Dispatches From Blogistan

home   |   about the book   |   about the author   |   email   |   rss   |   search

the book
Dispatches From Blogistan
by suzanne stefanac
peachpit/new riders
voices that matter series
shipping now
> amazon
> barnes & noble
from the book
> table of contents
> chapter 2 history of open discourse
> chapter 6 history of journalism
> 10 blog design tips
> what is this long tail?
> trackback demystified
> blog ethics primer
> glossary
> resource hotlinks


> cory doctorow

> farai chideya

> bruce sterling

> denise caruso

> craig newmark

> jamais cascio

> laura lemay

> christian crumlish

> jon lebkowsky

interview with denise caruso

/feed/Dcap.gifenise Caruso is a respected technology journalist and consultant who has covered the gamut, from the earliest days of “multimedia” to today’s cutting edge research. It was her work surrounding the idea of online trust that made her an ideal candidate for a Dispatches from Blogistan interview, but readers are sure to find her observations about the state of journalism and the potential for bloggers within that discipline to be enlightening.

Dispatches: Many of our readers will recognize your name from your many published articles, not to mention the five years you spent as Digital Commerce columnist for the New York Times, but perhaps you’d be willing to tell us a bit about yourself?

“A bit” is a dangerous qualifier if you’ve been doing this for as long as I have …!

OK, let’s see. Bachelors degree in English from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. No graduate degrees. First newspaper job was at the San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune, where I started as the switchboard operator. At the time I finished college and left the paper to move to San Francisco to be with my best friend, I was the film, theater and art critic at the T-T.

After that, which was for most of the time that I was employed as a journalist and/or analyst (1982-ish to 2000), I wrote about (and for) the industries that produced and used computer technology.

Happily for me, the beginning of this phase of my career was just a few years before a number of critical technologies (including compression and storage) started becoming advanced and cheap enough that software could start encroaching on industry segments that had been traditionally controlled by media and telco/cable companies.

The first whiff of it I got was when Apple started its top-secret Multimedia Lab in San Francisco, far from corporate HQ in Cupertino. The energy and excitement around these new developments were absolutely electric. There was no doubt the world was going to change as a result of this stuff.

So I quickly focused my work on “multimedia,” as we called it back then — the product of the converging industries of computing technology, telecommunications and traditional media. Once we got the commercial Internet, around 1994-95, the pieces were in place to catalyze a tremendous cultural shift. For those of us who were around at the beginning, which wasn’t all that long ago in the grand scheme of things, sometimes it’s still stunning to reflect on how fast it all happened.

I’ve covered all of these events from Silicon Valley or from San Francisco, which became Ground Zero for the convergence. In late 1986 I started writing what became the anchor column — first called “Inside Silicon Valley,” and later, “Inside Technology” — for the San Francisco Examiner’s Sunday technology section. The editor’s original idea was a gossip column about Silicon Valley, but that lost what little allure it had after about a year, and I found myself focusing more and more on the intersection of computing technology, commerce and culture.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I was the first journalist to write about the impending issues around intellectual property and free speech rights in “cyberspace,” as a result of tracking some very early legislation on the subject in California. This was a couple of years before the Electronic Frontier Foundation was founded in 1990.

Also back in the day, I was one of a handful of people who worked with/for America Online when it was starting up, having changed its name from Quantum Computer Services. AOL was just starting up when I was at the San Francisco Examiner, and Steve Case and Jack Daggitt asked me to start a forum, which I did, based on my Examiner column. It was really fun and lively. I still deeply regret not backing up the archive before they deleted it. We had a folder of jokes that was absolutely unparalleled. They’re all probably on some backup drive somewhere, but I’ll never have the time to find them.

My most recent journalism job was as the technology columnist for the New York Times. In 1995, they invited me to write a bi-weekly column, which I called “Digital Commerce,” in Monday Business Day. By that time, I’d been building my reputation as a technology analyst for almost a decade, having founded three technology industry newsletters — Media Letter, Digital Media and Technology & Media — between 1989 and 1995.

