Larry Kramer on CBSNews.com, Transparency, and Having 1,500 Employees for a Web Site

Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer spent more than twenty years as a reporter and editor for such papers as the San Francisco Examiner and the Washington Post before founding MarketWatch.com, a financial news service, in 1997. This March, he was named president of CBS Digital Media, where he now oversees the development of CBS.com, CBS SportsLine.com, CBSNews.com and UPN.com, among others. On July 12, he announced plans for the renovation of CBSNews.com, which included the addition of a blog meant to illuminate the newsgathering process and a redesigned homepage with on-screen access to over 25,000 free broadband video clips from CBS News.

Samantha Henig: What are the reforms going on at CBS.com versus at CBSNews.com?

Larry Kramer: Well, CBS.com is not news. What I’ve done is, I have three sites, and one after the other we’re doing relaunches. The first relaunch was CBS News, and that one we relaunched a week or two ago. The main change there was the entire CBS News operation was committed to work on CBSNews.com. So all 1,500 people at CBS News now also contribute to CBSNews.com.

That’s a massive sea change for a television news operation, and the reason we’re able to do it, one of the reasons, is [CBS doesn’t] have cable [news]. So whereas an NBC correspondent who files from the field for, say, the NBC “Nightly News,” also files from the field for MSNBC and CNBC, our correspondents don’t have those other outlets. What we did was we created the new outlet — a 24-hour outlet for them — we just put it on the Web. And we argue, and I think convincingly, that if MSNBC and Fox and a number of the news networks knew ten or fifteen years ago what they know today, they might not make the same investment in building a cable news operation, because with the advent of broadband on the Web, the Web is really a much more attractive place to get news, even news video, now.

SH: In terms of the “Public Eye” blog, you have brought on Vaughn Ververs to edit that and, as I understand it, he’s serving as the liaison between the viewers on the outside and the reporters on the inside. Andrew Heyward called him a “nonbudsman” [in an interview with the New York Times]. What exactly does that mean? If he’s not serving the role of an ombudsman, what exactly is he doing?

LK: An ombudsman in most cases actually writes and criticizes the news coverage of the newspaper. So if you look at most ombudsmen, look at some of the papers doing it, they make judgments about [coverage]: “We could have done this better, we could have done that better.” We’re not asking him to do that. We’re asking him to go out and find out what the public is saying about our coverage, and what others are saying, and then we’re asking him to pick the most intelligent commentary he sees out there about how we’re covering the news — and there is a lot of it — or how news in general is being covered, not just by us (like “Why is the press covering the Runaway Bride so much?”), and then his job is to then go into CBS News, and get the opinion of the top management or the correspondents involved at CBS News as to what’s going on with that story, why we’re doing it, and moderate that discussion.

So he’ll post the criticism from the outside, he’ll post reactions from the CBS News people, and he’ll be a moderator. He’ll be like the moderator on “Crossfire.” He won’t be a columnist who’s asked his own opinion. His job isn’t to give us his opinion. His job is to get the intelligent discussion on the outside world exposed to CBS, and have CBS react to it, and let people on the outside throw out their criticism of what we’re doing. So he’s meant to moderate that discussion.

SH: Comparing this to, say, people just emailing the person who made those decisions and asking about it and getting a response from that person, is the thinking that having a moderator will make the discussions go more smoothly?

LK: Well, it will ensure that they’ll happen. You can send an email to somebody, and they have no obligation to answer you. [“Public Eye”] will put a little bit of pressure on CBS to respond to what we think are the most important issues being raised. So he’ll be making judgments for people at CBS about what are the important questions being asked.

SH: And then the people at CBS do have an obligation to answer him?

LK: CBS News is saying they will answer. Now, they may sit there and say “There’s a reason we can’t answer that question.” But we’ll be able to publish that. We’ll say that CBS News didn’t respond to that, or said they can’t for this reason. Obviously that’s not going to happen very much, but there may be a business reason, or some reason why they can’t respond to something.

