Sunday, April 23, 2006
AP PROFILE: Kevin Sites goes online at Yahoo to tell smaller stories
PUBLISHED: Saturday, April 22, 2006
Sites Goes Online to Tell Smaller Stories
By ANICK JESDANUN
The Associated Press
NEW YORK - Former television journalist Kevin Sites is mindful that his online dispatches from the world's war zones won't attract anywhere near the audience he's used to getting on the evening news. But that's just fine, he said. Halfway through a year-long gig to visit nearly two dozen conflict-ridden countries for Yahoo Inc.'s news Web site, Sites said he gladly trades the mass audience for the freedom to tell smaller stories about human lives. "I can be putting `American Idol' on the site and have 20 to 30 million people, but what kind of impact am I having?" Sites said during a brief return to the United States.
From northern Iraq, Sites wrote about the tranquility and economic development surrounding a park that was once an Iraqi Army headquarters. From Baghdad, he reported on the complexities of the U.S. Army's humanitarian mission. Later in Afghanistan, he compiled a photo essay on the good luck charms worn by service personnel.
Other news organizations carry human-interest items, too, but Sites says he enjoys devoting his full attention to it _ and doing it through text, video and photos, in a mix that makes the most sense for each story. "I don't have to cover the news of the day," Sites said. "I don't have to do a body count every day." In an interview at the global headquarters of The Associated Press, Sites also said he could visit locales he considers undercovered on the evening news: Somalia, Uganda, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others. His site, at http://hotzone.yahoo.com, has the feel of a fancy Web journal, with the latest dispatches on top and the ability for readers to post comments. But Sites, 43, sees his effort as more narrative storytelling than blog.
Adam Clayton Powell III, a former television news producer who now specializes in new media at the University of Southern California, said Sites' approach to news gathering is fundamentally no different from what traditional outlets have been doing for centuries. The equipment, though, is newer, and the shrinking of high-tech devices allows Sites to operate as a solo journalist, spending seven to 10 days in each country unencumbered by entourages with heavy gear. Two digital camcorders, a digital still camera, an Apple PowerBook laptop, two phones and a satellite modem fit into a backpack. He hires translators and fixers to help with logistics on the ground, but his three full-time producers are back at Yahoo News' Santa Monica, Calif., offices.
"Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone" draws a monthly U.S. audience -- Internet users visiting at least once that month _ ranging from 500,000 to 1.4 million, according to comScore Media Metrix. (Some stories also appear in print through the Scripps Howard News Service.) That's larger than the Internet's most popular Web journals and comparable to the entire Web sites of many metropolitan daily newspapers, but it's nowhere near broadcast outlets _ on the Web or over the air. Consider NBC, which had retained Sites as a freelancer before he joined Yahoo last year. MSNBC.com typically gets at least 24 million visitors a month, while Nielsen Media Research says NBC's "Nightly News" averaged 8 million viewers last week --_ that's for simultaneous viewers, not the once-a-month requirement for Internet tracking. In fact, it was one of Sites' NBC dispatches that got him notoriety. He shot video of a Marine corporal shooting an apparently injured and unarmed Iraqi in a Fallujah mosque;!
the footage prompted outrage among Iraqis. He later wrote about it on his blog and got attention that cemented in his mind the Internet's power. Sites, who also had worked for CNN and ABC, said he no longer needs to compete with his colleagues for two minutes of airtime. Nor is he restricted in format _ at CNN, he was asked to suspend his blog.
Steve Outing, an online columnist for Editor and Publisher magazine, said Sites' focus is nontraditional, but not unique. Outing cited dispatches by columnist Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times as among the efforts by traditional outlets to cover underreported regions around the world. Powell added that the plethora of international news outlets available online lets readers and viewers assemble the types of stories Sites is doing. More notable, Outing and Powell said, is Yahoo's involvement with news reporting. Traditionally, Yahoo News gets its material from deals with traditional outlets like the AP, Reuters, USA Today, National Public Radio and CNN.
Neil Budde, general manager of Yahoo News, said that when Sites proposed the project, Yahoo saw "an opportunity to create content from the ground up for the Internet" rather than reuse items initially made for other media. Yahoo, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., has consolidated its media operations 300 miles to the south in Santa Monica, near Hollywood, prompting speculation about the company's ambitions as a content creator. Yahoo carries some original finance, sports and travel columns and recently reached a deal with CBS's "60 Minutes" to package new footage. Budde, who would not discuss the Sites project's costs, considered it "a little bit of a departure. We're not saying we won't be doing more of those, but it will be like Kevin, in very specific areas."
Stuart H. Loory, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, said there are enough untold stories out there for Yahoo or anyone else to tell. "No one outlet can do a good job of covering everything," he said. "They will bury stories that he will see as more important ... and give it more prominence."
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