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Outside Voices: Safran Wields The Remote

Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week we turned to Steve Safran, the Managing Editor of Lost Remote, a must-read Web site dedicated to "reporting on and advancing the state of convergence in news and related media." Steve is Director of Digital Media at New England Cable News, a 24-hour regional news channel based in the Boston area, and oversees the station's online, VOD, cellphone and other emergent digital news products. He is also on the station's morning newscast, with "Reports from the WebCenter." As always, the opinions expressed in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Now, here's Steve:

It might be breaking the unspoken critics' code of "never praise unless there's a junket involved," but I really like the moves CBS News is making these days. At Lost Remote, we have been talking for years now about opening the news process, inviting viewers and users into the "conversation" of news and providing information on our terms, not on the network's.

All of a sudden, it's happening. And at CBS News.

I wouldn't have predicted CBS News would take the lead in this space, but frankly – it has. I visited the studio – and it is a studio – at recently and I gotta say – impressive. Web news sites have long been relegated to the ol' storage closet on the third floor. But CBS has figured out that the Web site staff shouldn't find out about news from the TV newscast. The Web room has all the feel of a traditional TV newsroom. If you were to walk into there, I guarantee you wouldn't guess "Web production" first.

The site is an impressive step forward for Web news. The video is prominent (although I would make it even more so) and the selections of both original and repurposed news stories are deep. Lost Remote readers this month voted The CBS O/O stations' sites as the best in local news. Trickle-down, at last.

Still, I'd have to turn in my Cynical Critic's credentials if I didn't point out a few areas that could use improvement. (At Lost Remote, we're noted for giving free advice that's totally worth it.) Podcasting has absolutely exploded. I want to be able to put the CBS News stories on my iPod. (Actually, I want to get a video iPod first. I'm always open for a Hanukkah present…) The CBS Evening News on TV needs to integrate the site even better.

The integration model I like has always been the PBS shows such as "Nova" and "The American Experience." Throughout those shows, a small banner will pop up periodically inviting the viewers to visit the site for "the full interview" or maps that show the story in a visual, global context, or other related – but not duplicated – information. It drives me to the PBS site, it makes me respect their thought process, and it gives me the message "learn more if you want to, when you want to."

Jeff Jarvis, of BuzzMachine fame, made an excellent suggestion for CBS News this week. "60 Minutes" interviewed Howard Stern. Jarvis suggested post the full interview in streaming video on the site. Great idea and I was pleased to see the site respond so quickly and post some of the Stern material that was not aired. The clips should have been even longer, but the site was quick to respond to a good suggestion

CBS News could also take a tip from and stream the evening newscast in its entirety. I would go one better and stream it live, make it iPod-friendly and even – and I know this is radical – break into the Web with video breaking news. I could envision browsing and an alert comes across for breaking news along with a video link. This would keep me glued to the site longer, because I would know the folks there are going to tell me when there's a huge story breaking, and they're going to tell me faster than they could on TV – and with more depth.

I wonder sometimes if we aren't over-reacting to the bloggers. And I'm a blogger. It's strange how much power the bloggers have built so quickly. I'm not opposed to the blog movement at all – but it seems CBS News is occasionally guilty of over-responding. As much as I like Public Eye, it can come across as defensive. This isn't necessarily the site's fault; it is, by definition, an ombudsman site dealing with a cranky audience. If I call CBS News and complain about something, I'm likely to get a polite operator saying "thank you for the feedback." But if I blog it, suddenly I have power? At the risk of being accused by my fellow bloggers as someone who "doesn't get it," I don't get it. There's something to be said for bloggers as a sort of "Fifth Estate" that keeps an eye on us. But newsrooms are guilty of taking one blog or one email and acting upon it as though it were from a focus group. React, but don't overreact. Look at the overall response and not just one sample.

Among Public Eye's many pluses, however, is its editorial willingness to talk about "the other guys." It has always been a ridiculous, childish rule in newsrooms that you can't mention the competition. It even gets journalistically dishonest sometimes, with stations only saying "according to media reports" or even stripping the story wholesale. Public Eye takes a considerably more mature approach; it recognizes its competition and even – gasp – praises them when they do a good job.

That's not just humility – it's honesty. It doesn't drive viewers to the other networks. It enhances CBS News and its credibility. There's no good in pretending you're the only game in town. Will I check out a competitor's site if CBS News tells me that site's doing something well? Yes. But I will be all the more willing to keep as my home base.

So, apart from the Public Eye's questionable judgment in seeking my advice, I'm impressed. CBS News hasn't finished the difficult job of true convergent media – not by a longshot. But it's starting well and even in some cases, it's leading.