By and large, the goal here is to get them to respond to almost everything. And … we’re going to use audio and video in this technique too — it’s not just letters to the editor. If somebody says something intelligent, if a blogger says something intelligent, we might go to that blogger and say, “You know what, give me 30 seconds of that on the air, give me video,” and maybe they’ll do it off of a camera on their computer, or maybe we’ll actually shoot some video of them. And then we’ll come back in and we’ll shoot video of a correspondent in the field answering that question. We’ll make it a more engaging process.

The other thing [Vaugh Ververs] will do is he’ll be proactive in explaining how CBS does its business. And by that I mean he’ll go in, and he might decide one day to videotape the story conference for the evening news — at 10:00 in the morning they get together and talk about what’s likely to be on the evening news tonight — and give people a glimpse of how those decisions are made. And show the editors pitching stories, and saying “No, we have that, we should put this here, and let’s spend our time on this,” to give more transparency to how we make our decisions.

SH: You’ve mentioned people having a chance to see the “work product” [of CBS News], which I assume ties into the “Public Eye” blog?

LK: Certainly we’re going to do some of that in the “Public Eye.” But I think just as a matter of Internet storytelling, not just for the “Public Eye,” we’re going to be offering up what used to be considered just work product. There’s no reason if we do a thirty-minute interview with somebody, a video interview, we cut out two minutes of it for a report or thirty seconds for a report, and we quote maybe four or five lines in a printed version. There’s no reason we can’t allow our users to see the whole thirty-minute interview if they want. The kind of restrictions that kept us from doing that before — which was that there wasn’t the bandwidth, so for a half-hour news broadcast you take the high points, you don’t actually run the whole interview, ever. But there’s no reason not to. Unless someone said something libelous, or we have reason to be concerned about it, we can offer the user one level deeper into the news gathering process, and show what used to be just considered work product. We remove our judgment in picking what was important for that interview, and let the readers decide for themselves. And there’s absolutely no reason not to do it.

SH: Staying with the transparency for a minute, the news division took a big hit to their credibility with the mistaken National Guard story, particularly among conservative bloggers. Outside of this “Public Eye” blog, is there anything else you intend to do on the Web site to help restore credibility to CBS News?

LK: Well, credibility is earned by your coverage. CBS News has covered the news for 50 years, and done a great job of it. I don’t think what happened with the National Guard is any different than what happened at the New York Times with Jayson Blair, or the Washington Post when they had the … Janet Cooke scandal — great institutions can still be deceived. And whatever happened — and I wasn’t there then, so I can’t really speak to it — but whatever happened during the MemoGate situation, happened. Did that make the CBS News people more agreeable to do something that gives them more transparency? You’d have to ask them that. I didn’t go to them with this idea because of that.

We came up with this idea because we think news, the concept of how news is delivered, has changed. And news has become a loop. You don’t publish a story anymore and that’s the end of it. Stories get discussed, kicked around and reacted to in real time now — that’s what I mean by a loop. And we have to engage that process if we’re going to be a Web news organization.

If you’re a newspaper, there’s nothing you can do for 24 hours. If a story’s wrong, you gotta wait until you can fix it. On the Web, we’re held to a higher standard. The expectation is that that story on our site, as it is, is correct, or it’s correct to the best of our knowledge. If information has surfaced during the day about a story we posted this morning, the public expects that we’ll update that story. And when they come to our site, it’s real time. So we don’t have an excuse, like “Oh, we only publish once a day,” to have a story not be there correctly.

So this process is also designed to make us acutely aware of criticism or commentary about stories we write, so if there is some debate that’s actually something we should pay attention to, and we need to change the story we have posted, we’re aware of it. Just because a blogger posts something on their site saying we’re wrong about a story, A, doesn’t mean we’re wrong and B, we won’t see that, necessarily, not in any real time — he’s a blogger. If we’re looking out there, though, and if we encourage the blogging community and the general public to use Vaughn as kind of a point person when they think there’s something wrong with one of our stories, or they think there’s new information we should know about, that’s great. And it’ll just get it to us faster, and make us pay more attention to a story we might not have paid attention to because we thought it was done.

