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Yahoo's 'Hot Zone' Focuses on Armed Conflicts


And now from advertising to journalism. The Internet giant Yahoo! has recently been trying its hand at journalism, actually producing its own stories. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, this experiment is both drawing praise and raising concerns that a net portal may not be qualified to report the news.

LAURA SYDELL reporting:

Yahoo!'s calling it the Hot Zone. Veteran television journalist Kevin Sites is traveling the world visiting the most heated war zones. So far, he's been to Iraq, Somalia, Congo, Sudan, Lebanon and Uganda explaining what's behind the conflicts. In Uganda, the government is fighting with a rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army or LRA.

Mr. KEVIN SITES (Journalist): The LRA says it wants a Christian government based on the Ten Commandments but their actions have thrown the region into a living nightmare.

SYDELL: Sites shows footage of women and children fleeing rural areas for the protection of urban shelters for the night. He explains an unanticipated consequence, unsupervised young adults having sex and spreading AIDS. This nearly four-minute report can be found at Yahoo! News. Speaking to NPR from a phone on Beirut, Sites says he wants to give Americans the foreign coverage that is often lacking from traditional news outlets.

Mr. SITES: I think we can fill that void and I don't subscribe to the view that Americans or viewers in general don't want foreign news. I think they're hungry for it. I think they're starving for it.

SYDELL: Yahoo! executives agreed. When Sites, a former NBC and CNN reporter and producer, approached them with his idea of visiting the world's trouble spots, they decided to back him. The Hot Zone has news reports, audio, Kevin Sites' written entries, still photos and unedited tape that one wouldn't get from television. There's also a place for users to post comments. Scott Moore, vice president of content operations at Yahoo! Media Group, believes users can connect more deeply to the content because of this multimedia approach. He points to a post of unedited interviews Kevin Sites did in the Congo with women who experienced abuse at the hands of soldiers.

Mr. SCOTT MOORE (Yahoo! Media Group): He's interviewing these women, one-on-one, and you can see it impacting him as he's hearing these stories and you get done and you just feel like you've seen something now that you would never see on a traditional news outlet. The audience response to that piece in particular was overwhelming.

SYDELL: Moore says it was the most e-mailed clip on Yahoo! that day and 1,000 users posted comments. In October, Yahoo! reports that Hot Zone had nearly 800,000 unique visitors who were spending four times longer at the Hot Zone than they were at Yahoo! News. Kevin Sites works with a team of four people who edit and produce his work for the Web, but mostly he travels alone with a small video camera, a still camera and a notebook. Orville Schell, dean of the journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley, says the school is training students to be versatile like Sites because he thinks in the future, journalists will need all those skills.

Dean ORVILLE SCHELL (Journalism School; University of California, Berkeley): Yahoo! may not know it because they aren't content people and they don't think in terms of setting up a news service, but that's where Kevin Sites points for me. You hire one, why not 10?

SYDELL: But the idea of Yahoo! hiring 10 more journalists raises concerns for Lucie Morillon of Reporters Without Borders, an international advocacy group. Last year, court papers obtained by her organization from Chinese authorities showed that Yahoo! gave up the name of a Chinese journalist. Shi Tao had sent an anonymous e-mail to a New York human rights group. China's courts sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Morillon believes that if Yahoo! wants to be a news organization, it has to act like one.

Ms. LUCIE MORILLON (Reporters Without Borders): I'm not aware of any American media who would denounce a colleague working abroad, working in a repressive regime. This is not something that journalists do.

SYDELL: Yahoo!'s response to critics is that the company follows the laws of the countries in which it works, and Yahoo! Vice President Moore says he would not turn over the name of a journalist working with them. Other observers believe with experience Yahoo! may grow into the role of a news organization if it continues in that direction. The Hot Zone programming is meant to go on for a year, as Sites continues his journey to the world's trouble spots.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.