Then, after having had quite enough, thank you, of chronicling the dot-com madness from Ground Zero (my office was literally across the street from the infamous South Park), I resigned The Times column in March 2000 to pursue a dream project that I’d been thinking about for a couple of years: a non-profit research organization that I founded and incorporated in February 2000, called The Hybrid Vigor Institute.

Dispatches: You also worked on a project with the Pew Foundation that I think would be of great interest to our readers. Could you talk a little about it?

Until Hybrid Vigor, this was my most favorite project. It was one of the only times something I did as a journalist, something I’d harped on for years, actually came to fruition in the real world.

For most of 1999, while I was wrapping up my tenure at New York Times, I headed up a consultancy for the Pew Charitable Trusts, which later I delivered to Consumers Union, that was focused on developing standards and practices for improving credibility on the Internet. In 2001, Consumers Union turned the project into a $3.5 million center, called Consumer Web Watch, funded by Pew, the Knight-Ridder Foundation and George Soros’ Open Society Institute.

The genesis of the project was way back in 1993 or 1994, I think. It started as an ongoing “Chicken Little” rant to the journalism community, that online news and information and the ongoing march of delivering technological capabilities to individuals was going to kick journalism’s ass up between its collective shoulder blades if it didn’t take some action, and pronto.

I talked about this everywhere I could. The first time I have it in my archives is April 1994, at a “Future of Journalism” conference at San Francisco State, but I also talked about it later that year at a similar conferences hosted by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and the American Magazine Conference.

I was trying to explain that anyone with a computer and a phone line was going to be able to create “news” or what looked like news, and if we didn’t get out in front of this and educate the public about how journalism as we practiced it (with multiple sources and editors and fact-checking and so on) was different from what we would now call “citizen journalism,” we were going to become obsolete.

I was also concerned about trust and credibility for online sources. Given the tremendous uptick in PC ownership, and the equally impressive uptick in the number of people who were getting online, I knew it was just a matter of time before we had to start questioning the credibility the information that was being posted in various forums, because I knew it was going to look a hell of a lot like all the rest of the stuff that was being branded as “news” online and there weren’t yet any kind of ethical guidelines or conventions for online media.

One of the kind of metaphoric suggestions I came up with was that the profession come up with the equivalent of a cross between the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval and the Milk Advisory Board for online journalism. To earn the seal, a site would have to agree to abide by a certain set of standards and practices that had been agreed upon by the advisory board.

This all fell on deaf ears until 1998, when once again I was talking about the need for these kinds of standards at a journalism conference at UC Berkeley. Apparently there were some people in the audience from a Pew project on the future of journalism, and they decided to start a project to figure out how to address the issue.

After I found out about the project, I contacted the Pew people and was invited to head the project. The first thing I did was contact Matthew Hawn, a terrific journalist who also deeply understands technology and who I’d met and become friends with when we both worked on “The Site,” a short-lived but totally fun ZDTV cable show, hosted by the soon-to-be-famous Soledad O’Brien.

Our mission was to investigate the possibility of creating an industry organization or a nonprofit — we called it Credible.org — that would both create and oversee a set of standards and practices for online publishing writ large.

I add the “writ large” because while the project started out as focused on journalism, Matthew and I realized pretty quickly that the lines between commerce and “content,” for lack of a better word, were already pretty much blurred beyond recognition. So we’d have to include all online publishers if we were going to have meaningful standards — everyone from media providers to search engines, commerce sites, independent journalists and artists, and universities and researchers.

Our admittedly ambitious goal was to come up with new conventions for online publishing, based on the core journalistic concept of disclosure. Disclosure of the relationships between information providers and information sponsors, or advertisers, would give citizens and consumers a gauge to measure trust and credibility. There was effective precedent for this in the conventions that had separated programming/editorial from advertising in broadcast and print journalism for so many years. Or at least there had been, before product placement eroded them.

Given the online landscape at the time, we decided to include several areas of concern in the guidelines we developed.

