Recent graduate building career
in online journalism
April 20, 1998
Just two years ago, Eric Owles was a student in J250, a professional journalism seminar. On Wednesday he was an invited speaker in the class.
Owles is now a producer for the online version of The New York Times..
Since graduating in 1996, he has held two different jobs, experienced a corporate merger and been laid off. But as a result of this whirlwind emerging career, the former news editor of UConn's student newspaper, The Daily Campus, now has ABC News, The Washington Post and The New York Times on his resume.
"It's indicative of how the 'new media' speed up a lot of things," he told the class of two dozen students. "Everyone else is starting on the same level of zero. There isn't anyone out there with 10 years' experience on the Web," he said. "It's a pretty quick ladder you climb."
Armed with a degree in political science and journalism but little work experience other than The Daily Campus and brief stints of volunteer and freelance work for local papers, Owles set out in the summer of 1996 to work in Washington, D.C., hoping to write for a newspaper. He launched his career through a contact with UConn alumnus Steve Hull '78, also a former news editor of The Daily Campus, who was starting a new website to cover the presidential election of 1996..
Owles said the website, Politics USA, was the first website not based on other media. Although he had little background in computers, he joined the news department as an intern..
A week before he started, ABC News and the Washington Post took over the website, to compete with CNN's website, and it became PoliticsNow.
Owles's first assignment was to cover the MTV-sponsored Rock the Vote party. He said his editor "ripped apart" his story because he had written it as if it would be printed in newspaper form. He said writing specifically for the Web requires a different style, including dividing the text into more subsections, providing an overview at the beginning so readers can absorb the news at a glance, and offering separate background articles for readers who want to follow the story in greater depth.
His work involved not only writing and reporting for the website, but research and searching for background information. "It's a lot of knowing how to find information quickly and putting it together," he said.
As in all news reporting, speed is crucial. "The goal is to have the story up first," said Owles. But the difference with news on the Web, he said, is that news can be posted 24 hours a day. "You don't have a deadline per se as other mediums do." He pointed to some false allegations published by the Dallas Morning News in the Clinton sex scandal as an example of the increased time pressure on all news organizations that has sometimes compromised accuracy.
Because he knew less about computers than about writing, Owles was given a beat at PoliticsNow and he began to cover subcommittee meetings on Capitol Hill. His first was a bill about the Internet in Africa. For his story on the Web, he added a separate overview on the problems for technology in Africa.
In August 1996, when almost the entire staff of PoliticsNow went to cover the party conventions, he had to start learning more about computers, including the computer language HTML, in which material is presented on the Web..
When his internship was over, Owles landed a job with the PoliticsNow classroom, packaging for students the news from the PoliticsNow website, together with information from political science textbooks. But in March, PoliticsNow folded, as ABC News and the Washington Post branched off to create their own websites.
Owles was unfazed, realizing that in this fast-moving field, "as quickly as one shop is closing down, another is opening up." Within a month or so, the 20 staff members of PoliticsNow had found jobs and he says he now has contacts at 20 different news organizations.
Owles himself, after a protracted interview process, landed a job at The New York Times, working on the online version. He said his experience at The Daily Campus served him well during a week-long try-out dubbed "the sausage grinder tour." "I was used to midnight hours at The Daily Campus," he said.
At the Times, Owles chose to work on the national desk. As a producer, his day starts at 4 p.m. with a review of the news and meetings to decide on content. From 7:30 p.m. to midnight, he and his colleagues - average age 25 - put together the news stories and post them on the Web.
Part of his job is to package the news, providing background information in connection with the stories. Owles had been at the Times only a week when Princess Diana was involved in a car crash.
He created a package with a link to a story about her wedding, including a video clip, her divorce, and the chronology of her life. When news of her death came in, the newspaper had already gone to press. Working from the Associated Press story and the Times story, Owles and others created a new lead and a new package of information that would not be available in the newspaper for nearly 24 hours.
Despite the advantages of online news, Owles said he does not think the medium will displace print. "People like to have a newspaper to read, fold and carry around.".
Whatever direction the industry takes, he said, students who are aspiring journalists need to focus on the basics. "Take advanced reporting classes, learn copy editing and the Associated Press style. Make sure you have the basics down.".
Owles said he particularly values the writing and editing skills he learned at UConn. "I've used those skills in every job I've had since then."
Beyond that, he said, it's hard to prepare for the future. "The field is changing so much, what you learn today will not be much use tomorrow.".
Owles isn't looking too far ahead, but he has set his sights on covering the presidential election in the year 2000.
The professional journalism seminar is run by associate professor Marcel Dufresne. This semester, the seminar features 13 speakers, including Pulitzer Prize-winner Maura Casey, editorial writer and columnist at The Day of New London, and UConn alumni Jayne Keedle, '87, arts and features editor at The Hartford Advocate; Lisa Caruso, '90, senior editor, Lifetime Learning Systems of Stamford; Gavin Daly, '95, managing editor, Fabrics and Furnishings International, Stamford; and Allyson Miller, '97, editor, Bureau of Business Practices, Waterford.