Interview: CK Sample, III

The lead anchor and managing editor of the new Netscape, which relaunched in 2006 as a social news site where users submit stories and vote on their importance, talked to PRWeek.com about his interest in blogging, how the Netscape anchors follow up on breaking news, and how the conflict between his boss and Kevin Rose, founder of competitor Digg, is a non-issue.

The lead anchor and managing editor of the new Netscape, which relaunched in 2006 as a social news site where users submit stories and vote on their importance, talked to PRWeek.com about his interest in blogging, how the Netscape anchors follow up on breaking news, and how the conflict between his boss and Kevin Rose, founder of competitor Digg, is a non-issue.

Q: How did you start working at Weblogs Inc. and what attracted you to the company?

A: I'd been blogging non-stop for years on my own, working full-time, and freelancing on a few O'Reilly books as a side gig. When Weblogs, Inc. came along, inviting me to blog for The Unofficial Apple Weblog, I found myself doing what I'd done freely on my personal blog while making more money than I'd earned through the freelancing, and without having to go through multiple revisions or really dealing with any major edits to my writing. The editorial layer at Weblogs, Inc. was less [than] that of a traditional editor and more akin to a mentor or guide. Weblogs, Inc. was there to help facilitate my blogging rather than to shape or remake it.

Q: What does your position as managing editor at Netscape entail?

A: It's a layered position. On one hand, I deal with a lot of administrative bits and pieces. I report directly to [Weblogs, Inc. CEO] Jason [Calacanis], so we discuss issues with the site, [including] how to improve our current feature set, upcoming features, and the direction [in which] we are taking Netscape. I help support both the developers and the editorial team. Since before launch, I've been finding talent.

As one of the site's two lead anchors, I determine [which] stories warrant follow-up, help establish [the]best editorial practices and guidelines, help schedule event coverage,  proofread things written by my team, [and] make recommendations to them about their writing.

Outside of these administrative duties, I perform the same duties as every [other] member of the Netscape anchor team: I monitor the site for duplicates, spam, and any abuse of the system as reported by our members and our anti-spamming algorithms. I also do follow up meta-journalism in the form of anchor commentary on stories that have been voted to the main page by our members or those that are breaking news that warrant attention.

Q: What about new media such as blogs and group-edited news sites appeals to you?

A: I like the community aspects. It's nice to see communities forming in spite of modern day obstacles; writers and audiences [are] finding paths to each other via virtual worlds. There's certain honesty and freedom in these communities that I think is lacking in other forums, just because these other forums have such a history of rhetoric layered upon them. The New York Times is the New York Times half because of its writers and half because of its audience. We're forming new audiences that can be as broad or as specialized as one wants with sites like Netscape. The lack of a tradition to follow in these areas frees us to find these audiences more organically and with less wasted resources than with traditional media.

Q: How do you know when to build upon and follow up on a story that is submitted by a reader?

A: Unless we're submitting our own original content, such as our recent coverage of ComicCon, we really only look into stories that have been voted up by the readers or that we've recommended at the top of the site. There are a lot of stories that get voted up that really have no means of follow up, so it's easy to spot one ripe for the picking. For example, nearly daily, we get a popular video voted up to the front page, but rarely do pieces like this warrant any substantial anchor commentary. Although we do take the time to embed the video in the anchor commentary. Any story that the mainstream media is all over is very ripe for meta-journalism.

When the Palestine and Israel conflict erupted, initially there was [only] a single story from (I believe) CNN.com with no mention of the story on any TV station or any other online source. We highlighted the story at the top of the homepage and flagged the story as under dispute, while we looked for more information. Once it was confirmed by more than one source, we removed the dispute flag and continued to update the anchor commentary throughout the day with links to other major news media coverage, Flickr pictures, and links to Palestinian and Israeli blogs discussing what was happening. All of this happened very quickly with multiple anchors adding updates to the post and constantly discussing the story [both] in chat and via e-mail.

Q: Because Netscape.com and other forms of group edited news sites rely upon consumer submitted content, how do you think these sites may be of interest to individuals working in the PR industry?

A: I think there is a strong parallel to the value of blogs and blogging to the PR industry. Monitoring consumer opinions can be difficult and costly for some companies, and blogging and community driven sites like Netscape provide relatively easy to find and transparent feedback.

Q: Should PR professionals be reaching out to/using group edited news sites? What ways can they do so?

A: I think so, but they need to be careful in how they use them. I wouldn't start submitting press releases left and right to these services, as it will most likely be judged as spam in the system. Submitting an occasional blog entry about a press release that could be of definite interest to the community, however, would most likely be okay. The value of blogging and socially-run sites is that they tend to be very honest and very good at sniffing out something that isn't on the up and up. Of course, the flip side of this is that you get a lot of people out witch-hunting. The best way to use these sites is to make sure you are always approaching them as a regular member, not as a PR professional. If you're actively using the site like any other member, submitting stories from all over the Internet that interest you, you'll quickly discover what is permitted and what is not. Many users of such sites submit their own blog posts from time to time when they think there is some actual value in the post, but if you're continually submitting your own material, or worse your minimal commentary on a story that really originates somewhere else, people are going to accuse you of acting like a middleman and spamming the system with your own stuff.

Q: What things have you learned from the Digg-Netscape situation?

A: I don't think there is a situation. Digg is not the first social bookmarking or social news site, [and] Netscape won't be the last. There are and will [continue to] be many others. We've hired Navigators from more places than just Digg. Our presence in the market, to a certain degree, legitimizes the space and is great for Digg and every other social news site, because we are the first social news site backed by a large company. Kevin Rose's reaction to our presence in the market is good PR for Digg, and I guess for us as well, but we're not out to destroy Digg.

Q: How have you found the work of the newly-hired Navigators? What metrics are you using to determine success?

A: It's been great. They're all great at finding cool stories and they have valuable experience working in online communities, so it's good to see them already interacting with our members and helping the community grow. This growth (and we have seen it growing daily since launch) is the measure of our success.

Q: Do you envision traditional publishers mimicking the democratic news rating approach? Or is there room for both options?

A: I've already seen some traditional publishers moving in this direction, but I don't think any of them will make it their mainstay. There is plenty of room for both options.

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