For example, we thought people needed explicit information about things like sponsored or paid links to other websites, paid editorial, and paid placement in search engines and/or the purchase of pre-loaded keywords from search sites. This for the most part still isn’t happening, except to the extent that companies like Google have made it explicit with programs like Adwords, but there’s still lots of hanky panky that goes on in this arena.

We wanted to know if there were business or financial or other relevant relationships between linked sites, especially if the link was to a site that didn’t adhere to the standards. (This is also still a very murky zone.)

We wanted them to disclose details on how they collected and used personal data, and for what purpose. I’ve been happy to see how many sites have done a good job with this, although I think that was well in process by the time we turned over our stuff to Consumers.

And we wanted to see explicit procedures for handling of misprints, errors, retractions and versions, which as far as I’ve seen still isn’t happening.

We also wanted to see some standards about providing identity — like where a site’s owners or operators were physically located, and how to contact them other than by email. This really doesn’t happen very often, and I have to tell you it’s one of the things that drives me most nuts. What is so bloody hard about this? Grr.

Anyhow, as I said, this was incredibly ambitious, and at some point we realized that what we’d come up with went far beyond making the Internet safe for online commerce. Here’s a notable line from our mission statement (and yes, we italicized it):

“Not insignificantly, a public declaration of online standards and practices on the global Internet [for disclosure] will also inform and guide a new generation of amateur and professional artists and journalists, as well as budding Internet entrepreneurs around the world, about the responsible practice of publishing, online commerce and free speech.”

Dispatches: What has changed between when you worked on the project and today?

From the perspective of the kinds of sites we were looking at then (i.e., not blogs), not much has changed, unfortunately. Consumers Union has a project called Consumer Web Watch that publishes a set of guidelines for web credibility and a set of industry guidelines for search engine and navigation sites that cover a good chunk of what Matthew and I did. But only about 200 sites have signed up to take “the Pledge” to adhere to the guidelines. How many more do it voluntarily, who knows.

When we presented the project to CU, we recommended that the largest part of their budget be directed toward public-service advertising, to really get people to understand why they should look critically at the sites they were using, to demand more transparency and disclosure from the sites they frequented, and to vote with their keyboards if they didn’t get it. This didn’t happen, unfortunately.

The other obvious thing that’s changed is the ascendance of the blogosphere. Dear God. The sheer volume of blogs is breathtaking, and the range of subjects and the kinds of people who are starting them — well, blogs take all the ethical and conflict issues we were concerned with and escalates them to Code Orange in terms of urgency.

So I was really happy to see the blog ethics primer on the Dispatches site. It’s all about disclosure and transparency. It’s also very eloquent and inclusive, probably the best one I’ve seen — although I’ll say I was a bit disappointed that it doesn’t say anything about disclosing identity, which I do think is critical for trust and credibility. (If you have some reason for not wanting to disclose your identity, you can always say, “I can’t or won’t disclose my identity and here’s why,” and that’s fine as far as I’m concerned. Just don’t ignore the issue.) And I do think that most people want to be ethical. It’s just that the ones who aren’t really soil the nest for everyone else. The disinformation potential is just staggering.

Dispatches: Which aspects do you feel are improving?

I do think many sites are giving more than lip service to privacy, and protecting individual privacy. And the fact that people are talking about how to communicate trust and credibility in the blogosphere is a good sign.

Dispatches: Which are not?

I don’t see much happening in terms of providing basic identity-type information. And also, you know, there’s just a really basic problem about public awareness of these issues on the one hand, and compliance with reasonable guidelines on the other. If someone were willing to take on the job of raising public awareness (outside the cognoscenti) about why these issues are important, then maybe more people would be willing to at least try to be compliant with disclosure guidelines. At least they would if they wanted anyone to read and trust them.

Dispatches: Do you distinguish between blogs and other websites when reading them?

