In the insular world of newspaper new media, practitioners of our craft often speak about whether their organizations' managers "get it" -- meaning, whether or not the people at the top comprehend the significance of digital media and the profound changes it holds in store for traditional media like newspapers. I for one believe that the many-to-many nature of online networks is the most significant aspect of online, and that's what newspaper executives must understand if they are to guide their organizations to compete successfully in a digital media world.
The Globe and Mail in Toronto, Canada's leading national daily, appears to "get it," judging by its recently launched World Wide Web service. As an important component of the online service, the Globe and Mail has established a "National Issues Forum" on the Internet, where Canadians can discuss the big issues of the day. The big issue of today, of course, is the divisive October 30 Quebec referendum on sovereignty.
The primary mechanism for public discussion on the Quebec issues is a simple Internet mailing list, set up 2 weeks ago by the G and M. The list is open to all and is "moderated," meaning that G and M editors review submissions by list subscribers before messages are sent to the entire list membership. Background information and more formal debate on the issue are contained on the G and M Web site -- in greater quantity and depth than is possible in the printed pages of the newspaper.
Globe Information Services vice president and general manager Michael Ryan says of the interactive component of the G and M's Web site, "We believe that's where the online medium is really strongest." The Globe has a well-educated, affluent audience (it is something of a cross between the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in the U.S.), and they have responded well to the coverage and discussion opportunities offered by the G and M service. Ryan says several parents and teachers have written in to say that the Issues Forum was just what they'd been looking for.
Ryan says the newspaper's editors will choose other important issues and create similar online information/interaction packages. The G and M has a commitment to identifying and leading public opinion on key national issues, he points out, and the interactivity offered by the Internet service is a powerful additional tool to accomplish that mission.
Those newspapers publishing only "repurposed" news content on their online services, and ignoring or resisting creating forums for public participation in the news service, would do well to examine what the Globe and Mail is doing -- namely, creating an online community and advancing the national debate, all the while building a loyal customer base for its online service. The staff for this project, by the way, isn't huge. Eight editors on the newspaper staff make up a team that maintains the National Issues Forum. The rest of the Web site is staffed by 3 people, in partnership with an outside multimedia company, Knowledge Plus.
I urge you to read an essay by Vin Crosbie about the many-to-many nature represented by the Internet and how it will have a profound effect on traditional one-to-many media. (Just click on the link in the previous sentence.) It's one of the better examinations of just how important it is that newspaper executives understand the significance of the Internet phenomenon.
Crosbie is director of content at FreeMark Communications in New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts. He formerly was the chief newspaper manager for Delphi Internet services.
Here are a few excerpts from his essay (posted with permission):
"The Internet as medium is neither a fad nor a parallel extension of existing media. It is the first manifestation of a dimensional change in media, an entirely new direction. This new dimension is difficult to see, even deniable close-up, yet looms indisputably when seen in long perspective: The aboriginal dimension of media is one-to-one, beginning in conversation and extending through aristocratic or monastic scribes, libraries, mail, telegraph, and telephone. The original dimension of media in the conventional sense is one-to-many, beginning with social and political oratory, theater, town criers, printed broadsheets, newspapers, magazines, cinema, radio, and television. Media have always embraced technologies to extend reach, but the basic dimensions of media have always been confined by the delivery capabilities of those technologies. The inherent limits in the analogue deliveries of telephony, print, and broadcast frustrated fullfillment of public needs. The addressibility of digital technology now shatters the limits of analogue. It frees media to evolve spontaneously the first, albeit rudimentary, many-to-many media of which the Internet and the promise of future multiple-way video personal information, communication, and entertainment systems are parts. This third dimension of media, the many-to-many, will fundamentally change the history and business of media. ...
"In the remaining years of this century, we will see the rise of Personalized Media and Personalized Marketing. Personalized media and personalized marketing will dominate the 21st Century in the way that mass media and mass marketing have dominated the 20th Century. The development of digital many-to-many media will give rise to personalized media and personalized marketing much in the way that development of one-to-many media gave rise to mass media and mass marketing. ...
"The fundamental changes being wrought by the advent of many-to-many media directly threaten the current media aristocracies and status quo in much the ways that the advent of democracy did to the aristocracies of two centuries ago. Many-to-many media will break out because the public wants it, regardless of the one-to-many practices and business plans of those who today own and operate the media. The more dimensions to media, the more control is held by the consumer. Many-to-many media is a quantum leap in emancipating the consumer. She is less 'owned' by the publisher, broadcaster, or online or cable systems operator. Given one dimension of media which puts control over content in the hands of a few versus another dimension that puts control in the hands of the many, which media will ultimately win? ...
"Like the aristocracies who were faced with democracy two hundred years ago, most of today's media aristocracies are unfortunately too close to their existing one-to-one or one-to-many media to perceive the true new dimensions of many-to-many media. They fail to see that a fundamental evolution and change are occurring. With the same certainty as the stable owners who one hundred years ago declaimed that the automobile would never replace the horses, which mankind had been relying upon for over 2,000 years, they deny that many-to-many media will supplant their one-to-many media publishing or broadcasting businesses during the next century....
"Faced by many-to-many media's threat to their sinecures, market shares, and ways of doing business, many major media and telecommunications companies have vested interests in preventing a shift of control further towards the consumer. Many would prefer to limit full interactivity to just consumer responses that buy merchandise, that access a system operator's choice of offered videos, or that respond to an operator's poll. Will future interactive systems allow you to send the video of your kids to grandma as well as it allows the system operator to send you 'Home Alone' (the Full Service Network syndrome)? ..."
Steve Got a tip? Let me know about it
If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note.
This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org