By: Steve Outing
The bursting of the Internet bubble hasn’t been easy for any company that runs Web sites, but it is actually a good thing for news companies. Why? Because it will force the news industry to grapple with a longstanding challenge – the integration of old and new media.
The online news business has evolved just as quickly as the Internet. For newspaper companies especially, they’ve ridden a tumultuous wave of change over the last half-decade – trying to find the correct business model(s) to profit in cyberspace.
But the last few weeks have seen a pace of movement that’s breathtaking even by Internet standards. With lightning speed, some news companies are moving to re-join their old- and new-media operations into one big happy family.
The biggest news of January was the reorganization by CNN, the global news company that had operated with separate TV, radio, and interactive divisions. It is reinventing itself by combining the divisions – eliminating 400 jobs in the process – such that CNN journalists will produce content for each. TV reporters will no longer focus exclusively on TV reporting; they must now produce radio spots and Web site features, too. Internet journalists can no longer focus exclusively on online content.
Also in January, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. killed its News Digital Media division, laying off 200 people (half the online staff) and dispersing the survivors to News Corp.’s various properties to run their Web sites from within.
What’s going on?
At a glance, it would appear that such moves are motivated by current economics. Many a major media company spun off interactive divisions in the late 1990s with an eye toward floating a successful initial public offering (IPO) – hoping to join in on the dot-com, get-rich-quick fun. When the IPO fever cooled, having a separate new-media division
suddenly was less appealing. The old-media dot-coms also weren’t needed with the subsiding of fears that startups would simultaneously steal our business and all of the investors’ money.
Although the rapid reorganization can be frightening to those of us who work in online news, we should recognize that it has succeeded in getting the news industry on the correct track when it comes to new media. This integration of new media with old media is a good thing for the long term – if news executives handle the transition to an integrated
media company correctly.
Newspaper publishers may be tempted to focus solely on their print products now that the “threat of the Internet” is gone. That could be a fatal mistake.
The modern news organization clearly can no longer afford to focus solely on its legacy platform – whether print, TV, or radio. Online news consumers aren’t going to rush back to newspapers just because many dot-coms are going out of business. Even after the dot-com downturn, the consumer decides how to consume news – sometimes on the printed page, but many times on a Palm Pilot, an e-book device (“e-reader”), a mobile phone, a digital audio player, or even an Internet radio. The efficient news organization serves all these media platforms equally well. It doesn’t make sense to have one organization serve one set of users, and another organization the others.
Learn the lesson
So far, it’s been only a minority of news companies that have truly given integration a go. The most renowned case would be The Tampa Tribune/Media General Inc. multimedia newsroom, which brings together everyone from print, TV, and the Web. Its model is closest to what CNN has said it will implement.
Although some companies still have new-media divisions as separate entities – Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, KnightRidder.com, and New York Times Digital, for example – many have not spun off their online operations into independent entities. Instead, they operate more-modest new-media departments within the confines of the traditional news operation, often supported (in the case of newspaper chains) by a central corporate new-media division.
This latter group needs to learn the lesson that CNN is teaching the news industry. From here on, new-media departments in newsrooms cannot be treated as “lesser” than old-media operations. Staff and departments that help feed news and content to the Internet and digital devices are every bit as important as those that feed the printing press.
Frankly, it will be tempting for news executives to screw this up. The dot-com downturn can lead old-media news managers to perceive the Internet as a failed experiment – that there’s little money to be made online (“or they would have figured it out by now”) – and downplay its importance. Such thinking would be a colossal miscalculation.
Smart news executives will recognize this as a temporary dip. They’ll understand that consumers will continue to adopt new technologies for news consumption with enthusiasm. They’ll recognize that digital news will soon be as important as the printed page. They won’t let up just because Nasdaq stock prices took a temporary wrong turn.
No one should expect this to be easy. The next couple of years will be difficult for news companies. Major cultural shifts will be required in newsrooms as both employees and managers adopt the notion that they no longer operate just a “newspaper” (or “TV station,” etc.). And if you doubt that this transformation will occur, consider this: media giant NBC recently told all of its employees to cancel their print newspaper subscriptions whenever possible and instead get all of their news online. What this anecdote says is that the modern news company must disseminate its product (news and information) to many different media platforms – with print being only one, and many other formats being digital.
Younger journalists are likely to adapt to the new environment more easily than grizzled veterans. New journalism graduates often trained in how to work in new- as well as old-media environments; they’re more likely to adapt to newsroom work routines requiring a variety of skills. For older employees, news companies will need to establish training programs or, at the least, support workers’ efforts to retrain themselves for the new newsroom.
The current spate of online news layoffs sends a message that tomorrow’s newsrooms must be more efficient, and so must news workers. CNN Newsgathering President Eason Jordan explained in a memo to employees about the news giant’s reorganization: “CNN news gatherers must be multiskilled and meet the requirements of our TV, radio, and interactive services. No longer will a news gatherer work only for TV or radio or interactive. Correspondents whose expertise is TV reporting must know how to write for interactive and provide tracks for radio and deliver for them as needed.”
Keep it coming
Here’s the most critical challenge of the coming era when new and old media share the same room: the innovation of the last few years on the new-media side cannot stop. The news industry cannot afford that. This may be the hardest lesson to accept in this current period of Internet downturn.
New-media specialists within a company will have additional challenges and responsibilities in working with old-media departments, while finding time to focus on new-media innovations. The flip side – and this is important – is that the entire work force can and should be tapped to work on innovation.
My hope is that as new media converges with old, we find a way to keep the innovation rolling – depressed stock market or not.
Other recent columns
In case you missed recent Stop The Presses!, here are links to the last few columns:
o Must-See TV: Your Newspaper’s Classifieds?, Wednesday, Jan. 24
o What’s Wrong With Today’s News Web Sites, Wednesday, Jan. 17
o What You Can Charge for on the Internet, Wednesday, Jan. 10
o Online News Advice for 2001, Wednesday, Dec. 27
o Archive of columns
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This column is written by Steve
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Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.