I heard somewhere many years ago that the Greek definition of journalism was that it somehow synthesizes multiple sources with direct knowledge of an event or a situation. I like that distinction, and that’s the kind of filter I use to distinguish between what I’d consider traditional news reporting and blogging. And yes I’m well aware of how much credibility has been lost by traditional news reporting in the past few years, so I tend to take everything I read with a grain of salt. And again (she said, beating a dead horse), to a lesser degree I make a distinctions between blogs depending on how much I know, or how much I’m told, about the blogger.

Dispatches: How do you personally determine trust in online environments?

It’s pretty prosaic, what I do, actually. And it certainly lacks precision.

If it’s news in a traditional format I’m reading, I look to see if it comes from a newspaper or newspaper-based service, so I can make a decision about the multiple-sources issue. Also I realize I’m showing my bias here, having been a journalist for so long, but I do believe that having a story vetted the old school way — by an editor — means something, even these days. If nothing else, newspapers are bound by the laws of libel and so aren’t likely to spew obvious untruths for the sake of making a point. I said “not likely,” not “would never.”

If it’s a commerce site, I look for a physical location and/or a phone number and basic security precautions. I want to be able to find them if the transaction goes awry (which happens quite rarely in my experience, but that could be because I’m cautious). If I’ve found it as the result of a search, I balance a bunch of different variables in my head. If it came up in the first 10 results in the search, that could mean they have enough money to pay for adwords or placement, which tells me a little something about their legitimacy, or they’re popular enough that they’ve clawed their way to the top 10. I know it’s a crapshoot, but all this information still tends to be so veiled, it’s really hard to make a completely informed decision.

As for blogs et al., I know I keep harping on this, but the most important thing to me is for someone to identify themselves. I don’t care necessarily if they have any formal cred on the subject they’re blogging, but I do want to know who they are, and what skin they have in the game; i.e., a kind of mission statement, no matter how brief. No one I know ever looks for this, but I also look for whether they declare how they support the blog financially. You can see one revenue stream if there are ads on the site, but if they take money from other places I’d like to know it. It’s just straight-up transparency.

Dispatches: What is your opinion on the citizen journalist phenomenon?

I think it’s great, with caveats.

The great part is that it’s actually possible now to have real watchdogs who, in America at least, can globally distribute the information they uncover. Bloggers are able to break through the MSM barriers and get critical stories out on the net. It’s about time! It’s been very exciting to see how bloggers just kicked the ass of both MSM and politicians and various other malfeasants over and over again in the past few years. And of course, being an example of responsible free speech for the rest of the world — that’s just all good.

The main caveat would be relevance, I guess, for lack of a better term, for the larger blogging community. If there are well over 20 million blogs now, the question isn’t just how do you make money, which I know a lot of people care about, but also, who cares?

I hate to keep sounding like we knew all this stuff years ago and I know this isn’t revelatory in any way, but some of us have been anticipating these problems for a while and it’s kind of weird to see them being acted out. Certainly I didn’t see them manifesting as the blog phenomenon per se, but the issues are still the same.

One story I remember that might be relevant was from a panel at the Digital World conference that I used to co-host back in the early 1990s. Mickey Kapp, who was in special projects at Warner Brothers’ music division at the time, was answering a question from an audience member who wanted to know how to make money on multimedia.

He said, “Who ever told you you’ve got a right to make money?” It’s something to think about. Because we’ve driven down the cost of the means of production and the means of distribution so that everyone can do it doesn’t mean we get to make a living at this; in fact, that just makes the situation worse. “What the market will bear” and all that economics 101 stuff still holds true. I don’t know how this works itself out, or if it’s even a problem for anyone except the people who quit their day jobs to blog. Is it the Calcanises and Battelles of the world starting a new kind of media industry? Is that the right model? Maybe so, but who knows? It’s a crap shoot at the moment.

Also, daily-bread issues aside, we’ve been talking for years now about how and who will develop ways to filter all the stuff that’s being generated by citizen journalists or citizen photographers or citizen whatevers. Some interesting solutions are about to come to market, but even if they work, volume is going to continue to be a cascading problem for people who really want to get their stuff read by more than 10 or 20 people.

