On May 16, Rupert Murdoch's News
Corp. sponsored a "new media workshop" in downtown Manhattan.
After a projected image of unofficial corporate mascot Homer Simpson ("Doh!") brought
from the suits in attendance, News Digital president Jon Richmond took the
tout the company's Web presence in the U.S. FoxSports.com and Fox.com, he said, have become popular
But when Richmond brought up Foxnews.com, and News Corp.'s plans to
with local Fox TV affiliates, the crowd was silent.
The news channel has a site?
Meanwhile, just a few blocks uptown at News Corp. HQ, there can be heard
sound: The whooshing noise of Foxnews.com employees printing out their
risumis. The all-news site has always been a revolving door:
Web ratings (it finished a distant sixth place to industry leader MSNBC.com in February and March) and
dysfunctional management style have made it a way station for online
years. But an on-high decision to remake the site in the image of the more
News Channel seems to be roiling the waters.
Why are employees jumping ship? This looks to be one heavy-handed makeover.
"The channel has sent people in," said one staff member who chose to remain
anonymous. "There's been a deliberate shift toward a more conservative point
They've been going around saying they want us to be more 'fair and
balanced' -- which to
them means more of a focus on conservative values."
Anyone familiar with the Fox News Channel knows that its outlook -- and most
commentators -- are unabashedly conservative, and much of its programming is
to talk rather than hard news. But under the guidance of Fox News chairman
that focus on politics and personalities has proven to be a winner. After
struggling, the network now enjoys parity with its competitors, MSNBC and
Murdoch would clearly like to see some of that mojo transplanted to the
Ailes, a former media advisor to presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush, has made
on other networks as well. It is he we have to thank for programs such as "A
Affair" and "The Maury Povich Show"; while at CNBC and NBC's all-argument
experiment "America's Talking," he brought Chris Matthews to the world and
life into Geraldo Rivera (the John Travolta of prime time news). Now at Fox
News he has
done the same thing, making stars of conservative commentators like Bill
ABC-defector Brit Hume. (Between disasters, Ailes has noted, news watchers
something to return to.) And he has provided a safe haven to the
conservatives of our country -- free from what they consider the liberal
CNN, NBC, ABC et al. -- under the banner: "We Report, You Decide."
Some close to Foxnews.com say Ailes has now taken an interest in influencing
Laura Durkin, News Digital Media's senior vice president, says the push
"convergence" between the channel and the site is only logical. "The idea
for the News
Corporation is to have one Fox News effort that joins together all the news
rooms all over
the country here and across the U.S.," she says. "There's no point in us
She also discounts tales of employee dissatisfaction and downplays the
chalking them up to the peripatetic nature of new media. "The pressures of
here in New York are such that there is turnover," she says. "We've actually
At least one new face can be found preaching the gospel of convergence. The
Foxnews.com team now reports to new executive editor Scott Norvell, a
veteran of the
Fox News Channel, who was recently on assignment in London. "Laura and Mr.
brought me over here because we're spending a lot of time and money
producing a lot of
content at the news channel that -- because of the nature of television --
disappears into the ether and doesn't get used again," he says.
"I hate to use the word 'convergence,'" he adds. "It's one of those
buzzwords that makes
me insane. My job here is from a procedural point of view to figure out a
way to make it
work. It wasn't happening naturally."
In early meetings with site staff, Norvell spelled out his mission -- and
the direction the
site would need to go. "My first goal was to make sure that a lot of the
stories getting up
on the channel are getting up on the Web site. That basically means taking a
script and repurposing it for the Web."
Repurposing TV scripts is not why some of the journalists at Foxnews.com got
business ("That meeting caused a lot of people to start looking for jobs,"
according to one
staffer), but it may be no worse than rewriting wire stories from AP and
Reuters to brand
them as "Fox News." They call the process "foxify," and according to one
it can play hell with a story. "Things would get rewritten so many times the
would be incoherent."
Worse, some reporters say they have been encouraged to rewrite controversial
especially those dealing with gun control, abortion and homosexuality -- to
the prevailing opinions found on the channel. Both Durkin and Norvell deny a conservative mandate.
"The news that we put up is not going to change," insists Norvell. "The
[pages devoted to Fox News TV talent] will reflect the personalities of the
people on the
air. The personalities of the O'Reillys of the world are self-evident."
A casual visitor to the site might be more frustrated by the technology than
politics presented. Searches don't work, pop-up windows don't scroll, the
Java script on
the front page seems to seep through every application (at least on my
laptop). "There are
sirens going off all over the place here about trying to fix some back-end
had for a long time," says Norvell.
While political bias often seems evident -- Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., was
"Hillary's Nightmare" and the story of the Arkansas supreme court's
President Clinton be disbarred featured a photo of Bill grinning like a
jackal from behind
the presidential podium. Still, it's no more (or less) overt than a Murdoch
the New York Post. Which, says editor of rival MSNBC.com Merrill Brown, is
"There's no question about the fact that they have a different take on
stories; there's no
question that they book guests and hire hosts [on the channel] with a
different kind of
balance than I believe, as a journalist, is appropriate for objective
Brown. "I don't have a problem with that. I do have a problem with their
admit what they're doing."
Some of the friction over at the news site may be the result of typical New
journalists -- moderate to liberal in their politics, a mix of races and
genders, gay and
straight -- accepting what they perceive as a conservative influx. Some of
it may be
old-fashioned employee burnout at a company known for its occasionally
managerial style. Either way, the exodus shows no sign of slackening. There
many people leaving for a while that departing employees were asked not to
co-workers they were going: They simply disappeared. One ex-staffer asked me
heard of the "cake budget."
"There were so many people leaving for a while that people who were favored
got a big
cake," she says. "And the people they didn't like would either get no cake
or a little cake,
and you could only have a couple of people come and say goodbye. The
'What kind of cake am I gonna get?'"
And in the end, isn't that what we all want to know? The problems of a few
don't amount to a hill of beans in the making of global multimedia empire.
another line from "Casablanca," at least one old Fox hand I spoke to said
"shocked, shocked" to learn there was any conservative opinion mongering
In a larger context, the changes at Foxnews.com might simply be seen as good
sense -- and another attempt by Murdoch to get his hands around the Web. I
Murdoch in 1995, on an aborted joint venture between News Corp. and MCI
iGuide. That experiment was too chaotic to be conservative; no one knew what
to do with
this thing, let alone what ideology it should have.
But the boss's prejudices were made manifest. I assembled a bulletin board
of sorts during
the United Nation's Women's Congress in Beijing that year, a collection of
feminists and politicians. On the top of the page was one written by Sen.
Kennedy (or someone on his staff) -- and I arrived one morning to find it
Murdoch was on the premises, I was told, and he hated Kennedy. Rather than
offending him, the pesky Ted was removed. (And Rupert probably wishes it
easy in real life.)
Though some think Murdoch blew it with the iGuide (the project was scrapped
MCI pulled out), News Corp. may be in an even better position to tackle the
According to Norvell, Murdoch has invested 250 million pounds to building
television's Internet efforts in the U.K., and Wall Street loves him.
he has never been one to let ideology slow him down; the Village Voice
unchanged under his ownership, and lord knows, Matt Groening is no
If a conservative tilt has worked on cable, maybe it will make it on the
emptor," says Columbia Journalism Review editor at large Neil Hickey. "The
merrier. The antidote to controversial speech is more controversial speech,