’re just in the sixth month of it and it’s been a huge success. It changes and improves the standards of people who are going to be hired by ABC News into this unit. If there ever was a time where TV people didn’t have to write, just had to know what good pictures were or how to get to a fire — that doesn’t work for us anymore. Everyone has to be able to sit down and write a story in an understandable, logical way. Most of our people can do that anyway, but I think that will spread across the network and it will cause ABC to change the standards for hiring people.
If the convergence occurs, the employment skills will be different. They’ll have to be Net-savvy and they’ll have to write. I’m always surprised by the number of people in TV news who can’t write well.
Because they’re writing for a blog, their writing will be seen…
Ross: It will be seen. The correspondents can all write, but the producers behind the scene, in many cases, they’re just setting up interviews or going out and shooting scenes. Now you’re going to have to know how to write.
There’s this maxim that the audience knows more than the reporter, that there’s this expertise out in the world. Do you think the Foley story and the way it broke proves the maxim, and made you think about integrating the audience more?
Ross: Absolutely. Every story gets a comment or gets sets of comments, and some of them are, depending on your political focus, someone who’s been linked to the site from Drudge [Report] or Raw Story, you get a sense of that. Beyond that, there are people who are genuinely interested in the subject or really know something about it. “I’ve served for two years in the Special Forces and I’m telling you it never could have happened that way…” It’s very fascinating to read the comments.
I didn’t understand that when I started, they were saying that people would want to have a back and forth and there would be a community talking about it. I didn’t quite know what that meant. Now I see it and it really does happen. There are exchanges that go on through the night, debating things. I don’t know who they are exactly, but it’s very interesting.
I think this is a brand new huge opportunity for journalists, because we’re not limited to just doing happy talk or soft features — our page has none of that. And we are making a go of it [online], and that’s a huge opportunity for us. We work in a commercial business, and they score us on how many people read us. If there’s a reason and a place to have investigative reporting, that’s a great thing.
How do you deal with getting all those comments? I saw the form you have online for people to submit tips anonymously. Does it take more resources to deal with all that material?
Ross: It takes some. But you also have to have a little bit of a hunch when you go through them. But there are some very interesting leads that come from people, that have really been helpful. On Foley and even before that, we’ve got tips about other suspects in the anthrax case, and how do you sort that out? For us, we don’t just blindly take them. A couple of the [Congressional] pages who read the initial article on The Blotter wanted to know if we wanted to see some “real Foley instant messages” that were different than what we had. We said yes, and our next step was to actually make contact with them. It can’t all just be electronic and no physical contact. We made contact with them.
The great fear of course is what prevents someone from creating something like that and sending it in? How are you going to authenticate that? It was difficult with Foley until Foley himself or his staff said, “Yes, those are his.”
I am curious about that — how do you authenticate instant messages?
Ross: We were sitting around Friday morning [September 29], 10:30 a.m., and I said, “This is amazing, if it’s true this is huge, but how in the world could you ever authenticate this?” It had [Foley’s] screen name, Maf54, which was supposedly password-protected. What would stop someone from creating that kind of document and sending it to us? Mary Mapes [and the RatherGate affair] was staring me in the face there. I don’t want to go down that road.
We’ll have to go find the pages and have them tell us it was him. Instead we called Foley’s office at noon, an hour and a half after we got [the messages], and they called back an hour later, and said, “Yeah, those are his. He’s going to resign and we want to make a deal with you not to use them.” That’s how they were authenticated, they said they were his. Even so, we had talked to some of the pages who had got [the instant messages] by the time we talked to Foley’s office, but we had to have all those elements. It doesn’t relieve you of the basic journalistic footwork, but [the website] provides a lot — A LOT — of interesting leads, you might not otherwise get.
There’s the Center for Public Integrity , where they get foundation funding and they don’t have to worry about what their ratings will be. Do you see that as being part of investigative journalism going forward?
Ross: It’s all for the good. To the extent that there’s so much of it, readers or viewers or whatever you want to call them, will want to have somebody they trust and know this is for real, it’s not just a rumor or a conspiracy theory, this is for real. That’s ABC News, that can be our role. We should be out there and be aggressive. Our site won’t be the latest rumors, it will be just facts.
We’ll sort it out. If we have it up, it’s because we believe it is true. It won’t just be someone writing in saying, “Well I think what’s going on here…” It’ll also be more than that. It will be closer to old-fashioned reporting, but distributed in a new way.
Do you have plans to do more on the site? If you had more resources, what would you do there?
Ross: I think we want to expand the video component. I’d like to encourage video back-and-forth with the readers. They can shoot video and send it to us, and we’ll put it up. Just keep pushing for stories. It’s really the reporting in the end that makes a difference. If we get too far away from that, we’ll be lost. You can do a lot of celebrity stuff, and get clicks and readers, but I’m determined not to do that, to keep it honest and I feel that we can grow it this way and we’ll really have something special.
What do you think about all the bloggers, like Wonkette, who have taken a lot of stabs at you personally?
Ross: [laughs] I actually think it’s kind of fun. I have a thick skin when it comes to that — you really have to. I think it’s interesting. I enjoy reading about it. Certainly in the middle of the discussion is where you want to be. And I’m comfortable about everything I’ve done so it doesn’t get to me. That’s the nature of what we’re doing. People are free to criticize and critique and so on. I’m glad to have them read it and say they like it or hate it. I think we should encourage that type of dialogue. I always say, more speech is better than less speech.
How do you decide on what you run in your comments?
Ross: Anything short of out-and-out obscenity or profanity. But there’s no restrictions on criticism. That’s not a criteria. It’s strictly about whether you’d want to read it, and not be offended by the language. And I don’t think we want to get into somebody libeling somebody else. That’s not the place to announce they think this Congressman is a pedaphile too. It’s strange that some people are complaining we don’t post their comments, because we post virtually everything and we want more not less.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see the quality of thought that has gone into this, and the debate, and I just think it’s terrific. These are people who, whatever their opinions are, they do care about the issues, and they’re taking time to engage and to read. It says to me that this is where television has not given them what they want which is the ability to talk back and to be engaged. It comes close to working in a small town newspaper or radio station where you get to hear from your neighbors about what you’ve written. We lose some of that when we get to New York and the network, it doesn’t get through, but now it can, which is a great thing.