Dispatches: What are the greatest opportunities presented by a broader participation in journalism?

If they’re hewing to responsible guidelines, it’s all good: More informed people who take action, and who inspire others to take action. More voices of minorities and the disenfranchised. More responsible free speech, more ability to spread the tenets and the benefits of free speech all around the world. More accountability, more opportunity for true representative democracy to reassert itself here and elsewhere.

Dispatches: What are the greatest dangers?

People won’t hew to responsible guidelines, and then more people will take action based on disinformation, or will be too overwhelmed by all the information and take even less action than they take now. Also there are some real dangers about the ability to narrowcast only to the audience who agrees with you, which could actually lead to an even more factionalized society; i.e., “ideology on demand.”

Dispatches: Can you imagine launching a blog?

Absolutely! I was born to blog. I’ve been waiting for this technology for years. But I’ve just been too busy for the past several years writing a really, really hard book, for which I’m hopefully doing the final rewrite now. I’ve got a couple blogs in mind that I’ll start as soon as I’m done with the @!#$%& thing. One of them will be based on the research that I’ve been doing for the past several years about risk. The other one I think will just be a vanity blog on caruso.com — me doing MST3K schtick on the state of the world. I can’t wait.

// Begin Comments & Trackbacks ?> // Begin Trackbacks ?> if ($comment->comment_type == "trackback" || $comment->comment_type == "pingback" || ereg("", $comment->comment_content) || ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?> if (!$runonce) { $runonce = true; ?>

Listed below are links to other blogs that have commented on this entry via trackback.

    } ?>
  1. 06.20.06 @ 07:21:54 pacific

    What a wonderful history — there is logic out there in this crazy world.

  2. } ?> if ($comment->comment_type == "trackback" || $comment->comment_type == "pingback" || ereg("", $comment->comment_content) || ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?> if (!$runonce) { $runonce = true; ?>

    Listed below are links to other blogs that have commented on this entry via trackback.

      } ?>
    1. Tim Race
      06.21.06 @ 07:27:32 pacific

      Great that Denise has unspooled this history. She’s long been a voice of reason and moral clarity on technology and science topics, with a well-nourished sense of ornery humor, too. I had the fun (most weeks) of editing her Times column for several years.

    2. } ?> if ($comment->comment_type == "trackback" || $comment->comment_type == "pingback" || ereg("", $comment->comment_content) || ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?> if (!$runonce) { $runonce = true; ?>

      Listed below are links to other blogs that have commented on this entry via trackback.

        } ?>
      1. 07.16.06 @ 11:46:19 pacific

        I’ve always enjoyed Denise’s ability to get to the point, as well as maintain the narrative. Very nice interview, and perfect “leading questions” for the Empress of Multimedia.

      2. } ?> if ($runonce) { ?>

      } ?> // End Trackbacks ?> // Begin Comments ?>


        if ($comment->comment_type != "trackback" && $comment->comment_type != "pingback" && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content) && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?>

      1. What a wonderful history — there is logic out there in this crazy world.

      2. } ?> if ($comment->comment_type != "trackback" && $comment->comment_type != "pingback" && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content) && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?>
      3. Tim Race says:

        Great that Denise has unspooled this history. She’s long been a voice of reason and moral clarity on technology and science topics, with a well-nourished sense of ornery humor, too. I had the fun (most weeks) of editing her Times column for several years.

      4. } ?> if ($comment->comment_type != "trackback" && $comment->comment_type != "pingback" && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content) && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?>

      5. I’ve always enjoyed Denise’s ability to get to the point, as well as maintain the narrative. Very nice interview, and perfect “leading questions” for the Empress of Multimedia.

      6. } ?>
      // End Comments ?>

      leave a reply

Thanks for responding. To protect against spam and malicious postings under false names, I request an email address as identification. I will never post your email address publically or use it for any purpose without your express permission. If you'd like to include a URL with your response, it will appear with your comment.