SH: In terms of soliciting things from the outside, an article in Broadcasting & Cable says that another part of your plan for the new site is to solicit submissions from the public.

LK: That was actually incorrect. That part went further, way further than what I said. He was asking me to respond to the fact that some other Web sites had aggressively sought public contributions, and I said, “Look, public contribution is what it is. It’s interesting. If there’s an explosion somewhere like the London subway bombings, do I want somebody who comes out of that with a great telephone picture to send it to us? Sure. And we should make that easier. We should make it easier for people to offer us what they think would be interesting news or information.” I’m not of a mind to let people post their visions, their view of the world, or submit “citizen journalism” contributions that would automatically get posted with their view of what’s going on. We intend to maintain full control over how news is presented on our site. And we think that’s critical. We’re not a blogger, we’re not a blog — we’re a news site.

[The question was] would we find a way, or could we find a way, to make it easier for people who have something to offer to get it to us. And the answer there is, yes, we will. We’ll figure out a way so that if you’ve got an offering, we want you to think of us first. We might look at that offering and say, “that’s interesting” and send a reporter out to talk to you and have a reporter interview you, or we might say, “that’s a great picture, we want to run it.”

SH: So how do you feel about citizen journalism? It sounds like you don’t really think it has a place on CBS News.

LK: Right, it’s totally different than what we do. We do journalism. I actually don’t really think it’s really “citizen journalism” — I think that’s a misnomer. I think blogging and what citizens do, and citizens’ observations and posting, is interesting, and has a place in the world, and certainly within communities it is very important. People of the same community or who think the same way or who work together on things — those people share a common interest, and their views on things may be of interest to each other. But it’s not news. It’s very different than a news organization that’s committed to covering news and putting it in perspective and covering it fairly, and not in a biased way.

SH: Since you started MarketWatch in 1997, what do you think has changed about the online audience and what it expects from the Web?

LK: Well, it’s grown dramatically, and what they expect from the Web in news, particularly, and in information, has grown exponentially. One of the reasons we did MarketWatch when we did was we thought financial news was going to be one of the first types of news accepted on the Web. And that turned out to be true, for a lot of reasons, including the fact that it has a short shelf life, and so people need it quickly. And historically people in the financial world, in the investing world, had a Web-like utility — they either had a Bloomberg terminal or a Reuters terminal — they’re professionals. So it was an obvious way to us that people were going to get news, if they could, about the market and what’s going on. How quickly sports and traditional news would also be sought after on the Web, we weren’t sure.

And the main thing that’s happened, the main change, has been the continuing technology upgrade of the Internet, to enable all forms of content, including video, to be delivered easily. The broadband revolution has really fueled the past year or two’s constant drumbeat of people coming to the Web for news. So if everybody now has a broadband connection at work, it’s very easy to get the news you want, up to and including video — all forms of news — on the Web, and in real time. Plus Web sites have gotten very good at the alerting process, where we can tell you on email or your cell phone or your BlackBerry that a story just broke about something you’re interested in and drive you to the Web site at that moment to get more information.

So the news consumption patterns have changed dramatically, and our research is telling us that the change is even more profound in younger people. There’s brand new research out this week that says that 75 percent of kids 12-18 are getting news from the Web. That’s a huge percentage! That’s up from like 38 percent five years ago. So that’s just the way it is — kids are all over the Internet for everything, and news is no different.

What really matters here, the opportunity with CBS that got me so excited, was to have a news organization that is funded largely by television revenues, or entirely, which is why it’s so big — by getting access to that entire network to build a news Web site, overnight we’d have the most resourced news Web site in the world. Because all of our people will be working for it.

Samantha Henig was a CJR Daily intern.