Online-News: Have We Come Far Enough?

By: Steve Outing

In the world of “new media,” it’s safe to say I’m an “old geezer.” I left the print journalism world for good at the end of 1993 and switched my career to online media. One of the first things I did back then was start an Internet e-mail discussion list for the then still small group of media people who were starting to work — or were at least interested in — this new thing called the Internet and the then-prevalent proprietary online services.

The list was (and still is) called Online-News, and it grew to be the primary place for online news junkies to talk to each other, bounce ideas off colleagues, and gripe about how most other people in their organizations failed to understand the importance of the online world. (There was also a companion discussion list called Online-Newspapers, which was limited to participation by newspaper people working or interested in online.)

Anyway, recently my mind was diverted back to Online-News’ early days when another online geezer, Howard Owens, asked if I had archives of the list’s discussions in its first few years. The earliest days of the conversation weren’t properly archived, and all I found in my files were some piecemeal archives on old disks. But that didn’t deter Owens, and he searched a bit more on the Web and found some Online-News archives from 10 years ago.

Excellent! … So, I thought it would be entertaining — and I hoped, informative — to look back at some of the industry chatter from the mid 1990s. I’ve perused some of the archives that Owens unearthed, and this column will look at what we talked about then with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.

‘Smart ads’ — what a concept!

How amusing, through 2006 eyes, to read a discussion about the novel concept of targeting online advertising based on the content of news articles! The conventional wisdom a decade ago was that such a notion of linking ad and editorial content was fraught with ethical problems.

But wrote one Online-News participant, “If Yahoo! and the rest can run ads that pop up when a search reveals certain pages, then newspapers should be able to.” (Early on, Online-News attracted media people willing to think outside of the box.)

That most newspaper people resisted such notions — as shown by the mid-1990s discussions on this topic — is a telling demonstration that even then, pure-play Internet companies were leading the way with innovative ideas, while the newspaper industry wasted time fretting about ideas that challenged “the way we’ve always done it.”

Of course, contextual advertising is now a multi-billion-dollar business — and much of the money spent on search and contextual ads was taken away from newspapers. With hindsight, newspapers early on should have jumped on the idea of “smart ads” that were relevant to the specific content of a page.

If there’s a lesson for today, it’s to free up your media company from old ways of doing things — to permit new ways of doing business and practicing journalism that directly challenge the status quo. “Citizen journalism” (a.k.a., user-generated content) is perhaps today’s similar and biggest challenge to traditional media thinking. Many traditional journalists think that content from “the audience” is a silly idea, and that what news organizations will get by opening themselves up to user content is “a bunch of crap.” (I’m paraphrasing journalists who I’ve argued with on this point.)

My prediction is that another 10 years out, we’ll see that media has incorporated citizen media with mainstream journalism, and journalism as a whole will be better for it. And most of those traditional journalists who argue against the worth of citizen media today will be won over. But I expect that history will show how mainstream news companies lagged while other Internet companies ran with the concept and figured out how to make it pay.

The widening job description

I hit upon a conversation in the Online-News archive about the wisdom of asking reporters to code their stories in HTML. That was in the days before everyone had content management systems that eliminate the need for writers to know even basic HTML coding. Concern back then was that reporters were good at only writing and reporting, and it was perhaps unreasonable to expect them to add new skills like learning rudimentary HTML. It would distract them from their core task, the argument went.

What a laugh! While today’s news reporters generally don’t need to know HTML, their journalistic repertoire has by necessity expanded considerably in the last decade. Today’s reporters ideally should be comfortable not just with writing, but also be able to record digital audio, perhaps shoot some video, collect material for multimedia versions of their stories or for supplemental content that’s published online, etc. They can be expected to participate in online chats with readers occasionally. They are expected to write instant news alerts for their organization’s website.

Reporters in 2006 are more versatile than it seemed we gave them credit for in 1996.

Our content vs. theirs: What’s more important?

An interesting 1995 discussion on the list dealt with an issue that’s been long running on Online-News: newspapers using online as merely a more modern distribution channel for traditional news, vs. newspapers taking an approach of emphasizing things like interactive discussion groups and getting the audience to participate. In one thread, a majority of participants supported the continued domination of “plain old information content” presented in new ways (online) and utilizing new technology. A typical comment: “I think providing high-quality content will be the critical service, just like it is when we smear ink on dead logs.”

The minority view came from people like Rosalind Resnick, then editor and publisher of a newsletter called Interactive Publishing Alert. She wrote on Online-News: “To me, the incredible thing about the Net is that now the reader *is* the publisher, and amateurs … are just as likely to succeed in Internet publishing as the New York Times. Or does the newspaper industry arrogantly believe that it can control content of every kind?”

It’s interesting that back then, most newspaper people still hadn’t grasped that while online indeed does make for a powerful publishing medium for traditional journalistic content, it’s even more powerful in its ability to empower non-journalists to communicate what they know to a wide audience and to enable communication between “the people” and other people, and between the people and journalists.

That’s something that 11 years later I still think many journalists don’t get. When I hear from some traditional journalists that what they produce is superior to blogs and citizen journalism, I just shake my head. That thinking is “so 1995.” Just as the work of professional journalists will continue to record and make history, so too — on occasion — will amateur bloggers and eyewitness amateur reporters.

If you contemplate recent headlines about the newspaper industry — with investors revolting, readership flat or declining, and advertising migrating more and more to the Internet — it’s no wonder things are looking bad. The industry continues to be largely stuck inside its box labeled “professional journalism” while going way too slow in implementing participative and interactive models that allow the audience to take express themselves.

Don’t get me wrong; in the last 10 years the newspaper industry has come a long, long way. But while websites like MySpace have attracted tens of millions of active users, the best the newspaper industry has done so far are experiments in something similar like the localized version of MySpace by the Bakersfield Californian, Bakotopia. Newspapers are still dabbling, in large part, while others build substantial businesses.

(Well, yes, MySpace is now owned by a newspaper publisher, Rupert Murdoch. And that indeed may be the model we see from the newspaper industry from here out: If newspapers can’t manage to build innovative and successful online services themselves, they’ll just have to buy out the innovative thinkers outside of the industry.)

History lessons

How many times in your life have you heard the phrase, “Those who forget the past are destined to repeat it”? The thing that’s so striking in looking at what industry insiders were talking about 10 years ago is that the same issues repeat themselves with whatever new thing comes along.

Some of today’s “threats” to the established ways of newspapers include citizen media (, social networking (MySpace, et al) and free classifieds (Craigslist). I certainly see movement in the newspaper industry in responding to each of these areas, but there’s not big movement.

It doesn’t seem to me that we’ve come far enough along as an industry to make a smooth transition from the old news business models to the new ones that will need to supplant those revenue streams that are beginning to dry up. Today’s discussions within the industry have some similarities to those of a decade ago.

A nostalgic list

Lastly, if you want to get nostaligic with me, take a look at this list of online news activities from early 1995. I stumbled on it via Google search. It’s a long report I compiled back then, documenting the online activities of the newspaper industry.

This was back in the days before newspaper companies settle on the World Wide Web as the ultimate online publishing venue. You’ll find a long list of papers with presences on proprietary online services like America Online, CompuServe, Delphi, Prodigy, and even a bunch of papers still operating online BBS’s (bulletin board systems) — as well as the then-fledgling Web.

Geez, I feel old!

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